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Early learning: Suicide prevention advocate creating curriculum to encourage kindness, empathy starting in kindergarten

Mary Stover sees a need for teaching elementary school kids about traits that can set the stage for suicide prevention by teenage years. That’s because thoughts about harm to self can occur in children younger than 12, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Suicide is rare among elementary age children – 2014 CDC statistics put it at 0.17 per 100,000 in the 5-11 age group compared to 5.18 per 100,000 for ages 12-17 – but Stover believes it’s crucial to bolster concepts such as kindness and empathy in early ages, which can help lower youth suicide rates later.

“I thought, the work has to start before high school,” Stover said. “We need to get to them before they’re 8, when this ideation starts.”

With her lessons based on kindness, well-being and compassion, Stover thinks children can learn the skills that build self-esteem and resilience, while reducing bullying, self-harm and suicide, beginning in kindergarten through fifth grade. A Spokane resident, she’s working with Educational Service District 101 to launch the free lessons as a trial among at least two schools this fall.

There’s a personal reason she’s doing this, as well. In 2015, Stover’s close friend in Spokane lost a preadolescent son to suicide. Stover began seeking earlier prevention strategies that became the focus of her doctoral studies.

The curriculum would be taught by a volunteer from the community with a background or certification in mental health for one hour a week for six weeks, she said. However, she may lead the first trial sessions until volunteers are trained and available. “It takes only about six hours in total.”

“In my dissertation, I asked Washington state mental health professionals what they thought would be best. They all said it needs to be a constant curriculum that’s offered in the classroom,” along with more aligned community cooperation. “I thought, I’ll start with the curriculum.”

Generally, the curriculum builds on traits, encouraging kindness, compassion and empathy – all toward prevention of bullying, violence and suicide. She describes the program as similar to how Junior Achievement volunteers come into classrooms with support materials presented in short segments. She began in 2017 to develop the short educational sessions, which are nearly complete, to be offered to public schools statewide.

The volunteer teacher would focus on the various traits, so lessons don’t use the word suicide, she said.

Stover also runs the nonprofit ALifeYOUnited for preadolescent suicide prevention that provides free outreach materials. Using donated funds, the nonprofit will offer the curriculum to the schools and train volunteers at no cost.

In January, she met with ESD 101 behavioral health leaders and heard from statewide coordinators in that role. She heard that they want the curriculum, and members are helping her find which districts would want to do a trial run to measure its effectiveness, she said. Mental health issues have spiked during the pandemic.

“We’ve had a mental health crisis during the pandemic; we had one before that, but it got worse,” she said.

In kindergarten, activities are geared to help children start thinking about kindness for themselves, toward others and how their actions affect those around them, she said.

It’s good to instill that early because by about age 7 or 8, there might be the beginning of self-esteem issues or when some kids start bullying behavior, Stover said.

“They first learn basically what kindness is, then how to be kind to themselves in the second week, to their school in the third week, to their classroom the fourth week, at home in the fifth week and in the sixth week in the community,” she said.

By age 7, children begin to view things more personally, she said. “If we can teach them to be kind to themselves, right off, we have a better chance of helping them be more gracious with themselves.”

By first grade, the curriculum brings in concepts of belonging, she said. There might be a divorce or loss in the family for kids.

Some children might begin to think they don’t belong anywhere, “so we want to create a belonging again with this pattern of you belong to yourself, you belong in your classroom, in the school, at home and in the community,” she said. “It’s the same pattern with every grade level because we want them to remember they belong here.”

“A lot of mental health issues come when children feel like they don’t belong anywhere. A lot of children during the pandemic lost the sense of belonging because their whole world was turned upside down. Some children rely on schools for meals, for compassion, for friendships, for community.”

In second grade, the lessons teach about resilience, which Stover argues isn’t something kids just pick up. She also encourages parents to show failure in front of their children, rather than hide it, so kids can watch what it looks like to pick yourself up again and bounce back.

The curriculum in third grade goes over compassion: Are you being too hard on yourself? Do you think and speak kindly about yourself and others? What does it look like to reach out and be compassionate to others?

“All of this is in an effort to reduce any bullying, to reduce any violence toward self or others, because if the whole school is talking about kindness, compassion and resilience and belonging, it starts to have an effect,” she said.

“In fourth grade, we teach mindfulness, and really, that’s awareness of how is everyone around you doing and how are you doing? What are you paying attention to?

“How are you mindful with yourself, how are you mindful of others, and how are my actions affecting others? How are their actions affecting me, and how do I handle that?”

In fifth grade, the curriculum focuses on understanding responsibility. She said that after learning about kindness, resilience, belonging, compassion and awareness, what is each student’s responsibility now?

“You are responsible for your behavior, for how you treat yourself and other people. Is it OK to hurt yourself? No, it isn’t. … We teach them those skills, and they build on each other for a reason so by the time they’re in fifth grade and if one of their friends is saying, ‘I don’t want to wake up, or I want to run in front of a car,’ then they know to get help, to tell an adult.”

Meanwhile, Stover will continue with her work in ALifeYOUnited. Since 2016, the nonprofit’s members have handed out thousands of resource cards and soft bracelets with crisis information imprinted on the interior of the band. Young people can wear them or give to others. Along with nonprofit work and research, she’s a full-time student adviser for Washington Virtual Academies

Stover received a master’s degree in communication and leadership from Gonzaga University and doctorate in interdisciplinary leadership from Creighton University.

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