By Kristen Hayes, CEI Intern
In the most recent Center for Disease Control and Prevention report, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death for the overall population in the US. It was the 2nd leading cause in age groups 10-14 and 15-19, claiming 517 and 2,491 lives respectively (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019). Researchers and mental health experts continue to look for solutions to these looming statistics, and have delivered some ways in which schools and educators can help.
Pisani et al. (2013) proposed that efforts to reduce youth suicide should focus on developmentally-salient risk and protective processes. They investigated emotional regulation difficulties and relationships with trusted adults as potential risks and buffers for suicide attempts in high school students.
- Students who perceived themselves as lacking the means to respond to and recover from an emotional upset were more likely to have attempted suicide in the last year.
- Among those who reported frequently experiencing overwhelming or unmanageable emotions, those who also said they had an adult in their family with whom they could talk were less likely to have any suicide attempts than those who did not have a trusted adult.
- The adult-child relationship counteracted negative effects of poor emotional regulation to and lowered the probability of suicide attempts.
- Students engaging with trusted adults at school also had a lower risk for suicide attempt, even when experiencing overwhelming negative emotions.
Based on their results, Pisani et al. (2013) suggest that schools can contribute to lowering the risk of youth suicide by 1) promoting students’ emotion regulation abilities and 2) helping students foster trusting relationships with adults at school.
Emotion regulation can be a difficult subject to address given that the regulatory processes occur internally. Zeman et al. (2006) offer external behaviors that school staff can look out for that may indicate current or future potential emotion regulation difficulties:
- Extreme shyness or an innate anger at the world. These characteristics are often natural tendencies derived from a child’s temperament. Although not inherently bad, they can inhibit adaptive processes in stressful or challenging environments.
- Continual lack of response to emotionally provocative events. This often looks like a “poker face.”
- Difficulty maintaining friendships due to an overreactive or under-reactive emotional response style. The intensity of the causal events does not match the intensity of the reaction.
- Repeated responses of anger. Apparent outbursts of anger do not necessarily come from anger-causing events. Instead, they may represent a child’s lack of ability to understand his or her emotions and how to express them.
- A poor family emotional environment. Much of emotion regulation is learned through social observation. Thus, a family’s emotional climate is typically predictive of the emotion regulation skills with which a child is equipped.
Emotional development is not a solely individualistic process, emotional development and well-being is a social process. In attempting to help children improve their emotion regulation, there are two current approaches. The first singles out specific characteristics of individuals that need improvement and intervenes exclusively within the individual. The second emphasizes the more general social contexts in which a child exists, such as the processes and environments of schooling (McLaughlin, 2008). In the latter, children are able to take emotional cues from peers and adults as well as use social feedback to adjust their emotional reactions to events. The strong adult-child relationships that predicted fewer suicide attempts in Pisani et al.’s (2013) study are one of the most influential factors in the development of a child’s adaptive emotion regulation.
In her work on resilience, Jean Brooks (2006) discusses how positive mentoring relationships between teachers and students help students display positive outcomes above and beyond what one would expect given the vulnerabilities and adversity they face. While teachers are often cited as one of the most salient sources of caring relationships, several other school employees such as receptionists, custodians, administrative staff, and food service workers are equally or more valuable. These school staff members often better represent the diversity of the school’s students in terms of gender, ethnicity, culture, and life experience, and therefore can help cast a wider net to capture more students (Milner, 2018). Thus, it is important that schools do not overlook these adults and their contributions to student well-being.
One elementary school in Centerville, Virginia hosts an orientation for all new students in which students are required to find at least one adult with whom they connect before leaving. This adult can be their primary teacher, an administrator, another teacher, or one of the various other staff members at the school. The school hopes that providing an opportunity for this initial connection will help ease students’ transition into the school and provide a designated point of contact when students may need an adults’ support and guidance. If interested in learning more about whole-school emotion regulation programs, the Primary Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) program in the UK is a good place to start (Humphrey, 2008).
The issue of youth suicide is a concern of public health that needs to be attacked from all sides. The social context of the school, and especially adult-child relationships, can help abate students’ emotion regulation difficulties and thereby lower the probability of suicide attempts in youth.
Brooks, J. E. (2006). Strengthening resilience in children and youths: Maximizing opportunities through the schools. Children & Schools, 28(2), 69–76.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2019). Leading causes of death reports, 1981 – 2017.
Humphrey, N., Kalambouka, A., Bolton, J., Lendrum, A., Wigelsworth, M., Lennie, C., & Farrell, P. (2008). Primary social and emotional aspects of learning (SEAL): Evaluation of small group work. Manchester, UK: School of Education, University of Manchester.
McLaughlin, C. (2008). Emotional well-being and its relationship to schools and classrooms: A critical reflection. British Journal of Guidance and Counseling 36(4), 353-366.
Milner, H. R. (2018, October). Disruptive punitive practices and policies: Race(ing) back to teaching, teacher preparation, and Brown. Annual Brown Lecture. Symposium conducted at the meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Washington D. C.
Pisani, A. R., Wyman, P. A., Petrova, M., Schmeelk-Cone, K., Goldston, D. B., Xia, Y., & Gould, M. S. (2013). Emotion regulation difficulties, youth-adult relationships, and suicide attempts among high school students in underserved communities. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 42(6), 807-820.
Zeman, J., Cassano, M., Perry-Parrish, C., & Stegall, S. (2006). Emotion regulation in children and adolescents. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 27(2), 155-168.