The difference one person can make for others

The following column originally appeared in a number of APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers during November, 2023.


The difference one person can make

for others


Recently I talked with a memorable man in his early 20s whom I’ll call “John.” John had a difficult time in high school, dropped out and worked in a restaurant. He was bored, but the money was OK, and he didn’t know what else to do.

Then one of his co-workers challenged him: “What are you doing here? You’re a citizen, you’re smart — why are you wasting your time here?” John realized the person was right. He earned his GED and was hired at an Apple Computer store to help customers. He’s been promoted and is planning to take college courses.

“I feel a lot better about myself than I did two years ago,” he told me.

That challenge changed his life. It’s a reminder of the difference one person can make. John helps bring alive two recent student surveys.

A national study, published in October in a respected publication called Education Week, found significant differences between educators and students on several questions. For subscribers, the article is here.

Educators were asked, “What, if anything, has had a negative impact on your students’ mental health?” With the option to choose multiple answers, the top selections were “bullying online/by text/social media” (70%), “concerns about how they are perceived by others” (67%), and “family” (67%). “Stress related to finishing schoolwork/homework” ranked 10th (52%), and “grades/test results” ranked 12th (51%).

Students responded quite differently. They were asked, again with the option to choose more than one answer, “In the past year, what, if anything, has had a negative impact on your mental health?” Their most frequent answer was “stress related to finishing schoolwork/homework” (34%). “Grades/test results” ranked second (28%). “Family” ranked seventh (17%). “Bullying online/by text/social media” ranked 15th (11%).

The Education Week article quoted Sharon Hoover, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. She also co-directs the National Center for School Mental Health. So I called her.


Prof. Sharon Hoover, courtesy of University of Maryland

On Oct. 26, she told me that along with 20-plus years in this field, she also has three teenagers. Her response to the national survey: “It’s not either-or. … Educators and families should pay attention to all of these things.”

She had several recommendations, including:

— “Listen to our young people; don’t make assumptions.”

— “Recognizing that schools are under pressure to help students ‘catch up’ after the pandemic, if youngsters are feeling stress about homework, discuss this to see if modifications can be made.”

— “Talk with youngsters about how they are using social media. It is not going away.”

— “Give students opportunities to help others. Altruism is a form of healing.”

— “Educators should use data to learn more about their students.”

Fortunately, Minnesota has the terrific Minnesota Student Survey. The last one was given in 2022. More than 135,000 fifth, eighth, ninth and 11th graders responded. That’s about 51% of the students enrolled in those grades. District participation is voluntary. Students and families can opt out. It’s a collaboration among several state agencies; more information is here.

District and school level results can be requested here

Here’s the full list of participating districts and charter public schools

Here’s a  partial list of participating districts and charter public schools: Aitkin Public Schools, Anoka-Hennepin School District, Bloomington Public Schools, Braham Area Schools, Brooklyn Center Community Schools, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage District 191, Caledonia Area Public Schools, Cambridge-Isanti Schools, Chisago Lakes Public Schools and Trio-Wolf Creek Online High School, Chisago City, Columbia Heights Public Schools, Delano Public Schools District, Eden Prairie Schools and PiM Arts High School in Eden Prairie, Edina Public Schools District, ISD 728 (Elk River, Otsego, Rogers, Zimmerman), Farmington Public Schools, Forest Lake Area Schools and Lakes International Language Academy (Forest Lake), Fridley Public Schools, Hopkins Public Schools, Lakeville Area Schools, Little Falls Community Schools, Milaca Public Schools, Minnetonka Public Schools, Monticello School District, North Branch Area Public Schools, Orono Independent School District 278, Osseo Area Schools, Princeton Public Schools, Richfield Public Schools and Partnership Academy (Richfield), Robbinsdale Area Schools, Rosemount Apple Valley Eagan District ISD 196, Royalton Public Schools, Rush City School District 139, Spring Lake Park Schools, St. Louis Park Public School District, Stillwater Area Public Schools ISD 834, Swanville School District, Upsala Area Schools, Waconia Public Schools, Wayzata Public Schools, Westonka Public Schools, and World Learner Charter School in Chaska.

Here are several responses that struck me from statewide data:

— 65% of fifth graders, 56% of eighth graders, 50% of ninth graders and 43% of 11th graders said they had been bullied once or more in the last 30 days.

— 79-89% of students said they could talk with a parent or guardian about problems they are having, compared to 26-31% who reported there’s an adult at school they could talk to about problems they’re having.

— 76% of 11th graders reported that an adult helped them think about options after high school; 24% said no. This despite a state law requiring every student, starting in the ninth grade, to develop post-high-school plans with educator assistance.

Hoover believes families want youngsters to “thrive, not just survive.” Using data, her recommendations and modifying some school procedures will help do that.

Joe Nathan, Ph.D., has been a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator, and PTA president. He co-directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome: