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When Having a Suicide Prevention Protocol isn’t Enough

wooded area with footpath to a small stone temple

A friend who is a middle-school educator and the parent of two adolescents shared with me this morning that she learned about a student her son’s age who took his own life last week. As expected, it has shaken her and caused her to examine how to respond, both as a teacher and as a parent. She said that the school district has deployed its suicide prevention protocol and, while she is grateful there is one in place, she told me that it feels “mechanistic.” It is definitely important for schools to have a set of tasks and supports available in the event that a tragedy like this happens, but the truth is, it isn’t enough, and without those protocols being grounded in secure relationships that already exist between staff and students and families, it will always feel like a checklist instead of a true, heartfelt response.

We can’t hope to deploy these resources and talking points after the fact in any effective way if we haven’t put in the effort to create strong relationships before something painful happens. Even if we as adults are sincere in our offer to be available for students and families who are grieving and frightened and angry, if we haven’t established – through a pattern of behavior they can trust – a connection before, it is unlikely that those who are in the most pain will feel comfortable coming to us. And if we haven’t processed our own grief and pain, or at least identified them, we will appear to be unsympathetic or simply going through the motions.

My friend noted that, over the years, this particular student had been noticed by many different teachers who wanted to find a way to help him. All too often, protocols and standard practices serve to prevent us from creating caring relationships with students who could use our support. Whether it is a culture that encourages school staff to see certain things as their purview (education and behavior management inside the school setting or hours) and assign others to families (deeper emotional and adjustment issues), or one that encourages them to be hands off for fear of liability, those things stand in the way of building truly supportive connections with students. It may be that class sizes prevent teachers from being able to connect with all of their students or a lack of resources means that there isn’t a skilled, trained staff member who could build a relationship with a student and their family. Whatever the barriers are, if we aren’t working to be in relationship with our students and their families or caregivers, when something like this happens, we won’t be able to provide the kind of support that is most profound and meaningful, even with a list of well-researched actions and scripts in our back pocket.

We know that students learn best when they feel as though they are in connected relationships with their teachers. We also know that they learn best when they are supported at home. Having a suicide prevention protocol might look good from the outside, but if we aren’t using it in the context of foundational relationships with students and families who believe that they can trust us and speak honestly about their struggles, it doesn’t amount to much. It is up to us to do the hard work of creating connections between teachers and students and families so that when there is a tragedy, we can rely on our relationships to hold us all as we grieve.

New! Youtube channel for the self project

Since I can’t run workshops right now for educators or parents/caregivers, I decided to make some of my work available on YouTube. This is my first video and there’s a downloadable worksheet to go with it under the Resources tab. Check it out and let me know what you think. It’s important for us to unpack our biases and bedrock beliefs if we are going to foster strong relationships with the adolescents in our lives.

Tips for Parents and Educators: “The Complex Yes”

Practicing the Complex Yes

When you disagree with a friend,

a stranger, or a foe, how do you

reply but not say simply No?

For No can stop the conversation

or turn it into argument or worse –

the conversation that must go on, as a river

must, a friendship, a troubled nation.

So may we practice the repertoire

of complex yes:

Yes, and in what you say I see…

Yes, and at the same time…

Yes, and what if…?

Yes, I hear you, and how…?

Yes, and there’s an old story…

Yes, and as the old song goes…

Yes, and as a child told me once…

Yes. Yes, tell me more. I want to understand…

      and then I want to tell you how it is for me….

Kim Stafford

As parents and educators, when we are trying to create and maintain strong, trusting relationships with adolescents, there are times when we need to distance ourselves from our role as “teacher” or “mentor” and become simply listeners. This is where the “complex Yes” comes in, and I believe that it is the second to last line of this poem that is the most effective approach.

Yes. Yes, tell me more. I want to understand…

This approach signals to the student or child that we are not interested in convincing them of anything, diminishing the importance of their ideas or thoughts or feelings, or proving them wrong. It is a message that we are curious, that we are on equal footing, or maybe even that roles have reversed for a bit and they are invited to become our teachers, to introduce us to something we may not have considered before, to a new perspective. This is an incredibly powerful and simple way to build confidence in teens and let them practice with their own unique voice and it opens the door to a richer relationship. It isn’t easy to break ourselves of the habit to correct or guide or offer our opinion, but with practice, I think you’ll see the value of it – both for your connection with the other person and in their own growth and development.

A Tip to Add Some Sibling Love to Your House

As the Chief Positivity Officer in our household, I’m always looking for ways to re-frame my kids’ day. When you’re surrounded by kids jockeying for position, stressing about homework and quizzes and their place on the team all day long, it can be pretty easy to feel as though life is a constant fight, and often when my daughters come home from a full day of competition and stress, they take it out on each other. They are quick to bicker, find fault with each other, and say things that they probably regret.

Like most households, we have a chalkboard hanging in the kitchen. A few months ago, I decided to commandeer it for a new experiment. What if I set up a place for anyone in the house to anonymously write something nice about another member of the family? I wrote everyone’s names at the top with the beginning of a sentence like this:

 

EVE          LOLA         MOM        DAD

is so awesome because

 

 

I kicked things off quietly by circling Eve’s name with a piece of white chalk and finishing the sentence. By the time everyone got home from school and work, the board read, “Eve is SO awesome because she is such a great friend.” Eve noticed the change when she came in for dinner and shook her head quietly. She is not a sentimental person, so she looked at me, cocked her head to the right and rolled her eyes, BUT she couldn’t suppress the smile twitching at the corners of her mouth. It felt good to be called out for something like that. She was smiling despite herself.

I am an idealist, but I am also realistic, so I didn’t expect an instant sea-change. I left the first message up for a few days and then quietly changed it again, this time circling “Dad” and reminding everyone that he is so great because he cracks us all up. This time Lola was the first to notice when she came down for breakfast. She immediately picked up the chalk and added some reference to an inside joke the two of them have, and walked away chuckling.

On Saturday night, my husband and I had plans for dinner with some friends, so we made the girls some food and headed out. I was hoping the two of them would have a relaxing evening watching movies and eating popcorn and talking about all of the things they don’t want their parents in earshot for. When we came home around 11pm, we all headed straight for bed without doing much of anything but hugging each other goodnight. I was the first one up on Sunday morning and as I headed to the coffee maker, I stopped and saw the board. It read, “Mom is SO awesome because she is such a good mom (and a good person in general).” What was so staggering is that it was in Eve’s handwriting. My cynic. My practical, non-sentimental kid took the initiative to write something that brought tears to my eyes. Of course, when I thanked her for it later in front of her sister, she denied writing it at all, but later she confessed that it was her and shrugged it off like it was no big deal. Except that it was.

We have settled into a routine of changing the board every few days with someone spontaneously erasing and writing in some new lovely compliment for another member of the family. Lola has been reminded that we love her adventurous spirit, and on Monday morning as she was packing up for a three day camping trip with her class, she wrote that she appreciated what a good sister Eve is to her. My heart melted.

I love this simple way of reminding our kids that looking for something positive about others is important and powerful. So often our communications at home are centered around things that have to get done or small conflicts we have with each other. Yes, we thank each other for small kindnesses (getting someone a glass of water when they’re already at the dinner table or carrying something up the stairs for them when their hands are full), but it isn’t often that we take the time to call out the things we really admire about each other and there is something really profound about seeing it in writing. To have someone take a moment to put into words how amazing you are is a pretty cool feeling. Who knows, maybe this small boost of public appreciation is just enough to help carry us through stressful times of the day with a more realistic assessment of how awesome we really are.