Where Have All the Role Models Gone?

By Karen Gross

Sadly, the number of COVID-19 cases across the globe is rising. And while vaccines are in the offing, we may have many weeks between now and their availability, time in which more individuals can become infected and too many will die. In absolute terms, the numbers are staggering in the U.S. and around the world.

It is against this background that we should be concerned about superspreader events. One category of such events includes college and high school students gathering and partying in ways that violate the COVID-19 protective measures (mask wearing, social distancing, avoiding large indoor get-togethers). Some of these problematic events occur off campus, others occur on campus. Wherever they happen, they have produced varying outcomes: quarantines; stoppage of athletic events; elimination of on-campus in-person learning (for a short or long period); changes in scheduling to eradicate vacations or campus departures; and students contracting COVID.

It is easy to blame students (whether in college or high school) and parents (in the context of high schoolers and even some college students who are now at home taking online classes). Can you hear adults within families and educational institutions saying: “How stupid can these young people be? They aren’t complying with the three simple rules.”

But the failure of compliance among young people must be contextualized. We are not living in “normal” times and behaviors need to be understood in light of the impact of the pandemic constraints as well as the age of students and their developmental stage.

Lack of physical connection, risk-taking and brain development

Start with this obvious observation: The wearing of masks, social distancing and school closures have left many young people without quality means of connecting. As much as they can use technology and we are certainly doing that (Zoom fatigue is a known phenomenon as is online oversharing), there is something that youth are missing: real, hands-on human engagement. They are missing contact; they are missing touch. They are without smiles and hugs and physicality.

The absence of physical contact for an extended period (and what still seems like an indefinite period) is difficult and frustrating for young people. It makes them want to rebel against the constraints and ignore the accompanying risks that often are known to them. In short, students disobey COVID-19 rules because they have real needs for in-person connectivity that are unmet.

Brain science supports this conclusion: Most young people cannot fully control their behavior on their own and they discard the COVID-19 rules because of the stage of their brain development. Risk-taking is common among young people; it goes hand and hand with their psychosocial development. We know that young people underestimate risk: think about fast cars and drunk driving, texting while driving and physical challenges that seem likely to cause serious physical injury. Also, we know that quality judgment and decision-making do not occur until the mid to late 20s. (There are also upsides to this stage of development but that’s the subject of another article.)

Our expectation of strict compliance misses the biological reality of why students are disobeying. The parts of their brain that manage and measure risks are not fully developed. Youth are not trying to be disobedient (well, some are as a form of rebellion that is also age-appropriate). Many simply are not able to make quality decisions—at least not without adult intervention, and therein lie some answers as to what we can do to move toward greater compliance.

Two concrete examples

Before turning to solutions, let’s look at two actual scenarios that inform a pathway forward.

In late October, more than 20 high schoolers attended a party at a private home in Marblehead, Mass. Not only was there an absence of mask wearing, there was an absence of social distancing and there was shared drinking out of cups. The police were called. The students scattered. No one was prosecuted. The superintendent in a remarkably astute letter recognized student needs to connect, but then closed the high school as a precaution and decried that they can and must do better.

A few months earlier, Marist College suspended some students for participating in off-campus parties and later, when the non-compliance continued, had to shut down the campus physically. Before moving to online learning, the college president was quoted as saying: “Please don’t be a knucklehead who disregards the safety of others and puts our ability to remain on campus at risk.”

Pathways forward

We know that student risky behavior can be modified, and there are a variety of strategies that enable change. The problem is that we have not deployed them in the context of this pandemic for reasons that aren’t at all clear to me.

We would be wise to spend more time recognizing the psychological reasons for student behavior and, based on that science, create new strategies that mitigate the reasons noted above for non-compliance. And since the stage of student development also opens the door to creativity, why not use creativity as part of the solution?

Consider these approaches: Social norming campaigns can show compliance or willingness to comply by many students to norms despite peer perceptions. Detailed discussions with students can lead to an understanding of the risks (based on science) to others and themselves with concrete examples and data points. Youth empathy engines can be activated such that students are engaged in doing activities that help others in their communities. These can be conducted by parents and educators alike. Consider a version of this “rock” project in Texas. Students could all get and paint rocks and then they and other students can place the rocks around school buildings or a college campus.

For the record, let’s eliminate one approach: student punishment and suspension as the first line of defense. We should be punishing when there is intent. Absent intent, we should not rush into suspending students. Yes, based on parties, we need to quarantine; yes, based on parties, we need to shut down campus residential life or in-person learning for a period of time. But calling people “knuckleheads” is not helpful.

Instead, let’s think about preemptive things that could be done to prevent the non-compliant risky behavior. We can do better, as the superintendent suggested, but we need to get ahead of the problem and not be reactive to it.

Role models

From my perspective, perhaps one of the best strategies for enabling students to shift behavioral patterns and avoid risky and unwise behavior is role modeling. We know that role modeling is critically important to youth. And role models can come from a variety of locations: family, older friends and peers, educators (including administrators and coaches), religious figures and community leaders. We also know that role models can be individuals whom students do not know personally: politicians, actors, athletes.

We know, too, that an antidote to trauma is a non-familial figure who knows you and genuinely cares about your well-being and believes in you. And we know that positive role models can and do counteract negative childhood and adult experiences. Our adults need to step it up—engage with one another and their children and peers in new ways.

Despite these truths, we aren’t doing a good job of role modeling locally or nationally. Consider the absence of good role modeling in the two concrete examples given earlier involving Marblehead and Marist and similar communities, schools and colleges.

With respect to Marblehead and similar communities where parties have occurred, I would ask (non-accusatorily): Where were the parents who lived in the home where the party was held? Were they home? Were they aware of the party in advance? Did they purchase the items for the party? Where were the parents of the other students who attended the party? Did they know where their children were going that evening? What had the parents done in anticipation of the needs of their children to plan events that would be safe? What had the high school done in advance to recognize the need for students to engage but to construct initiatives that were safe for each student and the collective of students?

With respect to Marist and similar colleges, I would ask (again, non-accusatorily): Where were the student life personnel? Were they aware of particular off-campus sites that might present risks? What did they do in advance to provide for the engagement needs of students in safe ways? What messaging was coming from the administration in advance? And was the reference to the students as knuckleheads wise? By way of contrast, the superintendent in Marblehead overtly recognized the student need to engage in person in these difficult times, although for safety reasons, he closed in-person learning.

For me, Lesson One is that the institutions (both high school and postsecondary) and parents need to anticipate what activities could have meet student needs. And they should involve students in planning these events. There are a myriad of possibilities: art installation projects; distant dancing; car get-togethers (remember “car hops?) with limited numbers in cars where students listen to live music or watch a movie together? What about wrapping all the trees in crepe paper to create a “Christo-esque” artwork and even, teaching about Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s amazing and startling work involving wrapping buildings and bridges and parks?

We can be creative in seeing what the needs are and then developing approaches that meet the needs.

Lesson Two is that the parents (of the party home) and the parents of other teenagers were not (it appears) actively aware of their own child’s behavior. Had they been, I think one can rightly ask whether they would have intervened. And we can rightly ask whether they themselves, in their engagement with others, were role modeling the needed protective behavior (masks, social distancing and outdoor events). Or perhaps they did not believe in the science and thus were non-compliant.

At the college level, I’d suggest there were staff who could have guessed where problems off-campus were likely, especially if they knew their students and had their ears to the ground. Even if this was not their role before and seems interventionist or paternalistic (maternalistic), that non-interference calculus has changed when there are abundant and growing health risks not just to students but to communities. Stated differently, why did staff not act on what they learned, knew and anticipated?

Both examples showcase the absence of role modeling by adults in terms of actual behavior and anticipatory thinking.

Negative role modeling is way too common right now

Apart from role modeling by parents and educators whom students know, we have had far too many examples of failed role modeling in ways that have received national attention. And, make no mistake about this, students are well aware when public figures fail to comply with the COVID mandates and rightly ask: If they can flaunt the rules, why can’t I?

Here are several well-known examples (and I am avoiding the obvious one of our current president) that demonstrate what students are seeing in the media day-in and day-out.

Start with the Dodgers Justin Turner’s behavior following his team winning the World Series. I get the excitement but having just tested positive, he went out onto the field maskless for at least some of the time. What message does that send to young people? When you win, the rules don’t apply even though the coach was among people who were immune-compromised? And then the player went unsanctioned by Major League Baseball as if the incident should just be forgotten as a lapse in a moment of glory and because the player issued an apology.

Turn then to the governor of California, a state struggling with COVID outbreaks (among other disasters). It turns out that he attended a birthday party with more than 10 unrelated family members at an elite restaurant in Napa and wasn’t wearing a mask apparently. Top doctors attended too. All of this was directly in contradiction to the mandates he was issuing to his constituencies.

But perhaps the most offensive examples come from college presidents. Think about it. If our educational leaders, who have a bully pulpit and are preaching compliance to their institutions, don’t comply, why would their students or students on other campuses? A prime example is Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins. He attended a ceremony in honor of the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. To be sure, for his institution, this was a big deal as the nominee was a professor at Notre Dame’s Law School. But please, no mask? No social distancing? Was he afraid that the president (of the U.S) would see a mask as a sign of disrespect? The photographs of the non-compliance are chilling.

Students were rightfully angry as were faculty. An apology isn’t enough in the context of the virus; words don’t stop disease spread, especially when you are so forcefully asking for campus compliance with COVID protections. And Rev. Jenkins got COVID.

Lesson Three is obvious: Hypocrisy doesn’t fly in the COVID-19 world. Public high-profile leaders need to role model compliance all the time; their messaging is seen and heard and it matters. Negative role modeling is catching.

Now what?

The contents of this article and the examples given and lessons proffered boil down to this: We need to ramp up positive role modeling. Role modeling isn’t a part-time activity. It is a full-time obligation.

To that end, parents and educators: 1) need to come up with strategies in advance that recognize that young people need ways to engage safely; 2) must involve students in the planning of these activities that are COVID-safe; 3) need to question where students are and anticipate their behavior by offering alternatives; 4) need to talk more to students about risks and about solutions and about feelings and double standards; and 5) shouldn’t make punishment the best solution as it doesn’t work; instead, provide alternatives.

These aren’t impossible solutions. They are doable if we focus on them. And we should, for the well-being of our young people, our families and our communities.

Karen Gross is former president of Southern Vermont College and senior policy advisor to the U.S. Department of Education. She specializes in student success and trauma across the educational landscape. Her book, Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door: Solutions and Strategies for Educators, PreK-College, was released in June 2020 by Columbia Teachers College Press.


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One Response to “Where Have All the Role Models Gone?”

  1. Karen Gross

    Might I have added Tom Brady after he failed to shake hands (or fist/elbow bump) with opposing QB after a loss? He shakes hands after a win. What kind of role modeling is that? It may not be a big deal to some readers; to me, it messages poorly at a time when we need all the role models we can find. And we need to call out the non-role models lest their think their behavior goes unnoticed.


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