Adolescent Connections

What causes young people to decide to end their lives?  That’s an important question, of course, just as suicide prevention programs and crisis hot lines matter.  But it’s equally important to examine the environment, to map the terrain that almost all of our adolescents occupy, because that environment may be harmful—and sometimes fatal—for our children.  I believe that some of our organizational structures, not just our behavior, are negative influences on children.  My particular concern is the way we isolate our children by age and grade, from kindergarten through senior year of high school.

Teen SuicideI’ve spent the last week in and around Palo Alto, California, where five high school students have ended their lives violently in the past two years—and more than a few others have been prevented from trying, often at the last minute, by observant adults.  That community is in shock but is determined to find out all it can and make whatever changes are needed to keep tragedy away.  Experts are conducting an in-depth ‘forensic audit’ of the community’s strengths and weaknesses, with that report due in next spring.

Palo Alto is a high-achieving community, and many parents expect their children to do as well or better than they did. Many kids face the pressures so powerfully depicted in “Race to Nowhere,” the film I recently reviewed here.  In one sense, that film is a “call to inaction” because it says to schools and parents, “’Back off!’ You are endangering your children’s health.”

No argument there, but backing off will not be enough, according to the film, the Youth Development Initiative and some community leaders in Palo Alto.  They list 41 so-called “Developmental Assets” that, if present, provide the roots and life lines that are particularly important to those who are in the middle of huge life changes—such as adolescence. These assets are both ‘external’ and ‘internal,’ but the list makes it clear that it takes a village to raise healthy, grounded children.

The list emphasizes ‘constructive use of time,’ which may be creative activities like music, theater or other arts; youth programs; religious community activity; and time at home and hanging out with friends ‘with nothing special to do.’

In early September a teacher at Gunn High School, where the suicide victims were in school, wrote an open letter to the community.  I urge you to read it.

The writer makes any number of critical points. Perhaps the most important is the observation that kids need to be connected, not ‘independent,’ whatever that may be.

“There’s a basic truth of all our lives that we all sense, even if we can’t prove it on a spreadsheet. If we know someone loves us, we have a clue to loving ourselves. If somewhere someone cares about us in such a way as we can’t deny, we can care, too. If someone wants to listen to our feelings, we can begin to listen to them, too.”

That’s impossible to argue with: we all need to be loved and to be able to talk openly with people we trust, and a thread that runs through the list of Developmental Assets mentioned above is the importance of community, which I interpret to mean ‘Get outside of your peer/age group.’

Adolescence is often defined as the time when youth separate from their parents. They push away because that’s what’s expected and even encouraged.  It’s an important step toward independence, or so they are led to believe.

Unfortunately, that’s a dangerous oversimplification. What does ‘independent’ really mean? Is that a worthy goal, or illusory?  Isn’t real maturity the healthy balance of independence and interdependence, and enough confidence in yourself so that you are able to form relationships with many others across a range of ages and interests?  But how can you form those relationships if you’ve been told that you’re now supposed to be ‘independent’?

Unfortunately, ‘independence’ for today’s adolescents turns out to mean that, once they turn their backs on their parents, they are left alone with their peers–and no one else. Since Day One at school, they’ve been segregated by age, never encouraged or required to function beyond that artificial boundary.  The very structure of most schools is pressuring them to be something that we, the adults, neither are nor wish to be.

Schools segregate children by age for the convenience of the adults who run the system, but we will have stronger, more resilient children when we encourage and reward cross-age activity as much as possible. We can make cross-age tutoring, group projects, community service with adults, and so forth part of the basic curriculum.

Organizing by age may make sense, but isolating by age is counter-productive and unnecessary. Instead, administrators should assign every new student, regardless of grade to one of three clubs, say Alpha, Beta or Gamma.  Throughout the year these clubs would be competing, with so many points for Gamma when one of its members makes the honor roll, wins a varsity or JV letter, earns a part in the play or a position on the Board of a student publication.  In the spring, each club might put on a play, with the faculty and staff awarding one club the ‘Oscar.’  And so forth, until at year’s end one club wins the annual trophy, its to defend for the year ahead. In a school run that way, students of all ages and grades get to know each other in the easiest way possible, through real activity.  Across-grade hazing (by seniors toward freshmen, say) is less likely when every freshman belongs to a club that includes one-third of the school’s seniors.

The way things are now, the typical adolescent is left with his or her peer group, and we all know intuitively, experientially and from “Lord of the Flies” just how unreliable peers and peer groups can be.

Because it takes a village to raise healthy children, we need to understand that human connections across a range of ages are as important as independence. Telling kids that they need to be ‘independent’ flies in the face of what their hearts tell them—that they want to feel connected.  We need to support connections beyond the peer group.  And it’s not enough to just ‘encourage’ these connections; let’s rebuild our institutions so that they happen naturally. Our kids will be stronger and healthier.

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9 thoughts on “Adolescent Connections

  1. We’re working together in Palo Alto to make the 41 Developmental Assets a part of the fabric of our community. The Developmental Assets are a terrific framework for involving a community, not just its schools, in the well-being of its children and youth. The Search Institute, which did the research behind the assets and their effects in kids’ lives (www.search-institute.org) and Project Cornerstone, which acts as catalyst and provides support (www.projectcornerstone.org), are potent resources to any school, community, or organization seeking to increase the positive influences in the lives of its community’s young people.

    Thanks to John for his thoughtful and constructive assessment of the relationship of kids to their communities. Grouping kids by age in school may not be something to be changed soon, but it shouldn’t stop us from avoiding the horizontal trap of stratification and encourage us to increase the vertical integration of schools and communities. Young adults, the middle-aged, and seniors can each see in the Developmental Assets ways in which they can be asset builders. Intergenerational connections have dried up in recent years, and we need to replant and irrigate those connections for the sake of ourselves and our kids.

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  2. With 2 recent high school suicides in our county, your blog could not be more timely. Last night I listened to worried parents after a screening of Race To Nowhere, reinforcing to them the importance of staying involved with adolescents, and being their advocates for an emotionally healthy school environment. A model for the inter-age group that you suggest might be the one that has a long record of success at Jefferson County Open School in Colorado. Rick Posner’s book “Lives of Passion, School of Hope” http://rickposner.com/ describes the way the school makes sure that each student has an adult advocate who stays with him or her all the way through the high school experience, plus guides a mixed age support group with a real mission of inclusion.

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  3. Glad you picked up on this, John, and I hope you’ve enjoyed your time back in Palo Alto. As a fellow blogger and a Palo Alto teacher, I’ve been sitting on the same idea for a future blog post about developmental assets – and I’ll get to it eventually! One key point about those developmental assets is that older (secondary school) students self-report that they lack those assets much more than younger (elementary school) students. There’s something that happens in adolescence that has profound and troubling implications. Perhaps it has always been this way, and perhaps it’s related to some natural separation and maturation issues. Still, I’ll go into some detailed survey results and consider the implications for teachers and schools.

    Also, to make some of the above information more precise, I believe that among the five suicides, three involved students who “were in school” at Gunn. One would have been an incoming freshman, and one was a recent graduate. Minor difference in terms of the tragedy and the loss, but just wanted to clarify.

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  4. Decades ago, Larry Cremin, later President of Teachers College (Columbia), rejoiced in relating how American schools got 8 grades. The first graded school in America, the Quincy School in Boston, was built in 1847, and the contractor, siting the building, built 8 rooms.

    I’ve often thought that age segregation was a patrician way of breaking up the surge of Irish immigrants in that same year, and was reflected in many other kinds of segregation (and silos) in schools ever since. In contrast, Montessori, of course, has three year cycles, with oldest teaching youngest in a continuing pattern. Yet even she had little advice for kids from grades 7-8-9, the most vulnerable, and suggested they work in fields or in highly strenuous activity to distract them from adolescence.

    A few years ago there were a rash of suicides (accidental, deliberate, drug or depression related), largely of children of white, low income, long term community residents, facing a bleak future of competition with a wave of Yuppies and immigrants. After 8 or so died in 18 months, it ended, largely because everybody got too scared and their peers came together to care for each other, access abuse counsel, and find more common cause. In a community of colleges (Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Lesley, for just a few), one might think older peers could have helped. Class has its costs, however, and the kids had to do it themselves.

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  5. I’m glad you’re sponsoring this topic. I am a college psychology professor, author, counselor, mother of two children raised in the Palo Alto school system, and a presenter at a conference hosted at Stanford University each year through the Department of Education entitled “SOS” – Stressed Out Students. In the few years Dr. Denise Pope has been sponsoring this conference participation and awareness have grown exponentially. Many community members nation- wide are very concerned about the stress we see in our children. About 15 years ago Mary Pipher, author of “Reviving Ophelia” was a guest speaker and school observer at the same high school where the 5 students committed suicide. Parents and teachers at that time were concerned about self abuses, including cutting, anorexia, drug use and other problems in the school community. Dr. Pipher found their fears were more than justified and students engaged in these practices at a phenomenally high rate. Sadly the problems and pressures have only increased. I teach at a community college and have engaged the students in discussions about this topic. Some say they feel tremendous pressure but others say they think it is an inability to deal with either stress or perceived failure that lead to these actions by their peers. As they mature, they gain perspective. Some of these students could be wonderful resources for students at the high schools. We know that teenagers lack experience and can be very ego-centric, leading to impulsive and extreme responses. Dr. Pipher, in her down home way, stated her assessment that the students needed more connections with people of all ages. She maintained “we have a [child] killing culture”. That children lack roots and other adults besides their parents who deeply care for them, know who they are, and can be resources for their worries. Research has shown that students who adjust best in learning institutions are those with support, extended peer groups and meaningful connections. When I newly moved to Palo Alto I was in a conversation with a school psychologist who said I was the FIRST parent he’d talked to who said she’d be happy if her children earned “B’s” and went to a community college. He was actually fascinated at this novelty. I resisted the pressure for AP classes and encouraged my children to do extracurricular activities in their areas of interest. Some of their most meaningful experiences were through scouting, the YMCA student leadership program, the church, dance or other classes, and part time jobs. When my daughter went to a SAT prep class in the community that was meant for high school sophomores she came home and told me she was the only one in the class that was high school age – the rest were still in junior high school and she was the only one who didn’t have a book already pre-marked with the answers to the practice test questions. She said many of the students were from other cultures and their parents didn’t realize that they hadn’t had the requisite math classes yet to be able to do well in the SAT class. I think there is a lot of confusion from parents who want their children to succeed and think there is only one path to accomplish that. But I don’t blame the parents. I think our way of life clearly sends the message that winners and headline grabbers are the only people who count. We moved to Palo Alto because of its reputation for valuing education, and were not disappointed. But as pressure and competition increase, perhaps we are trying to hard to live up to our reputation and missing some of the other important aspects of becoming a responsible adult and well adjusted person.

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  6. Thanks John for your concern about this issue. I write as a researcher of adolescence, a parent and grandparent, and a philanthropist who cares about youth around the world. While schools clearly have an important role to play with adolescents, parents are even more important. Because of our insistence on independence, it is all too easy for parents to become irritated with their sometimes obnoxious or abusive young adolescents, and back away. While young people may talk as if they don’t need their parents, significant research evidence suggests just the reverse: parents are, if anything, even more important to young adolescents than to children. That quote that goes roughly “get out of my life but first will you take me and … to the mall?” resonates because similar words are spoken all too often during the early adolescence years. Obviously young people will generally figure out how to cope should their parents be taken from their lives — as demonstrated by many remarkable young people globally who survive horrific conditions without parental support and guidance. But many do not, or they survive these years with major scars, sometimes physical but always psychological. Parents can survive the adolescent years of being told they are hopeless, dumb, and have no sense of how to dress, especially knowing that all this will change with time. Standing by their children through these rough years will yield rewards later, as their young mature knowing the power of love and wisdom. It’s not always easy but its the least we can do for the next generations.

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  7. I appreciate the thoughtful responses to my post, largely because the writers almost always deepen and sharpen and improve what I have been trying to say.
    The first response above is from the man who showed me the list of 41 Assets, over breakfast in Palo Alto on Saturday. Ray Bacchetti is an old and dear friend as well as a mentor. Moreover, he walks the walk; he’s working hard to persuade the community to embrace the idea of developmental assets, and he’s also part of the group of volunteers that watches over the railroad crossing where the young people ended their lives.
    As it happens, I know a fair amount about the subject of adolescent suicide, both as a reporter and as an older brother, and so Ray found a willing audience when he showed me that list.
    The glib saying, that suicide is “a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” is off base. For one, we don’t know what lies beyond, as Hamlet notes in his famous soliloquy. For two, the problem is transferred, or at least the pain is.
    Anne Petersen’s sage counsel deserves a wide audience. Amy Valens, who praises ‘Race to Nowhere’ in her comments, is herself the subject of a wonderful film, “August to June.”

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  8. I believe teachers now unintentionally make many students feel their only value is in the standarized test scores they can achieve. We (teachers) are rarely able to take the time to nuture students and demonstrate that we value them as individuals even in grade school. By the time students are in their teens, they must feel even less valued by adults at school. If they don’t get the strokes they need from parents or friends, bleakness may seem to surround them. I can see why suicide is on the rise for high school age students.

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  9. No. One of the major problems with school reforms is that the reformists don’t realize that the easy reforms have mostly been done. Reforms now, when universalized, privilege a particular cohort at the expense of others.

    “Instead, administrators should assign every new student, regardless of grade to one of three clubs, say Alpha, Beta or Gamma. ”

    This is your personality speaking. It’s of the utmost importance that reformists have enough understanding of individual, interpersonal *and* organizational psychology to begin to expect the unexpected repercussions of their reforms, and be able to adapt those reforms as needed.

    I’ll tell you straight that implementation of such an idea as this without an easy, and maybe even default, way to “opt out” would have driven me from school and into a GED.

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