Does your child’s school support mental health and well-being?

Returning guest contributor Michael Strong is co-founder of the Kọ School + Incubator. He joins us on the blog today to discuss an important but often overlooked factor in adolescent well-being: school connectedness.
 


I’ve spent most of my life developing small, personalized schools that provide supportive environments for teens. For decades it has been obvious to me that a teen’s connection to a school is one of the most important factors in adolescent well-being. The research community is finally beginning to recognize this.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported in 2009 on the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health:

School connectedness was found to be the strongest protective factor for both boys and girls to decrease substance use, school absenteeism, early sexual initiation, violence, and risk of unintentional injury (e.g., drinking and driving, not wearing seat belts). In this same study, school connectedness was second in importance, after family connectedness, as a protective factor against emotional distress, disordered eating, and suicidal ideation and attempts.

Families are certainly important. But note that school connectedness is even more important than family connectedness with respect to a teen’s propensity to engage in multiple dangerous behaviors (substance abuse, violence, drinking, and driving). Moreover, school connectedness is the second most important factor, after family, to guard against clinical depression, eating disorders, and suicide.

What is “school connectedness”? Teens were asked:

How strongly do you agree or disagree with each of the following statements:
  • I feel close to people at this school.
  • I am happy to be at this school.
  • I feel like I am part of this school.
  • The teachers at this school treat students fairly.
  • I feel safe in my school.

A 2003 analysis of the responses of 36,000 teens discovered remarkable correlations between “school connectedness” and well-being. Summarized as “Improving the Odds: The Untapped Power of Schools to Improve the Health of Teens,” this research led to the CDC’s public position on the importance of school connection and adolescent well-being.

Researchers are only now discovering just how deeply these connections go. For instance, a 2007 article in the Journal of Adolescent Health discovered a direct connection between early teen experiences and mental health. They surveyed a cohort of almost 3,000 teens at grade 8, grade 10, and one year after graduation:

Overall, young people’s experiences of early secondary school and their relationships at school continue to predict their moods, their substance use in later years, and their likelihood of completing secondary school. Students with good school and good social connectedness are less likely to experience subsequent mental health issues and be involved in health risk behaviors, and are more likely to have good educational outcomes.

In a world in which an estimated one third of teens are on prescription medication, and almost half of those are on psychoactive substances (medications addressing depression and hyperactivity), it is important for more parents to realize that school may be a causal factor with respect to their child’s depression.

Another cohort study of 2,000 teens states bluntly in its report title: “School Connectedness Is an Underemphasized Parameter in Adolescent Mental Health.” It explicitly suggests that a lack of school connectedness is a causal factor in mental health issues.

School connectedness also predicted depressive symptoms 1 year later for both boys and girls, anxiety symptoms for girls, and general functioning for boys, even after controlling for prior symptoms. . . . Results suggest a stronger than previously reported association with school connectedness and adolescent depressive symptoms in particular and a predictive link from school connectedness to future mental health problems.

Pharmaceutical companies invest significant marketing dollars into persuading parents and health care practitioners that depression is a biochemical disorder to be corrected by pharmaceuticals. But what if a significant portion of adolescent dysfunction and mental illness is actively caused by a child’s feeling of disconnection from the school community?

A recent dissertation on schools and depression summarizes the scale of the issue:

Depression is a debilitating condition that is increasingly recognized among youth, especially adolescents. Nearly a third of adolescents experience a depressive episode by age 19 and an increasing number of youth experience depressed mood, subsyndromal symptoms, and minor depression. The prevalence of depression is particularly high among female, racial minority and sexual minority youth. . . . major depression and subthreshold depressive symptoms often first appear during the adolescent years. Rates of depression steadily increase from ages 12 to 15. Based on retrospective studies of depressed adults and prospective studies of youth, major depression is most likely to emerge during the mid-adolescent years (ages 13–15). Prospective studies that follow the same children over time reveal a dramatic increase in the prevalence of major depressive episodes after age 11 and again after age 15, with a flattening of rates in young adulthood (Kim-Cohen et al., 2003).

Meanwhile, a Gallup poll finds that only 44 percent of high school students feel engaged at school.

As a lifelong educator who has seen literally hundreds of children improve their well-being by means of transferring to a school at which they felt more connected, these are not merely hypothetical speculations. I believe we have a mental health catastrophe among our teens, and massive disconnection from schooling is a major causal factor in this catastrophe.
 


The CDC goes on to describe four factors that can improve school connectedness:

1. Adult support: “In the school setting, students feel supported and cared for when they see school staff dedicating their time, interest, attention, and emotional support to them. Students need to feel that adults care about them as individuals as well as about their academic achievement. Smaller schools may encourage more personal relationships among students and staff and allow for personalized learning.”

2. Belonging to a positive peer group: “Students’ health and educational outcomes are influenced by the characteristics of their peers, such as how socially competent peer group members are or whether the peer group supports pro-social behavior. Being part of a stable peer network protects students from being victimized or bullied.”

3. Commitment to education: “It is important that both students and adults are committed to learning and are involved in school activities. Students’ dedication to their own education is associated with the degree to which they perceive that their peers and important adults in their lives 1) believe school is important and 2) act on those beliefs. . . . School staff who are dedicated to the education of their students build school communities that allow students to develop emotionally, socially, and mentally, as well as academically. Committed adults engage students in learning, foster mutual respect and caring, and meet the personal learning needs of each student.”

4. School environment: “A positive school environment, often called school climate, is characterized by caring and supportive interpersonal relationships; opportunities to participate in school activities and decision-making; and shared positive norms, goals, and values. One study found that schools with a higher average sense-of-community score (i.e., composite of students’ perception of caring and supportive interpersonal relationships and their ability to be autonomous and have influence in the classroom) had significantly lower average student drug use and delinquency.”

Is your child experiencing healthy school-connectedness? All parents should take these issues very seriously, before their teens experience much more serious challenges.
 


Please share this article with your friends so we can begin a national debate on how we can help address our most pressing teen issues—including, according to the CDC, “ . . . substance use, school absenteeism, early sexual initiation, violence, and risk of unintentional injury (e.g., drinking and driving, not wearing seat belts) . . . emotional distress, disordered eating, and suicidal ideation and attempts”—through authentic human relationships rather than pharmaceuticals. It is wonderful that we are now much more attentive about the foods that we put into our children. Now we need to focus on the ways in which they may be supported by their school environments.

Michael Strong

Can your child learn more at a nontraditional school?

Michael Strong is co-founder of the Kọ School + Incubator, an Austin school serving students of middle and high school age. He is also author of the book The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice, a frequent speaker on TEDx stages, founder or co-founder of several successful schools, and an advocate for nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit as a force for social good. In this follow-up to an earlier guest post, Michael addresses, in an interesting new way, a question I hear often in consultation sessions with parents considering alternative forms of schooling for their kids: Will they be prepared to do well on the SAT and other college entrance requirements?


Two years ago, I wrote an article for Alt Ed Austin titled “Preparing for the SAT by Means of Alternative Education.” In that article, I explained how I had gotten high SAT scores that helped to get me into several Ivy League universities (Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth) by means of extensive reading and chess playing. At the time, Khotso Khabele and I were just launching the Khabele Strong Incubator, which is now known as the Kọ School + Incubator (KSI).

It has long been my belief that if students engage in serious intellectual work that they love, it is possible for them to develop high SAT scores while also enjoying school. Because traditional schools often force academics on students in ways that are disempowering, many traditionally educated adults find it hard to imagine teens enjoying learning while also developing high SAT scores.

Because of my belief that our program develops SAT scores, we have administered the SAT several times per year at the high school. Although we don’t have data for all KSI students, for those for whom we do have comparable data, the results are remarkable.

  • Average SAT gains for KSI high school students for 2015–2016: 140 points (80 points verbal, 60 points math)
  • Average SAT gains for KSI high school students who have been with us for two full academic years, 2014–2016: 313 points (173 verbal, 140 math)

We only have two-year data for students who were with us for grades 9 and 10 and who were present at SAT administrations for both September 2014 and May 2016.

For comparison purposes, analysis of three large-scale evaluations of SAT coaching concludes that the average student enrolled in an SAT prep course gains 30 points (5–10 points verbal, 10–20 points math).

Students who have attended KSI for two years are averaging gains more than 10 times those of students enrolled in the average SAT prep course.

Yet KSI students do very little explicit SAT prep. Instead, we have a daily Socratic discussion in which students discuss complex texts while relating them to their personal lives along with weekly math problem-solving sessions that are often like brain teasers. How can such a program outperform SAT prep courses by such a large margin?
 

1. The College Board has always maintained that “SAT measures reasoning abilities that are developed gradually over the years of primary and secondary schooling that precede college.” That is, insofar as the SAT measures reasoning abilities that take years to develop, it is not surprising that two years of a cognitively demanding program would outperform short SAT prep courses.
 

2. Very little in conventional education is designed to develop reasoning abilities. KSI Socratic discussions and math problem-solving activities are far more cognitively demanding than is a conventional curriculum.

With respect to reading, the texts studied in Socratic are almost all college-level prose, whereas all conventional high school textbooks are necessarily written at grade level or below. Many students at conventional schools are never exposed to the sophisticated prose that is the essence of the SAT critical reading section. Moreover, the “new SAT” is even more focused on high-level reading than was the earlier version.

Our math problem-solving sessions, developed by Jeff Wood, our lead STEM guide, are a critical element that goes beyond the linear math curriculum that is standard at most schools. It is designed to train students to think mathematically rather than simply moving through the traditional sequence of topics in math. SAT math requires that students think mathematically.
 

3. There is a large literature on the activity of practice proving the age-old maxim “Practice makes perfect.” When human beings deliberately attempt to improve their skills by means of practice, they improve. Our students don’t merely practice the SAT test itself; they practice thinking verbally and mathematically.
 

4. There is a great deal of evidence that a lack of engagement is one of the most severe problems in secondary education. In essence, most students find the academic component of school boring and meaningless. Many students love the social life, and some may love extracurricular programs, but the substance of schooling is not interesting or relevant to them.

Gallup surveys show student engagement as high in elementary school, much lower in middle school, and even lower in high school. Not coincidentally, American students score fairly well on international exams in elementary school, worse in middle school, and most poorly in high school.

By contrast, most KSI students are intellectually engaged most of the time. Subjectively speaking, it does seem to me that on average those who are more consistently intellectually engaged showed larger gains than those who were less engaged. For me, our most successful classes are not those in which teachers are talking much. Our most successful classes are those in which the students are leading the conversations or problem-solving sessions, thinking, talking, questioning, joking, laughing, and being teens—all while actively engaging their minds.
 


Simply by focusing seriously on developing students’ abilities to think verbally and mathematically, day in, day out, while engaging them successfully, we can achieve extraordinary results—in most cases with very little homework.

From a scientific perspective, because of our small numbers, these results should be regarded as suggestive rather than conclusive evidence of the power of our program to improve cognitive performance and increase SAT scores.

That said, as we live in a world with so many teens disengaged from learning, with so many teens suffering emotionally and socially, with so many families frustrated with traditional homework loads, it is valuable to be reminded that when a school creates a healthy, engaging intellectual culture, high-level learning takes place spontaneously. The suffering and frustration of traditional schooling is entirely unnecessary to produce extraordinary results. For some students, breaking free from the structure of traditional schooling itself may be the most important step in achieving what they were meant to achieve.

Michael Strong
 

Joy is the bottom line: Entrepreneurial education in Austin

Young entrepreneurs at the annual Acton Children’s Business Fair

Young entrepreneurs at the annual Acton Children’s Business Fair

Shelley Sperry is a staff writer at Alt Ed Austin. An entrepreneur in her own right, she also works as a writer, researcher, and editor at Sperry Editorial.

When you hear the term “entrepreneurial education,” you may first think about old-school extracurricular clubs that teach kids through hands-on projects—programs such as Junior Achievement and 4-H, or even the annual ritual of Girl Scout cookie sales. What I’ve learned by investigating schools in Austin is that entrepreneurial education is a big-tent concept that includes a diverse mix of well-established and brand-new ventures. Some find the label limiting, but it’s useful for identifying schools that share a few core similarities:

  • An emphasis on projects in which kids make, market, and sell products that link them to customers and the community outside the school
  • A holistic approach that integrates mind, body, and spirit in the learning process
  • Elimination of separate, “siloed” subjects (math, science, language arts, social studies) in favor of integrated learning of all content via entrepreneurial projects
  • Use of approaches from the start-up business world to structure groups, projects, and timelines
  • De-emphasis on teachers and direct instruction in favor of mentors and guides who help students make their own decisions
  • An interest in building kids’ sense of themselves and their work as tools for making the world a better place

Austin programs that fall into this big tent include Acton Academy, Kọ School + Incubator, Sansori High School @ Whole Life Learning Center, and WonderLab.

When I interviewed Jeff Sandefer of the well-established Acton Academy and Kristin Kim of Sansori High School, which will be opening to its first class in August this year, I was struck by the fact that both approaches emphasize the importance of each student’s personal journey toward self-confidence and self-knowledge. This is something I normally would associate with twenty-somethings rather than kids in elementary, middle, and high school, but it demonstrates an essential part of the entrepreneurial education philosophy. Kids are respected as capable, contributing members of the community, even as six- or seven-year-olds.
 

Acton Academy’s approach is built around the notion of the “hero’s journey” usually associated with classic literature. Sandefer argues that each Acton student should understand himself or herself as on a life quest, rather than merely acquiring a set of skills or facts.

A student-led discussion at Acton Academy

A student-led discussion at Acton Academy

“It’s more about learning to persevere, to fail and get back up, to treat people with kindness, and to listen before talking,” he explains. “We start with kids as early as six and go all the way through high school, cultivating these traits. They earn more and more freedom as they get older. They learn that the better you treat people, the harder you work, the more freedom you have.”

Acton’s Children’s Business Fair is the biggest such gathering in the country and has become a major community event in Austin each fall. The fair hosts more than 100 booths and brings together students not only from Acton’s elementary, middle, and high schools, but also from across a spectrum of Austin schools and homeschooling environments who want to create products or services and market them to customers while learning business, academic, and life skills.

With Sandefer’s blessing, other educators are creating schools based on the Acton model in other parts of Central Texas, throughout the United States, and beyond. The first graduate of Acton Academy Guatemala was recently accepted into the University of California at Berkeley with a triple major in math, biology, and biosciences.
 

Along with local and national business leaders who support the Kọ School, founders Michael Strong and Khotso Khabele believe that all people in the world should be able to live their lives creatively and productively. In other words, everyone should have the opportunity to behave like entrepreneurs: innovating and adding value to society. They believe that happiness comes from challenging work in which individuals create something meaningful, and they argue that the best path to this kind of life is through a Socratic method of questioning and learning how to teach oneself. The Kọ School + Incubator is designed to “blur the boundary between school and the outside world.”
 

WonderLab describes itself as a true incubator and is less a full-time school than a gathering place that puts like-minded, entrepreneurial kids together to help each other.  Students identify their own goals and the resources and skills they need to reach those goals, and then they form teams that are assisted by an adult guide. Team members support each other and work together for a few hours each week. But even in this very practical world of achieving specific project goals, the overarching philosophy is that kids will end up exploring and defining themselves. They will be “on the path to figuring out the intersection of their gifts, their passions, and what the world needs.”
 

An image from the Sansori High School website that expresses one of the central principles of the program

An image from the Sansori High School website that expresses one of the central principles of the program

Kristin Kim, who is bringing her Sansori educational philosophy to Austin this year in partnership with the Whole Life Learning Center, puts holistic learning at the center. “I give talks at colleges in the U.S. and U.K., and I hear that the students in their twenties don’t know what to do with their lives and are searching. We can offer children a different way of learning so that one benefit is getting a clear sense of what they love and how they can apply it in the world. They leave high school with skills and with self-knowledge.”

Kim says that confidence and joy are the hallmarks of her approach. A sense of integration of the individual and the world outside the classroom seems to be crucial too. By way of example, Kim describes students who made beeswax candles for sale, which seems like a simple learning-about-business project, but became something much grander in its implications. Students learned important lessons in science, math, and language arts as they made and marketed the candles. “We also connected their activities with how the universe works through the structure of polymers and the ecology of bees, and connected it with their own physical bodies in terms of other cultures’ understanding of the medicinal value of honey.”

I still think the word “entrepreneurial” works to describe these diverse Austin schools, because each does develop in students a taste for creating and innovating, whether in business, science, the arts, or other pursuits. But I would also say that a “whole child” focus that brings a spiritual element to the table is just as important, and something I hadn’t expected.

As Kim says,  “What we’re doing is allowing students of all ages to experience learning not just through their brains or minds, but through their bodies and hearts. They then see themselves differently and understand the co-creative role of each human being. When you get a deep understanding of the unity between inner and outer worlds, joy is a natural consequence.”

Shelley Sperry