Responding to 13 Reasons Why

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There are times and trends in pop culture that lead me to worry, or wonder, or fear how it might impact my students. 13 Reasons Why is one of them. The series is already claimed to be the most watched that Netflix has ever produced. If you have not watched or heard about this series, it follows a high schooler who has received 13 cassette tapes made by a classmate before she died by suicide; the tapes explain her 13 reasons for killing herself, essentially uncovering dark secrets that caused her suicide.

13RW

Okay, I have to say that I did watch this series, even before I heard the rumblings on social media. The rumblings include everything from praise for the show for not shying away from difficult topics like bullying, sexual assault, and suicide, to criticism for romanticizing the act of suicide. The thing about this show is, it puts you on an emotional roller coaster from the very first episode, and leaves you shaken. It is graphic, often times uncomfortable, and still, keeps you wanting to watch until the very end. This is not a series that you can move on from immediately after finishing; the story line and images stick in your mind.

After seeing many conversations about the series on social media, I saw some parents writing in about allowing their children to watch the show to “prepare” them for middle and/or high school. AND THIS IS WHEN I KNEW I NEEDED TO PREPARE MYSELF TO RESPOND AS A SCHOOL COUNSELOR.

Over this past week, I have read articles, blogs, and editorials about responses to this series to get a pulse on the impact. Still, I didn’t feel prepared enough to address any concerns stemming from this series in my own school. Yes, I work at the elementary level, but I fear that there are upper elementary students binge watching this series and perhaps not even talking to their parents about it, because their parents might not even be aware they have watched it at all. This, THIS, is scary and unacceptable.

Yesterday, I participated in a webinar facilitated by several experts in the field of suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention. Each of them brought their expertise to the topic of how educators in particular could and should respond to this series. Needless to say, there are a lot of concerns about how the sensitive topics are handled in the show.

Here are a few of the concerns:

  • This show is FICTION, though many people (children and adults alike) are taking the show as the reality for many high school students today.
  • The graphic depictions of bullying, sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, and suicide can be very triggering, especially for anyone who is or has struggled with any of these things.
  • Young people may over identify with the characters in this show, particularly the main protagonist, Hannah, who dies by suicide.
  • The show very much over-simplifies suicide. The majority of people who have suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, or die by suicide, have an underlying mental illness that they need professional treatment for. This show does not mention mental illness, or specifically, depression, at all. Not even once.
  • The 13 tapes created by Hannah before her death romanticize the ability to speak to people “from the beyond.” This is completely unrealistic. The tapes would have taken a rational mind to create; Hannah was not thinking rationally near the end of her life. In fact, most people who die by suicide end up acting impulsively at the very end. Suicide notes are not common.
  • One theme through out the show is the blame and shame placed on Hannah’s classmates (and the School Counselor) for her suicide. At one point, a character in the show says, “We ALL killed Hannah Baker.” Suicide survivors already tend to feel guilt when someone they care about dies by suicide; this is a dangerous and hurtful message to send.
  • The other theme through out the show seems to be about how kindness can save lives. Sounds great, right? After all, we want our children to be kind. However, Hannah references in almost all of her tapes that if that person had just done one thing differently, she might not feel as badly as she does. In the last episode, Hannah says, “Some of you cared. None of you cared enough.” Kindness is not enough; suicidal ideation requires PROFESSIONAL help! Again, this is not mentioned AT ALL in this series. Let’s not let the message to our children be that if they had just been more kind to so-and-so, maybe they wouldn’t have killed themselves. Talk about guilt!
  • The adults in this series, yikes. None of them appear to know how to help when they see their children/students struggling, or they don’t have the time. This is also a very dangerous message. The School Counselor in the series, Mr. Porter, is cringe-worthy when it comes to his responses to Hannah in the last episode. He is dismissive, distracted, and unhelpful. We need our children to know that there ARE adults who will listen and who know how to help them.
  • There are little to no help-seeking behaviors shown in this series. Hannah appears to be helpless and hopeless. The series offers no alternatives to suicide as a means to deal with serious problems. (I have to add that there is a follow up to this series, Beyond the Reasons, showing the producers, cast, and mental health professionals discussing how to get help for these kinds of issues, though there is NOTHING about it in the actual show.)
  • Contagion. Experts in this field know that research shows that young people are more likely to attempt or die by suicide themselves after experiencing a suicide death of someone close to them (about 4 to 5 times more likely). You might say, “But this is just a show. They don’t really know Hannah.” And you would be right, except that there has already been an increase in young people who are attempting suicide in the same way depicted in the show. Contagion is real.
  • Finally, producers of this show claim to have consulted suicide experts and media portrayal experts. The truth is that they did not consult said experts until after the show was already completed.

Here are a few resources to prepare yourself for potentially hard conversations:

I am not saying we should not watch this show. What I am saying is if you live with or work with young people, you need to be prepared to process this material with them. If it leaves adults shaken and heartbroken, imagine how it leaves our children. Do NOT let them watch this without an adult to process with.

Hopefully this post will be found helpful for someone! And School Counselors, let’s continue to be the best listeners and problem solvers for our students that we can be! We are needed now more than ever.

Being MEAN can leave lasting scars

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My third grade classes this year have challenged me to try new interventions – whole class, small group, and individually. They are spirited to say the least, chatty, opinionated, and many of them have difficulty taking direction. As fun as they can be, they also cause their fair share of conflicts. Many of them will cry and tell when someone is mean to them, but won’t own up when they do the same mean thing to someone else.

I want to share one whole class intervention I tried with them a few weeks ago. This is my “keep in my back pocket” lesson that I pull out when nothing else seems to work.

To start, I asked them to raise their hands if they have seen each of the following things happen to them or their classmates:

-Someone give a mean look.

-Someone whisper about you.

-Someone tell a secret about you.

-Someone share a secret of yours and break your trust.

-Someone tell you that you can’t play.

-Someone tell you that you can’t sit next to them.

-Someone call you a mean name.

-Someone make fun of you.

-Someone laugh along when someone is making fun of you.

For each mean thing I read off, there were multiple hands in the air. I heard comments such as, “That happens to me a lot” and “I see others doing that.” After I read all of them, I told my third graders that all of these mean things are things that I see and hear happening in our community and it’s not okay.

Then, I introduced my friend. I hung up a life-size cutout of a person. I told them I was going to show them how hurtful their mean behaviors can be to someone. As I read each mean thing again, starting with “Every time YOU….” I cut off a part of the person and let it fall to the floor.

The first time I cut a piece off, you should have heard their gasps. A few of the boys got very silly about it (their usual), so I gave them my stern “take this seriously or else” speech, and we were good to go for the rest.

Green guy

Once we had only a head and shoulders left, I told them we needed to rebuild my friend with kindness. I asked for ideas of how we could help my friend feel better. For each kind idea they shared, I taped a piece of the person back on. Then, we talked about how the kind acts helped a lot, but the person doesn’t quite look the same as before.

There are scars. Scars from mean words and mean actions. My third graders told me that when someone is mean to you, you remember it, even after they’ve apologized. My friend with scars all over his body showed us how we can feel on the inside when someone is mean to us.

While the meanness hasn’t ceased completely, the visual left its mark on my students.

I hung up my scarred friend in my room for reminders to be nice, because no one likes to feel all cut up.

Compliments web

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In one of my fourth grade classes, there’s been a change in the last month. The students went from being very engaged in their weekly Community Circles, to disengaged, barely sharing anything, staring blankly at me and each other, etc. I wondered what the change meant and why it happened, so we talked about it in the circle…..I got nothing. Sooooo, I decided they needed some help engaging with one another again like a classroom community should.

Enter the compliments web. I’ve done webs before, usually in the beginning of the year to discuss how each of us are an important part of the community, each playing a role on the team, and how we need each other to do our part so the community stays healthy and happy.

This time, we focused on giving the person you roll the ball of string to a meaningful, specific compliment. We work on giving meaningful compliments all year (nothing like “I like your shirt,” “I think you’re nice,” and I don’t even let them say “Thanks for being a good friend” anymore because it’s not specific enough).

Here are some pictures of their work as a class to create something together.

This is the web just getting started.

This is the web just getting started.

Each student, upon receiving the ball of string and a compliment, had to thank the person, then wrap the string around a finger so they didn’t drop it, and send it on to someone else.

compliments web2a

Here is the web almost complete.

Some of their directions were to use self-control, meaning they were not allowed to pull, shake, or drop their string. We discussed how doing so was not doing their part to successfully make the web.

compliments web3a

After completing the web, we all stood to see the shapes.

Furthering their teamwork, all students had to stand in their spots, at the same time, to see their web in the air.

compliments web4a

Students began talking about the shapes and designs they saw in their web.

Some of the meaningful compliments given were: “I like it when you help others on their work after you’re done,” “Thank you for always including me at recess,” and “I like how you check to see if I’m alright when I’m sad.” Some students needed help from others to come up with a meaningful compliment. I encouraged this, as it was furthering their teamwork and helping one another to complete the task.

compliments web5a

More sharing of designs and patterns they saw.

When we returned to a sitting position, we discussed how it felt to give and to receive compliments.

As a side note, the student in the bottom right of the picture above, has been asking to do this activity since the beginning of the year. I’m glad we finally made time to do it!

This activity got them engaged, interacting, working together as a team, using self-control, and sharing positivity, which is much needed as spring time rolls around!

Kindness Matters

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You know all those new and exciting plans you make at the start of a new school year? Well, guess what? I put one of my ideas into action! Here it is…

I wanted a way to make kindness more cool and routine at my school among students and staff. I came across various lessons and bulletin boards, so I decided to create my own version.

The Kindness Matters Bulletin Board was created in December. The purpose of it is to encourage all students and staff to look out for kind acts, write them on a colorful post-it, and stick it on the board for everyone to appreciate. It’s a twist to the “see it, say it, share it” mantra.

I introduced the bulletin board idea in all K-5 classrooms by reading Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson and then doing a demonstration of dropping stones into a bowl of water to watch the ripple effect. As we dropped each stone (starting small and getting bigger), the students named a kind act that each stone represented, and we discussed how kindness ripples out to others and comes back to you. It was a really neat activity!

Here’s a picture of the bulletin board about a week after we started:

Kindness matter board before

Here’s a picture of the bulletin board about a month after we started:

Kindness matters bulletin board

As you can see, it’s filling up! When it’s completely full, I plan to take down some of the oldest ones to make room for new post-its.

Here are some examples of acts of kindness that students and staff have written and/or drawn for the board:

Post-it1

Post-it2

Post-it3

Post-its

I have a few kindergarten and first grade students who show up to my room almost every day with a new act of kindness they’ve seen to write down. It’s adorable. I also experienced the delight of seeing a group of fifth graders huddled around each other in the hallway – as I approached, I heard one of them say, “Yeah, write that down!” and I could only imagine they were up to no good – lo and behold, they were writing things down for the bulletin board! What a nice surprise!

Hopefully the momentum continues! It is a great morale booster for our whole school community. If I’m ever in need of a smile, I go to the board and fill up on kindness!