Perhaps our most fundamental need as human persons is our need for relationship (read Deci & Maslow) – our desire to be connected to others and to love and be loved.  I wonder how dire the consequences when this need is not fulfilled.

Former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy reports that loneliness – not obesity, cancer or heart disease – is the nation’s number one health crisis.  Persistent loneliness reduces average longevity more than twice as much as does heavy drinking and more than three times as much as obesity.  Research indicates that loneliness is as dangerous to our bodies as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and leads to cognitive decline.  The lonely live shorter lives.  And of course, one of the causes of loneliness is a lack of social connection.

So what does this mean for our schools – for our students and educators?  Research demonstrates that children with learning and attention issues are more prone to loneliness.  Children struggling with loneliness are more likely to develop low self-esteem, less likely to take positive risks, more likely to be sad, disconnected and worried and more likely to engage in risky behavior.

So how do we address loneliness in schools?  It can be easy to miss.  Murthy indicates that 20 to 30 percent suffer from loneliness.  Certainly awareness of this problem is essential so staff members can look for signs of loneliness in students.  Developing a culture that focuses on the value of each person and the importance of empathy and connection is necessary.  Certainly a vibrant program of extra-curricular activities which includes service work and provides recruitment of all students, especially the lonely, would be helpful.  I am so grateful for our teachers and mental health staff who are often experts at tuning into students and facilitating relationships.

We are fundamentally social creatures.  The importance of genuine, quality relationships must not be overlooked.  We cannot underestimate the value of connection.  And it does have a positive effect on learning.  I do wonder if what has come to count as connectedness is displacing the real thing.  I am thinking of our obsession with social media.

I know that it is not enough to be surrounded by others for you can be lonely in a crowd.

I long to better understand human connection and the conditions under which it occurs.

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Fran McGreevy

Root-ed – Leadership and Learning