Town Square

On Deadline: 'My sister's gift' column raises question of how best to 'reach' kids

Original post made by Jay Thorwaldson, editor emeritus, on Sep 15, 2012

A number of readers have responded positively to my column in the Weekly of Sept. 7 about a "gift" of good advice my older sister Marilyn gave me more than a half century ago when I was in a blue teenage funk for a week or so.

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Posted by teach every child
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 15, 2012 at 7:17 pm

Jay this is very well said. I particularly appreciate your statement that "it might be really difficult to separate a student's academic performance from his or her personal life and emotional state of being." Teen suicide is not a new problem. Suicide happened before now and it will keep happening until we realize that we need to have more support for our kids. Absolutely we need to involve families -- but we need to understand that many people try to get help for their kids but the mental health system fails them or they are overwhelmed or -- as is often the case -- it is very hard to distinguish between ordinary teen moodiness and depression especially if it is a first child.

We need to move toward a whole community approach which includes acknowledging that social-emotional support is crucial, that mental health problems occur and are not the fault of the afflicted family, and that a humane and loving society cares for and nurtures all its members, including and most especially the sick and lonely.

We need to provide parents with resources to help their kids not blame for not knowing how. It's not so easy for parents to reach their unhappy teens. Sometimes it is better if it is another caring adult who is NOT the parent, such as a coach, guidance counselor, or a Teacher Advisor.

We also need to open our thinking up to implementing school-based health and well-being systems that can contact every child and provide multiple adults in caring roles for every kid. Our child attends Paly and we like the Teacher Advisor system. I hope that Gunn gets this system soon.

I am glad to see that school board candidate Ken Dauber is talking about social emotional support and reaching every child: Web Link. Many people are supporting him for this reason. We need better social emotional supports and mental health curriculum in our schools and we need to start in middle school not only high school.

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Posted by parent
a resident of Escondido School
on Sep 15, 2012 at 9:16 pm

I find it interesting that Mr. Thorwaldson makes no mention of the Developmental Assets framework that the community and district have been working on since it was recommended by Project Safety Net. It has been referenced several times by the Weekly and has focused on at many school board meetings. It is frustrating that this work has been going on and our community pays no attention to it. Ken Dauber is not certainly not the first member of this community who has focused on SEL for our kids.

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Posted by Fairmesdow mom
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 16, 2012 at 8:49 am

Parent is a good example of what is wrong with some of the volunteers in our community. Instead of applauding Jay and Ken for caring about an issue that parent supposedly cares about and for publicizing it in the paper and in the school board race, parent wants credit for thinking of it "first." It's just immature and pathetic. Stop being so holier than thou and put kids first.

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Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 16, 2012 at 9:37 am

As a former teenager who seriously considered suicide, I would like to add my 2 cents.

My problem was my parents. At the time I thought it was me. My parents were having work related problems and financial problems, big time, but they decided that as "good parents" they should keep the problems to themselves. Instead, every little thing that I did became their problem that they could dump on me. From grades, to friends, to my messy bedroom, to what I wore, to my music choices, the problems with young people everywhere, drugs, sex, (which was warning me against something I had no intention of getting involved with), became big issues and things which they strongly disapproved and wanted me to improve. Their disapproval made me feel worthless.

There were two things which got me through this. The first was my best friend's parents. I was always welcomed there and treated as a valuable family member, nothing like my own home. In fact I could not even take my best friend home as the atmosphere when if my friends turned up there was like a knife edge of disapproval. The second was a church youth group where the love of God was shown to me in a very positive way. I was shown there that I was not judged by
them and was accepted for who I was. This was something I had never experienced in my family and I craved for this acceptance. It was what got me through my teens.

My relationship with my parents improved gradually over the years but was never really good. I kept in touch with them out of duty and because I didn't want to pass on family grudges to my own children. I have learned since some of the issues that my parents went through during the bad times and realise now it was their problems that caused them to behave that way towards me and nothing I could have done could have made them act any differently towards me. None of this was a good way to spend my teenage years, but without my effort to keep a relationship with them, I would never have learned the truth of why they treated me like they did.

So I am saying this because although a committee would never have helped me when my own parents were the real problem, a couple of caring adults who knew me well and treated me as an individual plus a weekly time of interaction in a very non-threatening environment were my life savers. And, none of them ever even knew it.

Church youth groups and individuals taking time with young people do make a big difference. TAs at school may help some, but they still have too many students and too little time with them to be the help that troubled teens need. Efforts to get teens outside of competitive environments of school, sports and other competitive activities are a "must" in my opinion. Some kids will thrive in these environments, others will feel more like losers when they don't make the grade, the team, the honors choir, or the plum role.
Helping them to find their niche in a group of peers, to have a complete couple of hours of fun, to forget all their stresses, to relax and just be themselves, must be a goal for anyone interested in helping our youth today.

2 people like this
Posted by PalyTeen
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 16, 2012 at 7:59 pm

I am a teenager at Paly, and my dad told me that I should take a look at this article. Personally, I do not think that it is possible to separate academics and social-emotional stress. The fact that students interact with other people while they learn will inevitably lead to an emotional connection to their performance. Most students respect their teachers and care about their grades to some extent. Unfortunately, I've had a fair number of teachers who haven't given the slightest effort to support me or my classmates. Most parents expect their children to receive high grades in all of their classes, and if the teachers can't support the students then this becomes nearly impossible.

A few examples (I won't name names) - I had a science teacher who overloaded us with homework without any thought to our other classes, or workloads or schedules. She had us stay after school if our homework was late. She wouldn't give the instructions for labs until after they were graded.
I had a Social Studies teacher who berated the class repeatedly about late homework.
I had an English teacher who refused to tell us the due dates for assignments (after being asked on multiple occasions).
I have had disorganized teachers who lost my assignments and gave me zeros; who had no In-Box or any means of collecting homework.

I need a decent teacher who is willing to support me; school is about the students and our learning. The adults in this district need to wake up and give me a good teacher - that will lower my stress and improve my academics.

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Posted by Jay Thorwaldson
editor emeritus
on Sep 19, 2012 at 6:59 am

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

Some really good and thoughtful comments above. As for the Developmental Assets that "parent" mentions, this is an excellent collection of 41 items that are considered important for young persons (or someone of any age) to have. But can anyone recite them?

In the original column about "my sister's greatest gift" there was this comment:

"Today Palo Alto parents, teachers, school officials, community organizations and students are engaged in an ambitious effort to increase the sense of well-being among the younger persons in our community. 'Project Safety Net' has evolved from primarily a crisis-intervention model into what is becoming a broad program designed to address elements of the local culture that cause distress among many young persons and their families.

"A key tool is 41 'Developmental Assets,' put together by a consortium of groups to list elements that are important for a young person to have. Translating that many assets into actionable steps to change behavior in a family or among friends is a major challenge -- but good people of all ages are working on it, breaking out key elements on which to focus."

The challenge I mention is "how to get from here to there" in helping young persons and their families foster those assets.

Conferences and workshops are important -- for those who attend them.

But here's a math problem: Let's say (to simplify the math) that there are about 2,000 students at each high school. If one holds a conference on parenting or building assets, typically about 100 to 200 people attend -- let's see, at most about 5 percent of the target population as I calculate it. That means that 95 percent, give or take, are getting little or no useful information on the topic at hand.

And I don't even include middle-school-age families -- when key decisions are being made and patterns developed by young persons.

Over several decades, my experience is that most of parenting-conference attendees are from families that already are doing very much right. Some families arrive early, sit up front, chat and listen.

But at one Saturday-morning conference a family arrived late. The mother took a seat and the teenage son sat next to her with arms crossed in a sullen-seeming silent slouch. The father, unshaven, spent the entire conference leaning against the back wall. I commented to a school official that it seemed that the father and son were dragged to the event in "psychological chains," and likely would get little or nothing from a three-hour conference. Maybe six months of psychotherapeutic intervention might help.

And there are families, as one commenter observed above, who are in deeply serious situations -- including domestic violence, sexual abuse, chronic hyper-critical parenting. A speaker at one conference, Sid Simon, wrote a book on the damage of over-criticism (with a chapter entitled "The Knives of Negative Criticism") outlining the proverbial "death by a thousand cuts."

So just doing conferences is missing the huge middle range of families who are doing a lot right but could perhaps do better, avoid some conflicts and negative interchanges if they had a few techniques known to improve communications and foster positive assets.

Overall, this clearly is not a simple matter. Many good people and community organizations -- from the YMCA to PTAs and others -- are trying hard to help families and young persons connect with each other. It's not something any one person or entity can do alone. -jay