Teen suicide in Silicon Valley: Why?

I raised my daughter in Palo Alto. The public schools educated the children of high-tech engineers, entrepreneurs and Stanford professors. It was competitive — but also fun to put out the newspaper or compete in Mock Trial with so many smart kids.

In The Suicide Clusters at Palo Alto High Schools, Hanna Rosin tries to understand a series of suicides in 2009-10 and again in 2014-15.

Most of the kids who killed themselves stepped in front of a train.

For the most part, these students were doing well in school, had plenty of friends, seemed to be normal teens with normal parents. One girl had just gotten into the college of her dreams. A boy had just tried out for varsity basketball.

Adolescent dysfunction has a U-shaped curve, writes Rosin. Wealthy teens are doing as badly as poor teens, researchers say.

The rich middle- and high-school kids (Suniya) Luthar and her collaborators have studied show higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse on average than poor kids, and much higher rates than the national norm. They report clinically significant depression or anxiety or delinquent behaviors at a rate two to three times the national average.

Successful parents set high expectations for their children. High school students believe there’s one path to success — get into a “good” college — and little room for mistakes.

Many of the Palo Alto suicides were Chinese-American or had some Asian ancestry, writes Rosin. Was it Tiger Moms and Dads?

In addition to pressure to excel, “affluent kids felt remarkably isolated from their parents,” Luthar found. They got lots of parental attention — all that helicoptering — but didn’t feel close.

In the end, nothing really seems to explain why these adolescents ended their lives, concludes Rosin.

Nationwide, the adolescent suicide rate has “dropped dramatically since the 1990s,” perhaps because of better anti-depressants and suicide-prevention campaigns, she writes. But, in the past few years, teen suicide is on the rise again.

Helping the hidden achievers

U.S. schools are Failing Our Brightest Kids, write Checker Finn and Brandon Wright in a new book. “This failure of will, policy, and program is particularly devastating to high-ability youngsters from disadvantaged circumstances,” writes Finn.

51uqaeUJllL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_The book looks at how other countries support high achievers. In Asia, “plenty of poor parents — who may not be well educated themselves — strongly push their daughters and sons to succeed in school, get into selective high schools, and proceed to top universities and good jobs,” writes Finn.

Screening all children for ability — used in Western Australia and Singapore — is “far more effective at moving minority students into ‘gifted and talented’ programs than waiting for pushy parents,” writes Finn.

Gifted programs work especially well for low-income and minority students, research shows, but “are scarce in American education, especially in schools full of poor kids,” writes Finn. This is “devastating for able kids from disadvantaged circumstances and disorganized families.”

Educated, motivated parents can supplement their children’s learning, provide challenges and find the best the public system has to offer. It’s much harder for uneducated parents to help their kids go beyond what’s offered in school.

When poor parents get more money . . . 

Giving more money to low-income parents improves their children’s personalities and prospects, concludes a study in North Carolina.

Four years into the Great Smoky Mountains Study of Youth, the families of roughly a quarter of the children — all Cherokees — started getting an extra $4,000 a year per adult from a new casino. The money raised household incomes by almost 20 percent on average.

An income boost from a new casino helped low-income Cherokee parents and their children.  Photo: David Oppenheimer, Performance Impressions

An income boost from a new casino helped low-income Cherokee parents and their children. Photo: David Oppenheimer, Performance Impressions

With extra money coming in, parents reported less stress, less drinking and better parent-child relationships, according to a long-term follow-up. They were as likely to work, but spent more time supervising their children.

Children had fewer behavioral and emotional disorders, the study found. The money appeared to boost children’s conscientiousness and agreeableness, reports the Washington Post.

“There are very powerful correlations between conscientiousness and agreeableness and the ability to hold a job, to maintain a steady relationship,” said Emilia Simeonova, a Johns Hopkins professor and one of the paper’s co-authors. “The two allow for people to succeed socially and professionally.”

Children with the most personality problems improved the most.

Prince Elsa

Caiden tries on his Elsa costume

Caiden tries on his Elsa costume

A three-year-old Virginia boy will dress as Princess Elsa from Frozen for Halloween, his father posted on Facebook.

“He wants to be Elsa,” wrote Paul Henson of his son, Caiden. “He also wants me to be Anna. Game on.”

“Halloween is about children pretending to be their favorite characters,” Henson wrote. “Just so happens, this week his is a princess.”

Nobody cares if a girl wants to be Batman, but a boy in a princess costume is a bit startling. If I were Dad, I’d hold out for Olaf rather than Anna.

Was the father wrong — or just unwise — to put the photo online?

Your kid’s teacher is terrible? What not to do

Your child has a terrible teacher? Angela Stockman lists 10 Things Parents Should Never Do on Brilliant or Insane.

First, don’t rush in till you’ve showed your child how to define the problem and raise it with the teacher, Stockman writes.

If that doesn’t work, then approach the teacher “directly and respectfully.”

Don’t just let it go, she advises. “Parents who fail to speak up often set the stage for increased frustration, and as kids become more unhappy, they do too. This is when they start doing things that no parent should ever do.”

No ‘participation trophies’ for NFL player’s sons

When Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison discovered his sons had been awarded “participation” awards “for nothing,” he sent the trophies back and explained his actions on Instagram:

“Everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best … cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better … not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy.”

A walk-on at Kent State, Harrison went undrafted in 2002 because he was considered to be too small for the pros, reports ESPN.  Harrison “played a season in NFL Europe and was cut by the Baltimore Ravens before latching on with the Steelers and becoming a force.”

Let ’em fail — or they’ll never succeed

“Out of love and desire to protect our children’s self-esteem, we have bulldozed every uncomfortable bump and obstacle out of their way,” writes Jessica Lahey in The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.  “The setbacks, mistakes, miscalculations and failures we have shoved out of our children’s way are the very experiences that teach them how to be resourceful, persistent, innovative and resilient citizens of the world.”

Writing as a mother and a veteran teacher, Lahey repeatedly admits her own mistakes to soften her message:  Let your kids (and students) take responsibility, accept consequences and grow up.

In writing recommendation letters, she’s seen “extensive accounts of the students’ commitment to service — time spent serving up dinner in homeless shelters, sorting donated clothing, building latrines in Costa Rica — yet I know for a fact that the child in question has never done her own laundry.”

Tell your kids that they’re expected to make “family contributions” — not “chores” — such as cleaning and cooking, Lahey advises. Don’t reward them for meeting their obligations. Competence is its own reward.

In early adolescence, children must develop “executive function,” learning how to “manage our time, resources and attention in order to achieve a goal,” Lahey. It’s not an easy process. Kids will make mistakes. But they’ll learn, if parents let their kids fail and “feel the pain and inconvenience of their mistakes.”

Parental pressure can backfire, she writes in The Atlantic. Earning straight A’s to please Mom can erode the student’s internal motivation to learn.

“One of the reasons kids love video games is because it is an environment with a much higher tolerance-threshold for failure than the average classroom or household,” says Jordan Shapiro in a Forbes interview with Lahey. “Kids learn the complex rules of the video game world by trying, failing and then iterating their approach.”

The kind of thinking is “a key part of the innovation and entrepreneurship narrative,” says Shapiro. “Fail hard, then get up and try again.”

Teachers also need to try, fail and improve, says Lahey. “I can assess students more frequently, use the information . . . about their mistakes and failures – and importantly, on my mistakes and failures as a teacher – to determine how I help my students learn skills.”

Can schools teach social skills?

Kindergarten teachers’ assessment of children’s “social competence” — cooperation, helpfulness, “understanding feelings” — predicted their future education, employment and arrest records, according to a long-term study.

The researchers had statistically controlled for the effects of poverty, race, having teenage parents, family stress and neighborhood crime, and for the children’s aggression and reading levels in kindergarten, writes David Bornstein in a New York Times blog.

Madison Reid, a student in Mrs. Neal's 2nd and 3rd grade combined class, leads a discussion on what is good listening during a morning session at Wade Park Elementary in Cleveland, Ohio on May 20, 2015. —Dustin Franz for Education Week

A Cleveland elementary student leads a discussion on good listening. Photo: Dustin Franz, Education Week

Helping children develop “core social and emotional strengths like self-management, self-awareness and social awareness” would have big payoffs, he argues.

But how much can schools do to improve children’s social competence? If parents aren’t doing their job, can schools make a difference?

The Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (Casel) is working with school districts across the country, writes Bornstein. A 2011 meta-analysis of studies on school-based social and emotional learning programs found significant gains in students’ social skills, attitudes, behavior and academics.

Cleveland uses Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies to teach children “how to recognize, communicate and manage their emotions, read others’ emotions, solve problems and change patterns of negative thinking.”

School suspension rooms have been replaced with “planning centers,” where students work through problems or practice how to better handle conflicts. Schools have staff teams to lead social and emotional learning efforts and work with families.

Three years ago, graduating seniors said safety was the number one problem in high school, says CEO Eric Gordon. Two years ago, safety fell to second place. Last year, it dropped to number three.

I have mixed feelings about social and emotional programs. Schools should teach students how to behave in school, which includes self-control, cooperation and resolving conflicts peacefully. But emotional strength comes from being raised by good or good-enough parents. I don’t schools can do much there. For good or ill, it’s the parents.

Too cute

If Your Kids’ Lunches Look Like This, You’re Probably Creating Monsters, warns Paula Bolyard on PJ Media’s new parenting blog. At the very least, “you’re setting your kids up for future disappointment and practically ensuring that their future spouses will hate you.”

Character matters, but what can schools do?

“Character skills matter at least as much as cognitive skills,” writes James Heckman in the lead essay of Brookings’ new book, Does Character Matter? Policymakers should look for opportunities to shape both cognitive and non-cognitive skills, writes Heckman.

Other essays deal with parenting, conscientiousness, grit, the effects of chronic adversity and creating “schools of character.”

“The journey from good idea to good policy is a minefield,” writes Robert Pondiscio.

. . . Third Way policy analyst Lanae Erickson Hatalsky notes in her essay (that) if Democrats talk about character, “it runs the risk of sounding like apostasy, blaming poor children for their own situation in life and chiding them to simply have more grit and pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” (Likewise, the Left dares not invoke the miasma of family structure.)

Character talk may feel more at home in Republican talking points, but it carries the risk of foot-in-mouth disease, “setting the stage for politicians to inadvertently say something that sounds patronizing to the poor, demeaning to single women, or offensive to African Americans (or all three).” Just so.

The book lacks an essay on “school choice as a means of giving educators permission to focus on character development,” writes Pondiscio. KIPP can “worship at the altar of grit” because parents have chosen that model.

Dominic Randolph, headmaster of Riverdale Country School, wants “a comprehensive international effort in institutions and in governments to develop intellectual, character and community standards of growth that can be embedded in the ‘curricula’ of schools, universities, workplaces.”

“Don’t expect Common Core character standards any time soon,” responds Pondiscio.