Committee for Children Blog

Confronting Youth Suicide

The Story 

As a psychologist in the Hamilton Township School District in Atlantic County, New Jersey, Jeff Wellington provided counseling for special education students in classrooms ranging from early learning to middle school. One day in the late ’90s, he stumbled upon a Second Step curriculum box belonging to another counselor.

As he thumbed through the lessons, Jeff was impressed by the materials’ focus on social-emotional learning (SEL). “I realized that many of the objectives and skills complemented, and sometimes directly overlapped, with the goals written into my students’ Individualized Education Plans,” he says. Rather than pull kids out of class to work on social-emotional skills individually, Jeff began to incorporate Second Step lessons in self-contained classrooms as part of his counseling efforts. 

Years later, as supervisor of special projects for the district, Jeff turned to Second Step in a time of crisis—a startling uptick in student suicides.  

The Challenge  

In just two years, three students from the Hamilton Township district took their own lives. With many struggling to cope, and dealing with chronic stress, the administration quickly recognized the need to implement a comprehensive mental health initiative—with social-emotional skills at its core.

In addition to adding more counselors and increasing suicide risk assessments, they used Second Step to empower kids to regulate strong emotions, become confident problem-solvers, and strengthen student-teacher relationships.

“We knew implementing a strong SEL curriculum like Second Step would be crucial to the initiative’s success,” Marylynn says. 

The Solution 

“We made Second Step a part of our students’ everyday lives.” 

Implementing SEL schoolwide was critical. In the first year, the administration insisted that all staff be involved in delivering the program; Jeff and Marylynn developed a plan to support staff with implementing Second Step.

The aim was for every staff member to be able to incorporate Second Step skills throughout the school day—in addition to the time set aside for SEL instruction. To support that goal, they started making classroom visits: observing teachers’ interactions with students to ensure they were implementing SEL skills.

Authentic enthusiasm for Second Step was another key factor—when educators are excited about teaching the program, students are too. Families were also encouraged to practice Second Step skills at home, so the learning didn’t stop at the end of the school day.  

“Giving both students and teachers a common vocabulary was key.” 

In the first year all teachers, therapists, child study team members, and school counselors were responsible for delivering Second Step with fidelity. Speaking the same language and developing a parallel skillset allowed for existing connections to deepen and provide opportunities for positive relationships to form.

Students also learned coping and communication skills that could be used beyond the classroom, from impulse control to assertiveness to perspective-taking. Additionally, they learned to recognize and manage strong emotions, including thoughts about suicide. 

Jeff points out that, “Second Step benefits the teachers as much as the students. Educators who went to school for science, history, or math were now learning a vocabulary and social-emotional skillset they hadn’t capitalized on before.”

The Results  

ZERO SUICIDES

Since introducing the districtwide mental health initiative, there have been no reported student suicides in the Hamilton Township School District. Jeff and Marylynn credit this to their dedicated suicide prevention program, with Second Step’s SEL skills at the core.

Their Second Step curriculum continues to support children struggling with chronic stress, trauma, and in some cases suicidal ideation.

IMPROVED COPING STRATEGIES

They’ve also found that Second Step is helping students confidently and independently resolve peer-to-peer interactions—and teaching self-regulating strategies to adults, too. Staff have shared their experiences of students putting their SEL skills in action. 

One teacher shared an account of her student—placed in her classroom for behavioral reasons—defusing a heated argument by instructing his classmates to, “State the problem without blame.” This same student’s risk assessments dropped from 23 to 1 the following year. 

Another staff member received an email from a grateful preschool parent: “My daughter came home today and saw that I was very upset. She taught me how to take deep belly breaths like she’d learned in school to help me calm down. These are lifelong lessons I wish I’d learned growing up.”

STRENGTHENED STUDENT-TEACHER RELATIONSHIPS  

Second Step provides all staff with specific guidance and relationship-building vocabulary, helping to strengthen the bonds between teachers and their students. This includes everything from practicing belly breathing to problem-solving throughout the day. As a result, both students and staff have reported feeling more connected—and students have expressed feeling safer to openly communicate with their teachers.

The Future

The Hamilton Township School District will continue to track their progress, using surveys to identify positive trends and opportunities for growth. The district also plans to make year-over-year comparisons on key behaviors like self-regulation, student-teacher relationships, and problem-solving skills.  Since upgrading to the online version of Second Step for Middle School, the principal plans to continue using the administrator dashboard for tracking student progress. Having successfully gained buy-in from many staff members, Jeff and Marylynn hope to get all their staff members to realize the importance of embracing Second Step. 


Download the PDF of the success story to share with your colleagues and friends.