Phrases like “I want to die” or “they’d be better off without me” are being echoed too often by students and Keller school district officials are developing a framework for social and emotional learning to help.
“There’s definitely been an uptick in kids who are just crippled by anxiety and feeling overwhelmed,” said Shannon Jenkins, coordinator of elementary counseling for the Keller district. “They’re crying out for help in the only way they know how.”
Sometimes the kids give in to their pain.
In a three-month stretch from December 2016 through February 2017, at least six teens — including two Keller school district students — killed themselves. Four girls hanged themselves; two boys shot themselves, according to the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office.
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On Jan. 31, a committee of Keller school administrators will conduct its first meeting to begin building a plan to address these social and emotional issues. The group also will include students, staff, parents and community members.
The number of children between ages 5 and 17 who were hospitalized for thoughts of suicide or serious self-harm doubled between 2008 and 2015, according to a 2017 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The national trend is reflected in Keller schools, said Jenkins.
District counselors reported conducting 426 screenings for students expressing thoughts of suicide in the 2017 fall semester, which ended in December.
During the entire 2016-17 school year, there were 522 screenings.
Suicide or self-harming behavior are the worst-case scenarios in a wide range of issues educators see today, from anxiety and depression to a lack of self-control, social isolation and bullying.
Those concerns have triggered a movement dedicated to helping children learn social and emotional skills, which many educators also believe are critical to academic success.
‘It takes a partnership’
Experts say that today’s students are more likely to be stressed, depressed or disconnected from school than they were a few years ago — mostly because of high expectations that come with the fast-paced and plugged-in world in which we live.
“Students are coming in with trauma in their backgrounds, or self-esteem issues, anxiety or self-harm,” Jenkins said. “We have to be sure in what kinds of support we’re giving so needs are being met developmentally in our community and in the classroom.”
Many young people don’t know how to work well in groups and lack basic interpersonal skills.
“We want to have a vision of when our kids leave us, what kind of people do we want to go out in the world,” Jenkins said. “We really want everyone to have a voice because this is not just a school district issue. It takes a partnership with the community.”
Like Keller, other area school districts are increasing their focus on developing social and emotional skills in students.
Carroll school district officials recently started meeting with a group of students from every campus for the “Resiliency Project.”
“We’re meeting once a month and talking about ‘What is resilience?’ and ‘What can we do to build on that?,’ ” said Janet McDade, assistant superintendent for student services.
At the group’s first meeting, students wrote on a big poster what being resilient meant to them.
“To see a little bitty second-grader writing down her thoughts next to a high school kid, it was really powerful,” McDade said.
Social and emotional learning focuses on helping students manage relationships and stress, set and attain personal goals and make good decisions, according to CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning), a nonprofit group that has developed a popular framework for schools to use.
Fort Worth school district officials began this school year to incorporate features of social and emotional learning into their curriculum.
Teachers are encouraged to have a quick “check-in” with their students each day, so kids have a chance to talk about challenges they may be having, said Khechara Bradford, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
“We want students to be able to recognize their strengths and weaknesses, set goals, manage stress and impulse control, and be able to have perspective and empathy for others,” she said.
In Keller, Jenkins said a campus counselor is notified when a student is identified as needing some help. The counselor then goes through an online assessment to determine whether the student is at no risk, low risk or high risk and gets the child appropriate help.
Parents are always notified whenever screenings occur. In higher-risk cases, counselors may give a referral for hospitalization or arrange for constant monitoring.
Teachers want to be equipped
Linda Metcalf, a Texas Wesleyan professor and family therapist, said the trend toward social and emotional learning for students is good but needs to include educating teachers and parents, who may not be well-equipped to deal with those issues.
“Kids have a lot of issues going on, and they don’t have a lot of coping skills or parents who know how to help,” Metcalf said. “Sometimes parents are taking their kids to counseling or putting them on meds before helping the child at home and making them feel safe.”
Teachers are another part of the solution.
“We miss a big piece when we don’t teach teachers how to help kids be less anxious,” she said. “Our teachers are not as aware how to respond emotionally, and when they don’t, things get worse.”
Districts should focus more attention on helping educators identify children undergoing trauma or abuse and how to help them in the classroom, Metcalf said.
Fort Worth’s Bradford said teachers received training on social and emotional skills as they learned components of the new curriculum.
Jenkins said training teachers also will be a large part of the Keller district’s program.
“Our teachers want to be equipped,” she said. “They want to know, ‘How do I help a student feel safe?’ ”
McDade said that Carroll offers programs for parents, along with a monthly newsletter that covers the same topic schools are addressing, like suicide prevention or drug and alcohol education.
The role of social media
Easy access to information online contributes to the problem, educators say.
Metcalf said she sees more teens who “use a lot of therapeutic words. They look online and decide they have ADHD or are bipolar or have an anxiety disorder.”
Social media complicates matters, with teens falling into the comparison trap or becoming victims of cyberbullying.
Jenkins said social media “where everyone sees what everyone else does” causes challenges for a lot of kids.
Metcalf said parents should monitor what their kids do online, and parents and teachers should help children learn what to do if they encounter cyberbullying or other negative digital messages.
They can use popular culture, like 13 Reasons Why, a Netflix show about teen suicide, to talk to kids, she said.
Others, however, have questioned whether 13 Reasons Why does more harm than good.
Kathryn Everest, Career and Guidance Counseling Director with Fort Worth schools, told the Star-Telegram last year that she worries about the effect the show has on students.
“The show glorifies suicide, but also gives explicit details,” she said.
In Keller, Jenkins is encouraged that more than 100 people have signed up to participate in the social and emotional learning committee.
Her goal is for the district to develop intentional instructional practices in Keller schools, with parents and community members taking action, too.
“It’s heartbreaking to see our kiddos struggling so much,” she said. “We want to do whatever we can to help.”