Care Solace’s Youth Advisory Council (YAC) is made up of 7 young people from our partnering school districts. Each month, the council meets with Care Solace staff to discuss mental health issues in their schools. Sara Gomez, a 17-year-old senior, chose to be a Care Solace Youth Advisor because she had a hard time in school and wanted to find a way to make other kids’ experiences better than hers.
We asked Sara to share her perspective on whether schools can create a sense of belonging in students. Here is her (totally honest!) answer:
I’m not sure that high schools can make all students feel like they belong. There are always kids who are outcasts; some of them have friend groups, and some don’t. These kids can get teased, harassed, or bullied — and usually when teachers can’t see it, like in hallways during passing periods, at lunch, and on the bus. It’s happened to me, and I’ve seen it happen to other people.
As teenagers we want to experiment and express ourselves in the way we do our hair, the clothes we wear, how we act, and what we like to talk about. A lot of us get picked on for just trying to find out who we are.
It’s not that teachers don’t care about kids getting pushed around and put down, but some of them seem too busy. Sometimes it seems like they’re focused on the popular kids. Schools do anti-bullying talks, and the words are great. But the truth is that it’s hard to put the words into action when bullying is invisible to teachers. And some kids are just mean, and no presentation will change that.
In my experience, school counselors are good advocates and can help you when you don’t feel comfortable and safe at school. For example, when we went back to in-person school after the Covid shutdown, I felt anxious around big groups of people. And I was trying to handle it on my own. My friends would try to help, but there's only so much another student can do. Plus I know that trying to fix other people's problems can be overwhelming. So I went to the counselor, and she listened and gave me things to try that actually helped, like breathing exercises and apps to help me calm myself. She also suggested finding a teacher when I got overwhelmed and just chilling out in their empty classroom.
The counselor also created a small place for me to belong. She got a group of us together once a week to relax, be ourselves, and just talk. I was friendly with everyone in the group. But I switched schools for my junior year, so figuring out how to belong was hard again.
I transferred to a hybrid school, and while I like that it’s smaller and more flexible, it’s hard to make connections with other students. The other kids already have their friend groups. Something good did come out of my transfer, though: a teacher at my new school told me about Care Solace and the Youth Advisory Council. The YAC showed me that a lot of students experience the same feelings that I do. I understand I’m not alone. The YAC is working on ways to promote mental health awareness in schools. One of my favorite ideas is a pretty simple one: little class breaks to talk to each other, draw, or be quiet. I think a chance to step away from work for a few minutes would be good for everyone, including teachers.
So, do some kids feel a sense of belonging in school while others don't? Or do all kids feel like they don’t quite belong? I don’t know the answer to that. Right now, my sense of belonging feels most real when I’m at home with my big family, my dog, Blue, and my cat, Tofer.
I have no plan to be a high school teacher (since I’m a senior this year, the idea of going back to high school on purpose is crazy to me!). But if I were a teacher, I think I’d see that kid who was lost. I would listen to a kid who stayed after class to talk to me about their anxiety. And I’d let them know it’s ok.