Posts tagged “suicide

No Sense of Agency


The cover of this month’s (Dec 2105) Atlantic is compelling. Set against a blank white background a teenager stands, his head down, one hand up covering his eyes. Next to him the headline The Silicon Valley Suicides, along with the gut-wrenching subtitle Why are so many kids killing themselves in Palo Alto?

The article explores the impact that student deaths have on local high schools and middle schools, as well as the nightmare that families and communities must work through when a child makes this final decision. While it was difficult to ask Why? in the midst of such indescribable loss, parents, classmates, and community members did comment on possible factors. A re-occurring theme has to do with pressure students feel to succeed. This pressure can begin at home through the high and very specific expectations of parents and then is applied and intensified at school both academically (the push for honors classes and grades) and non-academically (though non-curricular activities like sports, music, drama, leadership positions, internships, etc.).


The amount of work that teenagers are attempting to accomplish, both inside and outside of the classroom, is simply overwhelming. Lack of sleep and anxiety are constant companions of kids trying to live like this. The situation is made more complex since students themselves outwardly seem in agreement with their lifestyles. They often express a desire to do better, to be more organized, to study harder, and to accomplish more. Who are we, as adults, to get in the way of their goals?

It may be, though, that we do need to get in the way of their goals. We must not forget, for instance, that students are trying to succeed within a system that those preceding them have created. They can’t be blamed for wanting to get over a bar that adults have set for them.


I was first alerted to this problem through the work of Tom Amato, director of the Napa Valley Youth Advocacy Center, and his connection to Denise Clark Pope, author of Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students (2003). Pope, a professor at Stanford, described students who were caught up in the chase for success, a chase that had almost nothing to do with actual learning and everything to do with looking good and getting into an elite university. Amato also introduced me to Madeline Levine, a child psychologist from the Bay Area, and her book, The Price of Privilege (2006), which described how kids awash in wealth can be so alone and feel so misunderstood.


Levine was quoted in the recent Atlantic and I think the point she makes is crucial. Of Levine the article shares that –

What disturbs her the most is that the teenagers she sees no longer rebel. A decade ago, she used to referee family fights in her office, where the teens would tell their parents, “This is bad for me! I’m not doing this.” Now, she reports, the teenagers have no sense of agency. They still complain bitterly about all the same things, but they feel they have no choice.

The phrase no sense of agency originally struck me because of its creativity, but as I thought about its meaning it began to strike me because of its awful implications. I became filled with sadness as I thought about teenagers with an identity and sense of purpose crafted and forced on them by their parents or the school system. I came to realize that no sense of agency is another way of saying giving up. As much as we may have goals for our students, I am confident none of us intentionally wants to direct them in such a way that they give up. This isn’t about us forcing students to adopt our pictures of success or even about doing what’s good for them. It’s about the Caring Habits of listening, supporting, and accepting, and staying in a connected relationship with students no matter what.


It was hard reading the article and hearing parents of a child who committed suicide wonder aloud about how they could have missed the signs. I have no easy answer for that. Based on the ideas of choice theory, though, I can offer the following –

+ Stay connected. Positive relationships are everything. As Glasser would say, “As long as you’re connected you have influence.” This is why the Caring Habits are so important.

+ Seek to help children and students form their own identity and create their own life purpose. It is all too easy for us to attempt to meet our own need for Power and Success through the success of our children. This agenda is unfair to the life journey of our child or student. And it is unhealthy for us.

+ Stop being enamored by the elusive chase for the top, especially when the end in itself seems to be an elite university and a high-paying job. School shouldn’t be a competition, but instead should involve the engaging, joyful pursuit of learning, real learning.


Without faultfinding, Glasser would have had much to say after reading The Silicon Valley Suicides. Find out why in his biography, Champion of Choice.

The book that connects the dots of William Glasser's ideas and his career.

The book that connects the dots of William Glasser’s ideas and his career.

Don’t Always Believe What You Think

The concept of the basic needs is one of the core beliefs of choice theory. As you read today’s blog post you will come to see just how basic and how important these needs are. A quick review – choice theory describes how everyone is born with a unique set of basic needs. I believe these needs include a physiological need, that being the need for survival, and several psychological needs, that being the need for purpose and meaning, the need for love, belonging, and connection with others, the need for success and the power to achieve worthy goals, the need to be free, and the need to experience fun and joy. From the moment we are born, all of our behavior is an attempt to meet one or more of these needs. During the Soul Shapers workshop, after we have more carefully reviewed the basic needs, I ask the question, “Which need do you think ultimately is in the driver’s seat? Which need do you think has the greatest influence on our behavior?” Usually, the responses quickly indicate that the survival need would have the last word when it comes to our behavior. The feeling is that we are programmed to survive and the survival mechanism would therefore have the greatest influence.

Headlines from this past week reminded us that this is not the case. New sobering and disturbing statistics reveal that more people are taking their own lives than ever before in the U.S. Data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that over the last year more people died from suicide—38,364—than in motor vehicle accidents—33,687. That is nearly 5,000 more deaths. It is significant, too, that it is middle-aged Americans, the baby boomers, making by far the biggest leap in the suicide increase.

One thing we can take from this statistic (and this is a statistic that should very much get our attention) is the incredible power of the psychological needs. Our logic wants to believe that the need for survival would ultimately hold sway, yet this data is a stark reminder that this just isn’t true. Each of the psychological needs, when perceived as not being met, could lead a person to overrule his/her need to survive.

One of the reasons I so strongly believe in choice theory is that people who understand it’s principles and begin to implement the principles in their lives enter into a kind of personal stability from which they can process life more effectively. Choice theory doesn’t offer a perfect stability, but it helps. I personally have melancholy tendencies and am very capable of choosing to get “down in the dumps” or of choosing to depress, yet coming to understand and appreciate my choice power has helped a great deal. It is this choice power, including the concepts of the basic needs and the quality world that I so much want teachers and students to understand and practice, as well.

From a secular perspective, choice theory offers hope. We can come to recognize when a basic need isn’t being met and begin to take steps, no matter how tiny those steps might be, that will bring us closer to stability and happiness. When choice theory is understood and implemented from a spiritual perspective the results can become even more hopeful and even powerful. Students can be taught about the basic needs and the ways in which those needs urge us to behave. Students can be taught the concept of the quality world and the central importance of the pictures we place in our quality world. I see this kind of understanding as preventive mental health of the highest order.

A bumper sticker worth noting read, “Don’t Always Believe What You Think.” Choice theory helps us to understand how this bumper stick, especially relevant regarding today’s topic, might be true.


Remember to sign up for the upcoming Soul Shaper workshops taking place next month at PUC. Encourage your colleagues to experience the workshop, too. When more than one teacher or staff member at a school understands choice theory, significant changes can occur. Soul Shapers 2 is designed to be re-taken more than once. Get in the habit of taking Soul Shapers 2 each summer and re-charge the choice theory battery.

Soul Shapers 1 meets from June 17-20

Soul Shapers 2 meets from June 24-27

Sign up for either course at


Let others know about The Better Plan blog. After close to six months of being in existence there are 67 people officially “following” the blog. I think more than the 67 are reading the blogs, but let’s try to get the number higher. The goal is to create and support a non-coercive, choice theory community. I’m always glad to hear from you. Let me know if you have helpful ideas.

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