As a school psychologist for more 30 years, it’s been my experience that most of the children I work with have challenging life circumstances. It wasn’t until I became a guidance counselor for an elementary school, however, that my eyes were opened to the fact that not just a few of our children are hurting. I remember my initial awareness, over 10 years ago, as if it was yesterday:

It was time for a kindergarten guidance lesson. Today we would be discussing “worries.” Seemed like a simple enough lesson, which involved brainstorming what kindergarteners worry about and who to talk to when they feel this way.

The goal was to remind the students of those adults in their lives who are there to protect and keep them safe — adults who will listen and help them with their troubles

We sat in a circle with the Be Calm Bunny from the guidance curriculum — a little stuffed animal that each child would have a turn to hold while they tell the class who it is they can talk to when they feel worried. Things were moving along smoothly until it was Caiden’s turn to hold the bunny.

“Caiden, who can you talk to if you feel worried about something? His face looked puzzled. “My stuffed teddy bear?”

“Yes, that’s true; sometimes our stuffed animals are good to talk to. But what person can you talk to when you feel worried?”

Caiden sat quietly for several moments. Then, looking around, he pointed to Alisha sitting next to him and said, “Alisha?”

“Yes, our friends can be good listeners, but I want you to think of an adult you can talk to.”

Caiden was silent, the expression on his face revealing a child wanting to answer the question but having no idea what that answer might be. At long last, he raised his head, looked around the room and spotted his teacher sitting at her desk. His eyes then met mine as he replied, “My teacher?”

I didn’t expect during that lesson to encounter a child who had no idea with whom he could talk if worried, especially when children seated near him were naming family members. Not mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, an aunt or an uncle or a close family friend was mentioned.

My heart ached for this child. As we continued around the circle, I discovered that three other children also had trouble naming someone. I felt puzzled about this most unusual class until, to my shock and dismay, I realized it wasn’t unusual. All the students in the school received their grade-level version of this lesson, and in every classroom, there were children who struggled to answer the question. These children did not mention the adults living with them as a source of comfort and help when feeling worried.

 I wondered what was happening. Why is it that so many children do not name a parent or guardian as someone to turn to if they feel troubled? A foreboding sense of fear rose up inside of me. What if this school is not unique? What if millions of children in this country, at such a young age, have no idea with whom they might turn to with their worries? What does this mean for them and their lives ahead?

My fears have been confirmed time and again over the years as I’ve worked in schools across all age ranges, districts of affluence and poverty, whites and minorities, in two states. Now my question is one of a broader nature: What is happening in our society that is causing our children so much pain and suffering?

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