Teaching Tough Topics
Teen Mental Health: How to Discuss With Students
Editor’s note: Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith is a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher’s Guide each month.
A few years ago, I got an email from a former student. She was a high school junior at the time, and she wrote to voice a valid concern, one I hadn’t thought of before.
She had remembered that during middle school health class we had talked about not using the words “gay” or “retarded” as insults, and suggested I do a similar lesson with students about the term "OCD," as she was frustrated by people using it to refer to someone who was very neat or organized. She felt that by throwing the expression around so loosely, they were making light of a disorder that can have a severe impact on those who suffer.
This was an excellent point—OCD is about so much more than being neat or conscious about germs. Thankfully, Choices' new mental health feature, "I Had Depression", introduces readers to Sammy, who suffered from OCD that centered on her academic performance and a debilitating fear of failure. Now on the road to recovery, she’s determined to show kids like her that they’re not alone.
Naturally, reading her story took me back to that email from my former student. I’m not sure if she wrote to me because a friend or loved one was suffering from OCD, or if she herself had been recently diagnosed—but it didn’t matter. Her advocacy reminded me that as a health teacher, I had an obligation not only to teach students about mental health issues, but to also teach them to be mindful and supportive of anyone who might be suffering.
Here are four more ways you can keep that lesson in mind while teaching teens about mental and emotional health in the classroom.
1. Ensure a safe environment for all.
As teachers, we all want to make sure our students feel safe. However, in health class, where we often ask them to reflect on and share information about their personal health, this takes on a heightened level of importance. A safe and compassionate environment can be established early on by having the class set norms or expectations about how they will treat each other and foster a culture of respect.
2. Break down stigma and use inclusive language.
With about one in five teens dealing with symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other emotional health issues, we need to make sure students understand that this is an issue that impacts us all, either directly or indirectly. There should be no shame in talking about mental illness, just as there isn’t any when we talk about physical illness.
Teachers can do this by normalizing the use of mental health support and showing students first-hand accounts of teens dealing with stigma. You can start with the profiles in Choices, and then introduce students to more real kids on TeenMentalHealth.org. (Using this site will also introduce students to a collection of powerful resources, should they ever need it.)
3. Avoid overgeneralizations.
As my former student pointed out, that “one-size-fits-all” type of language can really alienate teens. I can still remember my high school health teacher—aka the football coach—describing eating disorders in such an extreme way that it caused those of us who needed help to immediately shut down.
People who are suffering from anxiety, depression, OCD, and other emotional health issues are so much more than their struggles, and their symptoms and triggers can’t all be found in a textbook. Encourage students to learn more about mental health by exploring advocacy groups and online resources where they can get a more comprehensive view.
4. Involve the counselors and don’t go it alone.
Education requires a team of support, just as recovery does. When you create a safe space and break down stigma, you can expect students to open up and share, whether that’s in their journals, one-to-one, or during a class discussion.
If someone shares something that concerns you, pull them aside after class to make sure they’ve talked to someone about it—and then let the counselors know. Most of us are not trained mental health practitioners, so it’s important we get support for our students from those who are.
For more, check out the resources for families and educators from The National Association of School Psychologists.
10 Tips for Discussing Locker Room Talk With Teens
Many of you have told us that your students have questions about "locker room talk" issues that have come up in the news in the last few months. That's why, in the April 2017 issue of Choices, we take a look at this sensitive subject with We're Standing Up for Respect. The goal of the piece is to de-politicize the issue, to separate it from the election and the candidates--and to help students see the power of their words, and embrace their potential to shift our culture from one that can be sexist and misogynist, to one that treats everyone equally.
We realize this can be a charged issue, so we spoke with Tala Manassah, deputy executive director at Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, for tips on the most thoughtful, effective, and engaging ways to approach this topic in your classroom. Here are ten meaningful tips to keep in mind:
1. Approach this topic by fostering a sense of community and trust in your classroom: Reiterate that all opinions will be respected, and that interruptions will not be tolerated. (If you need more great suggestions on fostering classroom respect, Morningside Center has got you covered.)
2. Consider having your students move their desks or chairs into a circle formation, or if suitable, take them outside to stand in a circle. This will naturally create an environment in which they're looking each other in the eye--seeing each other beyond politics, and as peers.
3. Make clear that while this has been a hot topic in current events, it's not actually about politics--it's about the power of language, the potential for negative language to lead to harmful actions, and the importance of respecting those who are different from us--whether because of race, gender, sexual orientation, or anything else (including, yes, political views!). Be prepared for the conversation to possibly touch on related issues like bullying, racism, violence, and other forms of mistreatment of others.
4. Drive home that just because they may not have personally engaged in or been on the receiving end of "locker room talk," students all have a responsibility to proactively do what they can to eliminate this kind of talk and the culture it creates. For example, talk about what they can do as a bystander (see our tips from HollaBack and learn more at here), and actions they can take before they're ever even put in that situation (like our pledge below!).
5. Explain to students that the person on the receiving end of negative talk has the power to decide whether that language upsets or offends them; the person making the comments doesn't get to decide how that person "should" feel. If you feel that a line has been crossed, you are entitled to that feeling and don't need to justify, suppress, or silence it!
6. Talk about the power in numbers to do good--how finding like-minded allies can help you stand up to bullies, seek help, and make positive changes.
7. Explore issues of image: How do your students think of masculinity and toughness, and how does that lead to positive or negative behavior? Same goes for femininity. Make clear that they have the power--the agency--to defy stereotypes and stand up for what they know to be right.
8. Recognize that not every student will participate in the conversation. Some students may feel uncomfortable verbalizing their feelings, and that's ok.
9. Emphasize that adults are there to help them when they encounter locker room talk or any other divisive or dehumanizing talk. Make clear to them that seeking help is not "tattling," and let them know who, in your school, is best to turn to for support--whether your school has a counselor or administrator who is trained to handle these issues.
10. Be sure to offer resources for more information and support, like these:
- National Street Harassment Hotline
- National Sexual Assault Hotline
- National Domestic Violence Hotline
- Crisis Text Line
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline
- Trevor Lifeline (for LGBTQ identified individuals)
- Crash Override (for online harassment)
Click on the image below to read this month's feature story, "We're Standing Up for Respect" and download our pledge against locker-room talk!
For more information on making your classroom a more tolerant and respectful environment, be sure to check out the blog post below, Anti-Bias Education: 6 Ways to Create a More Respectful Classroom Environment:
What You Need to Know About Teaching Eating Disorders
Editor's note: Eating disorders are always a tricky subject. That's why Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith--a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher's Guide each month--worked with a specialist to make sure she handled the topic appropriately in class. Follow these tips to ensure your lesson has the right impact.
Several years ago, there were a few cases of severe eating disorders that popped up in our school. Wanting to make sure we were supporting those students on their road to recovery, we brought in Dr. Lauren Muhlheim, an eating disorder specialist and clinical psychologist, to work with all members of the staff. Dr. Muhlheim's goal was to guide us to develop curriculum and school policies that could help all of our students maintain a healthy body image while we supported those who were already struggling.
It was an impactful week for me, as I had to take a critical look at the way I had been addressing nutrition and body image in my classroom. During Dr. Muhlheim's visit, I sat in on workshops she did with faculty, students, and parents. We were also fortunate enough to have her facilitate some departmental meetings with our Health and PE teachers, where we really had to reevaluate our curriculum and approach.
Nobody wants to find out that what they've been teaching is wrong, especially when it could potentially be harming their students. But health education is constantly changing, and at the time of Dr. Muhlheim's visit, the obesity epidemic was on the rise. Health and PE teachers everywhere were passionately trying to reverse the trend.
What I learned during her visit though is that the roots of eating disorders and obesity are the same. If we wanted all of our students to have a healthy relationship with their bodies and with food, there were some changes that we needed to make right away. These key takeaways still shape my teaching practice today.
1. DON'T explicitly teach kids about eating disorder behaviors. DO address them if they're brought up.
Teaching kids about the specifics of eating disorders might introduce them to behaviors that they weren't yet aware of. In fact, many teens develop disordered behaviors after watching a movie about them or, sadly enough, learning about them in health class.
Of course, this isn't a topic that should be ignored. By focusing on awareness and the influence of media, you can stir up a sense of cognitive dissonance in students that will prompt them to look out for themselves and their friends.
2. DON'T demonize obesity. DO teach kids to love and take care of the body they're in.
This is one I always thought I was getting right. As someone who struggled with obesity as a teenager, I wanted nothing more than to help kids from going down the same path that I did. Back then, we used to watch the Jamie Oliver TED talk on obesity and a DVD on soda called Obesity in a Bottle.
While all well intentioned, it hadn't occurred to me how such messaging could shame the students who might be worried about their weight, and frighten the ones who weren't. Dr. Muhlheim shared with us an excellent body image curriculum, Healthy Bodies by Kathy Kater. It teaches all kids to love and care for the body they're in.
3. DON'T focus on calories, numbers, and the fear of getting fat. DO focus on nutrients, cooking, and the love of real food.
When nutrition education focuses on calories, fat grams, and other numbers-based methodology, students can grasp onto unhealthy fixations about what they can and can't eat. It's better to teach students about all of the wonderful ways food can help us and how fun and tasty it can be to make good choices. After Dr. Muhlheim's visit, I scrapped the fast food project that had my students looking at the ingredients and nutritional information on fast food, and took them into the kitchen to make smoothies instead.
We all want what's best for our students, and sometimes that means changing things up--especially when the experts say that we should!
Want more tips on tackling eating disorder prevention in your school? Check out the Educator's Toolkit from NEDA, the National Association of Eating Disorders.
MORE BODY IMAGE AND EATING DISORDERS CONTENT FROM CHOICES
Take a look at this debate with your students. Do advertisements create unrealistic standards of beauty for teens?
Ninety percent of girls say they have been bullied based on the way they look. Teach teens about the risks of body-shaming language.
Binge-Eating Disorder is sometimes misdiagnosed simply as overeating, but it's a dangerous illness that requires professional help.
How to Talk About Transgender Identity in Your Classroom
Editor's Note: Many of you have written to us for help answering questions about gender identity in your classroom. Whether you're addressing this complex issue in a lesson or simply need to support a student one-on-one, we hope this Tough Topics Guide will give you the background you need. Special thanks to The Trevor Project for helping us put it together.
Exploring and determining one's identity is a lifelong journey--one that is often particularly painful in the teenaged years. Your students are trying to figure out who they are, and studies show that for this generation, gender is an even more shapeless piece of the puzzle. Over half of gen Z say they know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns such as "they," and nearly 70 percent believe that public spaces should offer gender-neutral bathrooms (full survey available here).
Of course, transgender and gender topics are made all the more complicated by the fact that administrators, parents, and state governments may each have different ideas of how to handle them. In the interest of helping you create a classroom that is inclusive and welcoming to students of all genders, we reached out to The Trevor Project, the leading organization dedicated to crisis intervention for LGBTQ youth, to answer some frequently asked questions.
1. What does it mean to be transgender?
Transgender is an umbrella term to describe the experience of a person's gender identity being different from what they were assigned at birth. When a baby is born, doctors typically determine its sex based on one thing: its genitals. If sex refers to one's body parts, then gender encapsulates literally everything else. Some people are assigned a gender at birth and continue to identify with that gender for the rest of their lives. Those who don't might identify as transgender or gender neutral.
Importantly, one's gender identity does not automatically correspond to their sexual orientation. Sexual orientation refers to whom someone feels attracted, while gender identity refers to a person's internal sense of gender or self.
2. How many transgender teens are there?
It's difficult if not impossible to set a number of transgender teens or to assess the percentage of the general population who does or does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. A more striking statistic is that 41 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide in their lifetimes.
3. What pronouns do I use?
At the beginning of the school year or term, you may consider distributing worksheets to learn about each student, including items like nickname, favorite color, allergies, and which pronouns they'd like use to use in reference to them. Keep in mind that their answers might change during their time in your classroom, and that declaring one's pronouns can be a sensitive milestone in the life of a transgender or gender-neutral person. In particular with teenagers, it's possible that they might use their preferred pronoun with their group of friends, but their parent or guardian might not yet be aware of this.
4. How can I create a classroom that is inclusive?
You can teach students to think critically around the ways gender and the gender binary are social constructs. You can include LBGTQ characters and histories in your curriculum. A simple way is to use gender-neutral language when addressing the class in person or on forms, such as saying "everyone" or "folks" to get their attention instead of "boys and girls." Outside of teaching, you can make it clear that you are available as a supportive and private resource. The Trevor Project also features online seminars and simulations for youth-serving professionals.
5. How do I address students (or parents) who say being transgender is "wrong?"
You can immediately intervene to explain that someone's identity can't be right or wrong, and that you prefer open-minded and kind discussion in your classroom. In terms of suspected or overt bullying, you can work within your administration's bullying policy and remind both parties that you are available for separate and private discussion.
6. How can our school better support transgender students?
You may want to examine or reevaluate your school's policies on student health, safety, bullying, and parental relationships to make sure they are up-to-date and inclusive of gender and sexuality issues.
7. What resources should I be providing to transgender students?
Teachers can order free Trevor Project Resource Posters here to make sure LGBTQ students know they are not alone and that there is someone they can reach out to 24/7. Trevor Project's Pinterest page also includes educational resources, infographics, films, and more.
More resources for teachers from Choices and The Trevor Project:
- To help your students better understand socially constructed gender roles, consider using our May 2016 cover story, Who Said It?, as part of your lesson.
- Interested in spearheading a training program to help your school's staff better understand and connect with LGBTQ youth? Visit The Trevor Project's training page for more information on its in-person or online training programs.
- For help teaching this topic, The Trevor Project also has a fantastic hub of activities for your curriculum and classroom.
- As mentioned earlier, 41 percent of transgender people attempt suicide in their lifetimes. Check out The Trevor Project's Suicide Prevention Page, which outlines a model school district policy for suicide prevention--and how to create your own.
The Best Way to Talk About Body Image
You've been telling us that your students are interested in body image issues, and in the December/January issue, we have a hot-button debate [link] that will get them talking. (Don't worry, that's a good thing! With some proper prep, that is. More on that in a minute...)
In Should Body-Shaming Ads Be Banned? we raise the question: Should there be government policies put in place to limit or ban ads that promote unhealthy body ideals? In this four-page story, your students will:
- Meet two students with differing opinions on the topic
- Learn about the complexities of body image ideals in the media
- Discover their own opinion--and how they can take action
It's a tricky debate question for sure, but tackling this topic can be life-changing for your students. Right now, 69 percent of teens say media influences their concept of the ideal body shape, and more than half of teen girls report using unhealthy weight control behaviors. We checked in with Kristen Snow, a consultant for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) who specializes in body image education, for some Do's and Don'ts to help frame the discussion.
*Explain the difference between "healthy" and "beautiful." The trend in media is to describe thinner models who look a certain way as healthy (think: "Strong is the new sexy"). It can be confusing for students and make them equate health with outward appearance. Instead, stress that it's impossible to tell if someone's healthy or not from the way they look, and that there is no single version of a healthy man or woman.
*Dig into the advertising industry's goals. Students are slammed with 7.5 hours of media each day, says Kristen, and in those hours, they're likely seeing imagery that can lead to body dissatisfaction. Asking questions such as, "What do you think they're trying to do in this ad?" and "What is the goal of this ad?" helps students see hidden agendas. In doing so, you can disarm the power these ads have over their beliefs. "When kids understand that the fashion, diet, and plastic surgery industries are profiting from these ideals to the tune of $60 billion, it leads to some lightbulb moments," explains Kristen.
*Encourage "body activism." When you're constantly bombarded with one definition of beauty, it's easy for students who don't look a certain way start to feel powerless. In fact, half of teens say media ads make them want to lose weight. Even bringing this statistic to light can increase awareness and get teens to start challenging their own thinking. Reinforce the notion that they do have power--the power to not be impacted by these ads, to realize that beauty comes in all forms, and to take action to change the standards we see. Encourage them to voice their own beliefs and write to change-makers.
*Model poor body talk or allow teens to body shame themselves and others. Make sure students understand that your classroom is a body-positive zone, and start using--and encouraging students to use--compliments that aren't about appearance (think: "You look so happy today," or "You overcame that challenge."). We have a great Advocacy in Action activity and worksheet on this--check out the November/December Teacher's Guide [link] for more info! You may also want to explore our feature story on Body Bullies (from the September 2014 issue).
*Discuss specific disordered behaviors, even as a cautionary tale. "In recent years we've moved away from discussing specifics around unhealthy eating behaviors, such as binging, purging, calorie counting, or restricting, since it can be triggering to students," explains Kristen. Instead, when discussing ways to combat feelings of body dissatisfaction around these ads, keep it positive. Encourage students to be mindful of their own feelings and physical sensations, with statements like: "How does seeing this ad make you feel?" and "What would make you feel better about your body today?"
*Miss an opportunity to help. Students who constantly speak poorly about others or who seem to do a fair amount of negative self-talk in class could be having a hard time with body image, says Kristen. Check out this comprehensive list of warning signs, here, and work with the guidance office and parents to discuss the issue and bring in early intervention, if necessary. NEDA's Helpline is also a great resource for educators and their students: 1-800-931-2237.
- NEDA's comprehensive toolkit for educators includes teaching materials and a guide for helping at-risk students.
- The Body Project is an excellent eating-disorder prevention program for young women who have experienced body dissatisfaction. Learn more about the program, including how to be a facilitator, here.
How to Talk About Drug Addiction in the Midst of an Epidemic
Our November-December issue features an incredibly poignant piece on the ways in which our country's heroin epidemic has devastated one Connecticut community. Through the stories of four teens touched by opiate addiction, "Heroin Took Over Our Town" will help your students:
- Recognize addiction as a disease
- Learn how and why drug use hurts the individual
- Understand the ways in which drug use affects friends and family too
No doubt, it's a crucial article for your students right now, but the startling statistics that give this story such urgency also introduce a challenge for teachers. In your class, you may have teens struggling with opiate use themselves, or a student dealing with a volatile situation at home due to a family member's addiction. That's exactly why we reached out to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids to get their advice for navigating this topic with honesty, respect, and sensitivity.
Pay attention to your word choice. The language we use to describe the disease of addiction can either perpetuate or overcome the stereotypes, stigma, and lack of empathy. So try your very best to paint addiction as a health issue, not a moral failure. For example:
- Instead of calling someone an addict, junkie, or druggie, say "a person with a substance use disorder" or "a person with an addiction." This way, the disease does not define them.
- Instead of "clean" or "sober" say "in recovery."
- Instead of "drug abuse" say "drug use."
- Instead of "enable" or "co-dependent" say "supporting a loved one" or "advocating for a loved one's healthcare."
- Instead of "relapse" say "setback." (Relapse doesn't mean failure--it can be a learning experience.)
Offer a shame-free discussion zone. Explain to your class up front that addiction is a disease, and like with any disease, many people have it in their families. There's nothing to be ashamed of, and the only way it will be discussed is with sensitivity. If students are then vocal about the struggles of a friend or family member, don't panic. It may be helpful and comforting for your students to hear that others have addiction in the family. Some resources to share:
- These Stories of Hope offer proof that addiction is treatable and recovery is possible.
- This comprehensive list may encourage a student who is struggling silently to reach out for help.
Just preach "drugs are bad." Instead, be empathetic of the challenges teens face, and ask questions that get students thinking through the consequences of using drugs--as well as the alternatives. Some examples:
- Reinforce that when a person is high, his or her judgment is not what it ordinarily is. Ask: "In what ways can that put a person at risk?" (Use the Partnership's Marijuana Talk Kit for more help with this approach.)
- Explain that, often unknowingly, many teens turn to a substance to numb themselves and avoid their feelings. Ask: "What are some healthy ways you can cope?" (Possible answers: yoga, reading, sports, deep breathing!)
- Acknowledge that it's not easy to go against the crowd. Then say, "Let's brainstorm. What are some ways that you can turn down an offer to use drugs - ideas that you would actually feel comfortable saying out loud?"
- Gently encourage students to reach out for help if they or a friend or family member is struggling. Ask: "Who in your life can you talk to if you ever need support or advice?"
Normalize drug use. When speaking with teens, we don't want them to think "everyone is doing it." So how do you communicate the gravity of our country's current addiction crisis without normalizing drug use? Easy: Point out how many teens aren't using drugs (77% of all teens ages 12-17 have never used an illicit drug, according to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health) while emphasizing the point of this particular story: For those that suffer from addiction, it is a brutal disease--and its toll on one person can send shockwaves through families, schools, and communities.
Please visit the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids for additional information:
Does The Election Have a Place in Your Classroom?
No one can ignore this year's election. From the attack ads on TV, to minute-by-minute trending stories on social media, to campaign signs in your hometown, political talk is literally everywhere you look. And while you thought Choices might be a safe oasis, we couldn't shy away from this crucial opportunity to help your students understand voting as an essential form of advocacy, and to help them see that civic engagement is a fundamental life skill. In a special 4-page election edition of our Changemaker series in the November/December issue, your students will:
- Meet two teens working on opposing presidential campaigns
- Be introduced to the key issues that have the power to shape their futures
- Learn the impact they can have, whether or not they're old enough to go to the polls
The story itself has spectacular questions and activities (check out the Teacher's Guide!), but we also felt it was our duty to provide you with some additional guidance. We know that bringing up the election in the classroom feels intimidating and tricky—especially in a political season where much of the discussion is trending toward divisiveness—but it's extremely important. We spoke to Paula McAvoy and Dianna Hess, co-authors of The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, to get a list of simple Dos & Don'ts to help keep the focus on the critical learning piece here: the importance of civic engagement, and how to help your teens understand why this election matters for their future.
- Encourage critical thinking. When you bring up the presidential election, even in the most non-partisan context, you can not be completely sure where the conversation will go. But you can be armed with questions to inform and frame discussions, so students can learn to think more critically about the candidates' platforms and the media coverage surrounding them. (One great question to keep in your back pocket: Imagine someone who disagrees with you. What is the best argument they could make?)
- Teach students the difference between "campaign talk" and "classroom talk." Campaign talk often simplifies issues and removes nuance to rally people behind a candidate. In the classroom, discussion of politics needs to be academic, informed, and respectful. It needs to consider all context and points of view. Reinforce the norms of “classroom talk” by stopping students from making flippant comments, like calling an idea "stupid" or referring a candidate as an "idiot." (And make sure you don’t do this , either!)
- Structure your discussion. You will probably find that your students love to talk about voting and the issues that matter to them, but for some, a classroom-wide conversation can feel intimidating. Consider pairing students up so that they can dicuss their own beliefs and teach each other about their opinions before moving on to a larger group discussion. Emphasize that it is OK to respectfully disagree with someone! This is how we learn.
- Ask, "What do you think?" . . . Without some advance prep, that is. Teachers should not, for example, say to a classroom of students: Yesterday, X candidate said Y thing about Z issue. What do you think? This invites students to toss out any idea they've heard about a topic—informed or uninformed. This will likely take the discussion somewhere you never intended. Only ask if you've given them all of the information needed to form an informed opinion.
- Ignore other offices! There are senatorial and house elections in every single state, plus important state and local races too. The Presidential race is surely inciting the most interest, but it is your job to use this interest to encourage students to think about the other leadership positions that may have an impact on their lives.
- Preach your views. This one should be obvious, but it's worth repeating. Your aim should be to have students discussing as much as possible, and the more you talk, the less they do. That said, Hess's and McAvoy's research has found that high school students are quite open to teachers who carefully and occassionally share a view. Don't be afraid to mention that a particular issue matters to you. It's possible to show your own engagement without communicating that you have all of the right answers.
SOME ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:
- Scholastic Election 2016 - Our colleagues at Scholastic News have built a fantastic interactive hub for teachers and students of all ages, featuring news updates, info on the election process, and election-related vocab.
- ProCon.org Election 2016 - As your students take a deeper dive into what matters to them, ProCon.org's election site may prove extremely helpful. It offers reliable, sourced information on where the candidates stand on key issues.
How to Answer Students' Questions About Cancer
In the September issue, we have a special feature in our Different Like You series, which explores what it’s like to go through the treatment for cancer as a teen. Many of you will have students in your class who have, or have had, cancer, or who have family members or friends who have had the disease.
It might feel intimidating to raise the emotional concerns around cancer in the classroom, but discussing them with sensitivity can help teens process the ideas and gain a greater sense of resilience around the topic.
To help you address the most common concerns that the story might raise without evoking fear, we’ve asked for help from Ellie Paparone, an education specialist from Alex’s Lemonade Stand, a foundation that works with schools to raise money for childhood cancer research funding (read all about how to work with ALSF on a fundraising event at your school in this Ideabook post.)
Concern #1: Miya seems just like me. What is the likelihood I’ll get cancer?
Take this opportunity to share the facts: Remind students that cancer is not something contagious or common—only 1 in 285 kids will get diagnosed by the time they’re 20. Let them know that while the likelihood they’ll get cancer is rare, there are great resources available for them if it does happen. Paparone also suggests pointing to child cancer heroes such as Miya as examples of those who’ve demonstrated resilience throughout their treatment.
Concern #2: If I get cancer, will I have to go through chemo and lose my hair, like Miya?
Be honest! Let them know some treatments will be quick, non-invasive procedures that only last a month; others can be long-term and go on for 10 or more years. Miya’s story can be used to open up a dialogue around body image and health concerns—yes, hair loss can happen with chemo, but it typically grows back. You can encourage them to shift their perspective: When caused by chemo, hair loss is a tremendous sign of strength in the face of illness.
Concern #3: My parent or sibling has cancer, or died from cancer, and it’s hard to hear Miya’s story without getting emotional.
Ask the student to share their story or alternately, allow them leave the classroom if they are finding it difficult to be involved in the discussion. After the class, explain that it’s not selfish to want to discuss their experiences, and recommend the importance of reaching out when they feel sad or overwhelmed. Suggest students get involved in a support group for family members with cancer—the SuperSibs! Section of Alex’s Lemonade Stand website has great resources, as does Momcology.
Concern #5: How can I be a better friend to someone who is going through cancer?
Teens going through cancer treatment really just want to feel normal—like they are still part of life at school, explains Paparone. Here are some do’s and don’ts:
- Let your friend know that you’ll be there for them throughout the treatment.
- Tell them how brave they are and how much they are inspiring everyone at school.
- Check in with parents, siblings or a teacher before hospital visits to make sure they’re up for it.
- Use technology—text, snap, send funny You Tube videos. You don’t always have to do in-person visits. In fact, staying in touch virtually will help them feel like they’re part of everyday life at school.
- Provide words of encouragement, like, “You’ll get through this.”
- Talk only about the illness; mundane details of everyday life are okay too!
- Lose touch just because they’re not at school or at sports.
- Bring up stories you’ve heard about other people you know going through cancer, or family members who’ve passed away—it will just bring them down.
- Hide your emotions or avoid contact because you’re uncomfortable…remember that your friend is still the same person and that they’re just going through something.
Concern #6: In hearing Miya’s story, I feel so helpless. What can I do to help?
When students hear personal accounts like Miya’s, they often feel compelled to do something, but aren’t always sure where to start. Let teens know that they can raise money for research, such as through dollar drives, bowl-a-thons, mile-runs, and lemonade stands. They can also send cards to children and teens going through treatment—or even make funny videos to raise their spirits!
We hope that these ideas will help you provide a successful, constructive, and meaningful learning experience for your students. For more resources, visit this page at Alex’s Lemonade Stand, which includes resources, tips for teachers, and downloadable posters.