Education Week - June 20, 2018 - 22
Curb Teen Suicide?
By Arina Bokas & Robert Ward
alfway through 2018, our nation is deep
in thought: What is happening-or not
happening-in our schools and communities that causes our teenagers to take
their own lives or cut short the lives of
There is ample cause for concern: Suicide rates are climbing steadily. Earlier
this month, the news of the deaths of fashion designer Kate
Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain shook us. And
last month's high school shooting in Santa Fe, N.M.-where a
17-year-old planned to commit suicide after he took the lives of
10 people-is a reminder that suicidal thoughts can also lead
teenagers to hurt or kill other people.
Suicide rates increased in 49 states and the District of Columbia from 1999 to 2016-including by more
than 30 percent in 25 states, according to a
report released this month by the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention. (Nevada is
the sole outlier.) For teenagers ages 15-19, the
numbers are also alarming: After a decrease
starting in the mid-1990s, suicides doubled
between 2007 and 2015 for girls and rose 30
percent for boys, according to 2017 CDC data.
Untreated mental-health conditions are a
leading cause of the uptick. Experts point to
multiple reasons why more young people are
struggling with mental health and depression, including bullying, economic and family
troubles, violence, and social-media use.
In reaction, schools are scrambling to hire
more psychologists, train teachers to recognize warning signs of suicide, and develop emotional intervention plans. Medical treatment for mental-health issues,
morning meetings with students, peer mediation, and restorative circles are all steps in the right direction. But more
strategies are necessary.
Decades ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. synthesized one
of life's most urgent questions: "What are you doing for others?" Our country in general-and education, in particular-
seem to be shifting away from an emphasis on the common
good and toward the needs of the self. This trend correlates
with the increasing individualization of our economy since
the 1960s-a shift from mass production to personalization of
products and services. Whether it was the focus on self-esteem
in the 1970s or the current attention on grit and growth mindset, the emphasis has long been on "me" rather than "we."
Could it be that the escalating instances of teen violence
are, in part, an unintended consequence of ensuring that the
world around each child is tailored just to him or her? Could
such an insular approach to raising and educating children be
part of the problem? One proactive solution to teens lashing
inward with suicide or lashing outward with violence is to
inspire students to attend to the needs of others.
This all gets to one of the root causes of teen suicides: Many
disaffected youths see no purpose in living. Currently, we
invest in teens' well-being by boosting their confidence, determination, and work ethic-all with an emphasis on selfimprovement. Consequently, children define success by their
grades, garb, and gadgets. Later, it's all about the job they will
hold, the salary they will earn, and the things they will buy.
Yet, how often do we expect our children to intentionally
give back or pay forward?
Understanding of the self is vital to every person's development, but without meaningful self-application, it's harder
to feel fulfilled. Educators must help children explore their
larger purpose by making altruism a natural, joyous habit.
Only then will children feel like an integral part of something greater than themselves.
One way to do so is by helping students develop a benefit
mindset, an idea developed by Australian researcher Ash
Buchanan that the two of us employ in our own work with
young people in the classroom. The benefit mindset, according
to Buchanan, is a "purpose-driven mindset
that is redefining success from being the
best in the world, to being the best for the
world." Instead of using individual gain as
motivation, students can find value in being
helpful to themselves, to others, to nature,
and to the future.
Many educators already teach character
development, service learning, and leadership skills in an effort to inspire students
to consider the needs of others (and to beef
up their college applications). What makes
the benefit mindset different is that its
redefinition of success moves the concept
of mutual advantage to the forefront of
learning. We know student engagement
increases achievement, but engagement
inspired by altruism increases purpose-driven and practical learning opportunities.
As concerned educators and citizens, we call on the federal
and state departments of education to include meaningful application of knowledge in standards, curricula, and assessments.
We call on district administrators to take an honest look at
which achievements receive the most attention at their schools.
We call on educators to reassess what they praise in their students and to incorporate the benefit mindset into their existing
lessons. We call on communities and organizations to enlist the
help of teens for service initiatives. We call on parents to model
purposeful living and end each day with the question, "What
was one thing you did for others today?"
When we begin to value process, progress, and philanthropy just as much as product and performance, we will
nurture teens and future adults who cherish life, overcome
personal challenges, and give back in meaningful ways. n
explore their larger
purpose by making
altruism a natural,
ARINA BOKAS is the editor of Kids' Standard Magazine and teaches
composition and argument at Mott Community College in Flint, Mich.
She is the author of Building Powerful Learning Environments: From
Schools to Communities (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). ROBERT WARD
is a middle school English teacher in Los Angeles and the author of four
books, including a forthcoming look at the benefit mindset.
THE CLIMBING RATES OF TEEN SUICIDE
Per 100,000 teens ages 15 to 19
SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017
22 | EDUCATION WEEK | June 20, 2018 | www.edweek.org/go/commentary
By Our Most
By Tyrone C. Howard
chools face ongoing challenges in
helping to ensure that all children have access to a high-quality education. However, a closer
look at today's schools reveals a
disturbing demographic trend
that shows little indication of
slowing down: increasing numbers of vulnerable children. Although a number of children's circumstances can fall into
the "vulnerable" category, those who are mired
in chronic poverty, homeless, facing untreated
mental-health issues, or part of the foster-care
system are among the most vulnerable in our
schools and society today.
Consider that the National Center for Children in Poverty estimates that roughly 15 million children-1 in 5-live in poverty, and a
disproportionate number of these youths are
African-American, Latino, or Native American.
The Child Mind Institute finds that close to 17
million children have mental-health issues,
many of which are never addressed. The National Center on Family Homelessness reports
that 2.5 million children experience homelessness every year in this country. And the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services
has tracked an increase in the number of children in foster care over the past several years,
which rose to 437,500 by the end of the fiscal
year of 2016.
To state the obvious, growing numbers of
children face arduous circumstances before
ever entering school. Although many courageous and dedicated teachers, staff, and leaders work tirelessly in these schools, the reality
is painfully clear: Most schools are ill-equipped
and underprepared to understand, let alone
address, the depth, breadth, complexity, and
seriousness of the challenges that many students face daily.
It is difficult to inspire children when they
are hungry. Children's ability to concentrate
on learning is compromised when complex
trauma has been a staple in their lives. They
are hard-pressed to think about homework
when they do not know where they will sleep
School personnel cannot be blamed for students test scores not improving when chronic
violence, despair, and hopelessness are on full
display every day for many young people. So
what is our response? How do we help those
most in dire need? To respond to the complex
needs of vulnerable populations, everyone-educators, policymakers, and communities-can
start with a three-pronged approach:
1) Acknowledge the complexity of contemporary circumstances. The first step
to supporting children in vulnerable circumstances has to be recognizing the complexity
of these challenges. Issues tied to inequality,
poverty, racism, and sexism remain very much