Suicide is Preventable: What You Can Do to Support our Youth in Crisis

By: Laura Handler


  • As Director of Prevention Services at Region Ten Community Services Board, I know suicide is preventable and there are steps adults can take to help youth in crisis.
  • It is important to recognize the warning signs that a young person may be experiencing thoughts of suicide.
  • Next understand how to ask questions and listen nonjudgmentally to the response in order to seek further help and support that is available 24/7.
Source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP)

This week is National Suicide Prevention Week 2021 and is dedicated as a time to promote suicide prevention awareness and share resources. While it is not a topic most people prefer to discuss, suicide remains the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-19 according to the Centers for Disease Control.[i] We do not yet fully know the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on suicide rates, but there are indicators that emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts among adolescents ages 12-17, particularly girls, have significantly increased.[ii]

Know the Warning Signs

Suicide is preventable and everyone can play a part in helping a young person. One of the most important ways teachers, parents, mentors, and other caring adults can support our youth is to recognize the warning signs that a young person may be having thoughts of suicide. Some of these warning signs include:

  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Withdrawal from family or friends
  • Feeling no reason for living, no sense of purpose in life
  • Talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide
  • Changes in appearance
  • Giving away possessions
  • Reporting thoughts of suicide that are active (i.e. “I want to die”) or passive (i.e. “I wish I could just fall asleep and not wake up”
  • Seeking access to pills, weapons, and other means to kill themselves
  • Increased substance use

What To Do Next

If you do notice warning signs, start by telling them that you are concerned and what you have noticed. Next, listen nonjudgmentally and ask open-ended questions to hear more about what the youth is experiencing. Hear them at their own pace and manage your own feelings of worry or concern. The next critical step is to ask the question

“Are you thinking about killing yourself?” or “Are you thinking about suicide?” It is best to avoid using a vague question such as “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” because they may not know what you mean, or respond with a vague answer.

Be calm, specific, and direct because you want a direct answer.

Youth who are having thoughts of suicide often report a feeling of relief that someone noticed their pain and was willing to ask and hear more about it. If they are not thinking about suicide, your question will not “plant the idea in their mind.” For more tips on having the conversation, check out this resource from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP): “If Someone Tells You They’re Thinking About Suicide: A #RealConvo Guide from AFSP

If a young person does report thoughts of suicide, it is important to connect them to professional help. There are many resources available locally and nationwide.

Specifically, I encourage everyone to put the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) and the Crisis Text Line (741741) into your phone’s contact list right now so you have the contact if you ever need it.

Both of these national resources are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and have trained crisis counselors available to talk with you or the young person to help address these thoughts and develop a safety plan.

Ongoing additional support will also be important for a young person with current or recent thoughts of suicide. Reach out to their primary care doctor, a counselor, or other treatment professional who can more thoroughly assess what treatment or other supports might be most helpful.

While it can feel scary and anxiety-provoking to notice warning signs of suicide, it is important to ask the question, and get help. These steps can save a life. Showing the young person you care and are available for them when things are difficult is vital not only in moments of crisis, but every day.


[i] Deaths: Leading Causes for 2019. National Vital Statistics Report, Vol. 70, No. 9.

[ii] Yard, E., Radhakrishnan, L., Ballesteros, M.F., Sheppard, M., Gates, A., Stein, Z.,…Stone, D.M. (2021). Emergency Department Visits for Suspected Suicide Attempts Among Persons Aged 12-25 Years Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic-United States, January 2019-May 2021. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 70, 888-894. Retrieved from:

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Laura Handler, LPC is the Director of Prevention Services at Region Ten Community Services Board. She has worked at the CSB for more than 12 years serving adults, youth, and families in the Charlottesville area. The Prevention Team offers trainings and presentations to support suicide prevention, substance use prevention, and promotion of mental health and wellness. If you are interested in learning more, please email

How Will We Address the Social-Emotional Learning Loss from COVID-19? Lessons from Camp Common Ground

By Zach Bell

This blog post is the second in a two-part series from Zach Bell reflecting on the Youth-Nex 2019 conference and SEL loss from COVID-19. If you want to learn more about the other researchers and practitioners who inspired this post, read the first post here.


  • Zach Bell is the Co-Founder of Camp Common Ground and a Physical Education and Social-Emotional Learning Teacher in the Oakland Unified School District in California.
  • With COVID-19 and distance learning, students are experiencing more social-emotional learning loss than ever before. 
  • In the second and final post of this series, I further explore the “Four Factors for Youth Moral Development”: (1) safe-environment, (2) well-trained facilitators, (3) experiential pedagogy/youth power, and (4) accessible to most students. I use this framework to evaluate different interventions for doing social-emotional learning work in our current education environment.
Source: Color War Simulation from Zach Bell & Camp Common Ground

“I don’t know if my school is really a safe place to do this work,” I admitted to the 2019 Youth-Nex conference chamber, referring to the Color War simulation we run at Camp Common Ground.

In this simulation, campers experience inequality in an embodied way through a day-long competition where students hold positional privilege or disadvantage based on their assigned color team. Youth must navigate their emotional reactions towards their peers, and towards the authority figures (me and the other staff members) who are enforcing this inequitable system – and make hard choices whether to “rebel” and face consequences. For the full talk about Color War, watch the video here.

What I didn’t realize at the time of the conference was that school might be the only place in 2020 to do “this work” of developing our youth’s social-emotional skills, moral development, and dialogical abilities because in-person programming for Camp Common Ground (and so many other related programs) were cancelled this year due to COVID-19.

Camp Common Ground, is a two-week overnight summer camp for a diverse cohort of Bay Area middle schoolers, was co-founded by myself and current Executive Director Ron Towns, both Oakland educators. The camp includes carefully scaffolded skill-building workshops that lead up to integrative simulations, like Color War. Our program has led to statistically significant boosts in empathy, perspective-taking, self-esteem, and cross-cultural friendships. To learn more about the organization and our impact, click here.

As a middle school math teacher at an experimental bilingual public school in Oakland Unified School District during distance learning, I found that even the “normal” social-emotional learning this year was largely disrupted. I tried to engage students with “virtual restorative justice circles” and daily check-ins, but it simply was not the same. I found that the students who were most active over Zoom and Google Classroom were more likely to be affluent and with a quiet space in their home, and not necessarily the students who were in the greatest need of social-emotional support (though, all students need social and emotional support and development).

So how can we address this social-emotional learning loss from “distance learning” and cancelled summer and after school programs?

Can we use the disruption of COVID-19 as an opportunity to think more broadly about how to reorient our “education system” (or perhaps “holistic child development system”) to prioritize non-academic skills?

If so, where, when, and how do we implement this “re-prioritization”?

What I learned from the 2019 Youth-Nex conference is that for moral development, dialogue, and social justice education to be effective we need the following in place. I’ll refer to these as the Four Factors going forward.

  1. Safe environment with bonds of community, belonging, and trust, so that youth can be vulnerable.
  2. Well-trained adult facilitators who can responsively adapt their work to the developmental and identity intersections of their youth. 
  3. Experiential pedagogy and power structures that share authority with youth so that there is authentic co-construction of rule-based systems with meaningful stakes (e.g. hiring staff) and space for critical reflection and praxis.
  4. Accessibility to most students. In hopes of being realistic given the often under-resourced state of public schools and structural inequity that exist in our systems, I want to add one “realism-check” category so that we’re not just finding solutions for affluent youth.

Below are avenues I see to explore options for doing social-emotional learning work, and admittedly cursory evaluations of each option’s potential:

To read more about the pros and cons of each of these venues please see this downloadable PDF.

At the end of the day, a diversity of tactics is likely the approach we’ll need to take to address this overwhelming need – now more than ever – to teach our youth to be moral actors with a strong foundation of social-emotional and dialogical skills.

The gaps can be daunting; when I recently searched for “gender education nonprofits” there was not a single hit on the first page of Google that mentioned boys or men, so we have a long way to go on providing truly holistic identity development for all of our kids.

But as many of us take a step back during the COVID-19 pandemic to evaluate our current systems, it may be time to think imaginatively and critically of concrete ways that we can support all students in becoming moral actors, in whatever context they are in.

Let’s look at our educational practices with that lens. Rather than just asking “can they score a point?”, let’s ask, “are they grappling with what’s a fair rule?” and “are they deciding how to score the points, and if they even want to?” May we approach these challenging tasks with playfulness and a love of learning (see the Calvin & Hobbes comic in the downloadable PDF).

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Zach Bell is a public middle school P.E. and social-emotional learning teacher in Oakland, California. In 2015, he co-founded Camp Common Ground, an inter-cultural overnight summer camp, where he co-designed and facilitated a curriculum about empathy-building, conflict resolution, and gender norms. Earlier in his career, he was a freelance writer and co-founder of an online magazine for youth activists, before working in business development at an ed-tech start up. More recently, he has deepened his work as a gender educator, including as a middle school basketball coach, running a boy’s group, and founding Real Men Share, an online magazine for men to share vulnerably. He is also writing a film about masculinity, listening to a lot of Ram Dass, and going to the beach.

1-Year Later, Reflecting on Dialoging for Democracy and Teaching in a Pandemic

By Zach Bell

This blog post is the first in a two-part series from Zach Bell reflecting on the Youth-Nex 2019 conference and SEL loss from COVID-19. Read more about how to address the social-emotional learning loss from COVID-19 in the second blog post here.


  • Zach Bell is the Co-Founder of Camp Common Ground and a Physical Education and Social-Emotional Learning Teacher in the Oakland Unified School District in California.
  • In the first post of this series, I examine the content from the 2019 Youth-Nex Conference on “Dialoging for Democracy: Youth Moral Reasoning and Social Justice” and consider what it means for the future of social-emotional learning in public schools.
  • Reflecting on the presentations and panels from youth performances, practitioners and researchers, I provide a foundation for Four Factors I will refer to later (safe-environment, well-trained facilitators, experiential pedagogy/youth power, and accessible to most students).
Zach Bell presents at the 2019 Youth-Nex Conference.

One year ago in November 2019, I attended and presented at the Youth-Nex 2019 conference on “Dialoging for Democracy: Youth Moral Reasoning and Social Justice.” Since then, the world for teachers and after-school programs has changed dramatically. In this short series, I reflect on what I learned at the conference on moral development, dialogue, and social justice education, and then apply this to my experience as a P.E. and Social-Emotional Learning Teacher.

What’s required of the setting for youth to develop as moral actors?

Social and emotional growth requires vulnerability, and the opening panelists at the conference discussed the need for creating an environment of safety and trust for youth to be open to vulnerability. Similarly, the power dynamics in the space need to actually trust youth with authority if we expect them to practice being moral actors, not just rule-followers.

Shawn Brown, at Teen Empowerment Rochester, said it “Takes real time, and effort, and trust…young people come to us because they’re needed, not because they’re needy.” At TE-Rochester, the ten young people in their program had a 50% vote on adult staff hiring decisions. Emma Yackso, Director of the Side-by-Side Youth Leadership Council, an LGBTQ “youth led, adult supported” center in Virginia gives the youth council a say in all decisions each week, from the design of the space to curricular choices, from the date for prom to the strategic priorities for the organization.

How can these models of “youth led, adult supported” learning be applied in a school setting? Is that even possible without totally reimagining school?

Further panelists discussed the need for not just safe environments, but well-trained educators who have done their own internal work and can provide developmentally appropriate curricula. For example, Larry Nucci, PhD, Professor of Education at UC Berkeley, discussed the “Moral Development Curve,” in which 8-year olds and 19-year olds are more likely to have similar responses than 11 to 16-year olds to a situation where they see someone drop a $20 bill.

Gutsavo Carlo, PhD, Professor of Human Development at University of Missouri, explained the necessity of layering in cultural identity when cultivating moral development. For example, he found that understanding the concept of familismo, the family unit, was important in predicting prosocial behavior in Latinx communities. Emma Yackso, from the youth-led Side-by-Side center mentioned above, noted that she needed to “prep the adults in the board meeting about what it’s like to have kids there.”

It’s hard enough to find qualified educators amidst a national teacher shortage. How can we find, or train, educators with these complex identity and moral-development skills?

My panel was tasked with speaking to the actual pedagogical practices to cultivate these skills. This included elevating youth voices, like the Mikva Challenge’s “Project Soapbox” that supports youth in engaging in civic participation on issues they’re passionate about. Similarly, it included resourcing youth artistic creation, like A King’s Story, a play by Joshua St. Hill, a high school student, about police violence. 

In my talk, I shared about simulation and game-based pedagogy for moral development, looking at the co-construction of rule-based systems like in John Hunter’s famous “World Peace Game”, and Jane Elliott’’s famous 1968 blue-eyes brown-eyes experiment to process Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination with her third graders.

That sounds “cool”, but seriously, how can any of these pedagogical practices find their way into 48-minute academic period-packed school days?

Well, the truth is I don’t know. But I want to explore that with educators and collaborators at a distance. Using these experiences, I created Four Factors to evaluate possible routes to democratizing these critical moral and social-emotional skills in the context of the U.S. education system. These Four Factors are:

  1. Safe-environment,
  2. Well-trained facilitators,
  3. Pedagogy/youth power, and
  4. Accessibility to most students.

To learn more about these factors and an evaluation of different routes for addressing the social-emotional learning loss from COVID-19, please read the second blog posted here

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Zach Bell is a public middle school P.E. and social-emotional learning teacher in Oakland, California. In 2015, he co-founded Camp Common Ground, an inter-cultural overnight summer camp, where he co-designed and facilitated a curriculum about empathy-building, conflict resolution, and gender norms. Earlier in his career, he was a freelance writer and co-founder of an online magazine for youth activists, before working in business development at an ed-tech start up. More recently, he has deepened his work as a gender educator, including as a middle school basketball coach, running a boy’s group, and founding Real Men Share, an online magazine for men to share vulnerably. He is also writing a film about masculinity, listening to a lot of Ram Dass, and going to the beach.

For Youth, COVID-19 Changed Everything, but the National Response Movement Gave Me New Purpose

By Isabella, a 16-year old in Oregon.


  • My name is Isabella and I am a 16-year old junior who wants to share more about my COVID-19 experience.
  • During COVID-19, I joined the Mikva Challenge National Youth Response Movement (NYRM) and after 8 months I have some advice for others.
  • In this youth-led group, myself and others like me encouraged youth to share their experiences from the pandemic, did social media takeovers, developed policy recommendations, and organized a national roundtable discussion.

As a junior at one of the largest public high schools in Portland, Oregon, I have always cared a lot about my education, and have attended school everyday. From the age of four I have been dedicated to dance and have taken classes 3-6 days a week after school. Through dance, school, and other activities over the years, I have developed multiple different friend groups I’m equally close to and whom I rely on.

The pandemic changed everything. In less than 24 hours, every constant that I once had in my life had been taken from me, and from everyone I knew.

Life in the Pandemic & an Opportunity

For the first few weeks of the pandemic, I no longer had school, dance, or access to my friends in the way I had always known. It felt like someone just flipped a switch and nothing would ever be the same again; I felt panicked and anxious. To fill my days and distract myself, I took up running, I started reading more, and taking more time for myself. 

A couple weeks into the stay at home order, my Mock Trial teacher sent me an email telling me that he was choosing me to be one of his three nominees for the Mikva Challenge National Youth Response Movement. I was honored when I saw that email and knew I wanted to be a part of this, I wanted my voice to be heard. To my surprise, two days later I was notified of acceptance from Mikva Challenge, changing the way the rest of my year and summer would go. 

The Youth Response & Community

The National Youth Response Movement (NYRM), is a national group of 19 high school and college students from 14 states. Near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we gathered virtually to share our experiences and concerns for youth during this pandemic. We created a series of projects and initiatives for the spring and summer:

  1. Our first project as NYRM was to encourage youth to share their experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic. In creating this project, we wanted young people to share the issues that were most important and pressing to them during this pandemic, and then also create a call to action on how something could be done about it. This way, youth could be part of the national conversation about the next steps. 
  2. Our second project was focused on destigmatizing mental health and making virtual mental health resources more accessible to youth, since this is one of the major issues that we recognized was impacting young people during this pandemic. In order to do this, we held a social media takeover week on Mikva Challenge’s Instagram and my colleague Jennifer and I co-hosted an Instagram live to facilitate a conversation about mental health and self-care for youth. 
  3. Later in the summer, our team shifted focus to making schools more equitable, just, and student-centered. To accomplish this, we sent letters (which other youth can still do using the template provided in the previous link) to elected officials across the country about the importance of Social Emotional Learning in schools. We also held discussions on racial injustice and forms of activism with experts and other youth organizations, and created policy recommendations which we shared with stakeholders (like school board members, principals and teachers, and decision makers across the country). 
  4. As a culmination of our work, we planned and held a National Youth Policy Roundtable with 3 current and former members of Congress, 6 influencers, and a grand total of 91 youth participants from across the country who got to hear from and engage with these national decision makers about the quest to make schools more just, equitable, and student-centered places. 

We accomplished a lot this summer as NYRM, and have made our voices heard by many! 

One of the most amazing things about being a part of NYRM was the sense of family and community we accomplished through using Zoom. The tremendous amount of support and encouragement that everyone gave, along with the amount of fun we had, created a bond between us all. What made this NYRM family even better is that we’ve had each other through this time of uncertainty. We’ve had each other’s support, shoulders to cry on, and we are each other’s support system. This is what made NYRM so special.

Now more than ever, this sense of community and family is important for youth, whether it’s at home, with family, school, friends, or anywhere else.

Even if there was not a global pandemic, a support system is extremely important to have in one’s life, one’s mental health, and wellbeing. The really special thing about our NYRM family is that we share common goals and similar values. Working with such driven people inspired me. They empowered me, built me up, and they continue to do this for me today. 

Living during this pandemic has changed my life, and not necessarily in a negative way. There are many challenges that I am still experiencing, especially as we go back into the school year. If it weren’t for this pandemic, NYRM wouldn’t exist so I would have never had the opportunity to be a part of it. I have another family now, I know other people who share the same values I do and who will have my back no matter what. This has sparked a passion for activism in me that I have never felt before. The experience with NYRM has inspired my colleague Shanthi and I to start a local steering committee within our school called the “Youth Advocacy Coalition.” We will work with our principal and school administrators to implement more avenues for youth voices within our school community and district. 

Advice for Others

One lesson and word of advice I would like to share with schools, administrators, teachers, and parents/guardians regarding the development of youth during this time, is to take the time to really listen. Listen to young people, listen to your students, listen to your children, because the best way you can make change or help them is to pause and hear what they are saying.

To listen isn’t only the act of listening, but also the responsibility for action, like asking questions or advocating on the behalf of youth. Listen to what youth have to say, and then find out the actions you can take to help make said change.

I believe people underestimate youth. We are paying attention to what is going on, we are keeping ourselves informed around what is going on in the world, and we care about how this pandemic is going to impact our lives in the future and possibly forever. Right now, finding solutions to racial injustice and the importance of the upcoming election are more important than ever. Right now, action from the people, local and federal state leaders, and community members is necessary. Young people are the leaders of today and of the future, and our voices matter.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Isabella is a junior in High School in Portland, OR. She has had a passion for youth advocacy since elementary school. During the spring and summer of 2020, she was 1 of 19 student steering committee members of Mikva Challenge’s National Youth Response Movement team. They began as a response to COVID-19 addressing issues important to young people and raising awareness of these to local and federal decision makers. She is passionate about photography as an outlet for creativity and storytelling, and she loves spending time with her two dogs!

Voting: Video Blog from a Charlottesville Freedom School Scholar


  • In the summer of 2020, the Center for Race and Public Education in the South (CRPES) launched the first Charlottesville Freedom School.
  • Third to fifth graders from the greater Charlottesville area participated in a virtual summer school that on focused on topics of voting, oral histories, and civic engagement.
  • In this video blog, one student scholar shared more about what she thinks adults should vote for, why it is important, and what young people can do.

CRPES launched Charlottesville’s first Freedom School in the summer of 2020! Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Freedom School was virtual and had 70 students from the Charlottesville area participating. This year’s Freedom School focused on topics of voting, oral histories, and civic engagement.

Safalani was one of the outstanding 4th grade students. She created a poem or essay about what she wanted adults to vote for on her behalf. It was so fantastic, the National Freedom School staff chose it to be presented during the Children’s Defense Fund’s National Day of Social Action Pep Rally. The Charlottesville Freedom School was honored to have her as a scholar and can’t wait to see the incredible future she has ahead of her!

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Measuring Key Processes in Youth Mentoring

By Julia Augenstern


  • Mentoring programs are essential resources in many communities and one of the best supported approaches for fostering positive youth development.
  • However, despite a long record of empirical support for their positive impact, little is known about how mentoring benefits are rendered or the specific processes by which mentoring relationships work.
  • Presented here is recent work to help assess five key mentoring processes with the hope that when used this survey can reveal what makes some mentoring programs more effective than others.

Over the past 30 years, there have been numerous studies that show mentoring can help reduce youth risk of substance use, school failure and delinquency, and can increase their sense of support, connection, and self-efficacy. Not all programs show these benefits, with some even showing null or negative impacts. The question still remains:

What makes some programs beneficial and how do these benefits occur?

This requires looking into the processes that make up mentoring interactions; to understand the “how” of mentoring. Through reviewing theoretical and practical literature on mentoring we identified a set of 5 processes that were commonly mentioned as occurring within mentoring relationship and developed an assessment tool to capture them (See the original research article in the Journal of Community Psychology at:

Five Key Mentoring Processes

The follow five mentoring processes are measured by the Mentoring Process Scale (MPS):

  • Role Modeling – Activities and discussions that provide the mentee opportunity to experience the mentor as a role model or figure of identification, those in which the effect may be to evoke admiration, respect, felt positive similarity and connection, or emulation.
  • Advocacy – A process by which the mentor speaks up for or supports the mentee to others, connects the protégé with resources, and/or helps the mentee seek and access skills and opportunities, helping support navigation of social systems.
  • Relationship and Emotional Support – Instances where the mentor provides open and genuine positive regard and companionship to the mentee in ways that would be expected to lead the mentee to feel supported and cared for by the mentor. This process is characterized by regular and open communication, with empathy and/or reciprocity prominent.
  • Teaching and Information Provision – A process by which the mentor teaches new things to the mentee and/or provides information that might aid the mentee in managing social, educational, legal, family, and peer challenges.
  • Shared Activity – The mentor and mentee engage in activities together (e.g., cooking, playing sports, going out to eat, watching tv) or simply spend time together.
Click here to see the large PDF.

Our goal was to capture and understand these processes from both the adult mentor and youth mentee perspectives. Our study validated these five components as distinct and important factors making up the overall scale and showed that these processes relate to other important characteristics of effective mentoring, when rated by adult mentors. For youth, the items formed as a single general positive mentoring activity scale.

We think the scale can help reveal how mentoring works, what differentiates effective and ineffective mentoring, and what might be important training targets and skills for mentors.

This scale also has promise to help address inequities in access to quality mentoring. Presently, too often, the quality of mentoring available is dependent on economic and social resources, with little guidance on critical components of the mentoring relationship. If we can learn what makes mentoring effective, then training can concentrate on those skills and activities. The scale and the practices it measures can be used to help guide initial and ongoing training. It can also be used to highlight if and how mentors might be applying learned skills in their daily work with mentees. By better understanding the mechanisms of positive influences, disparities in mentoring program quality can be better identified and remediated, thus ensuring a greater likelihood for successful mentoring impacts across communities.

Mentoring in COVID-19

Finally, in a world of physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, mentoring programs must adapt to new ways of engaging youth. They must find ways to successfully maintain the mentoring relationship and address new and unique needs of youth and communities. By considering what processes to emphasize and assessing variation in engagement and outcome as different ones are emphasized, we can learn how to ensure effective mentoring in these new circumstances. These five key processes can be helpful in guiding program adaptation to ensure that important components of the mentoring relationship are still maintained, regardless of the modality through which contact is made.

For more information about this research and the MPS, please see:

Tolan, P. H., McDaniel, H. L., Richardson, M., Arkin, N., Augenstern, J., & DuBois, D. L. (2020). Improving understanding of how mentoring works: Measuring multiple intervention processes. Journal of Community Psychology.

or contact Patrick Tolan, Ph.D. at

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Julia Augenstern, M.Ed. is a fourth year doctoral student in the Curry School of Education and Human Services Clinical and School Psychology Program. She studies positive youth development and social emotional learning in a Youth Nex affiliate lab and is a recent Curry Innovative, Developmental, Exploratory Awards (IDEAs) grant recipient.

Adolescence in the Time of COVID-19: Building an Identity Focused Online Environment

By Karis Lee, Juliana Salcedo, Jack Wren, & Lily Zhang


  • Adolescents explore different identities as they begin to figure out who they are and want to be.
  • Identity development is impacted by one’s social environment including family, peers, community, and online activities.
  • Even with the switch to online learning, adults can implement strategies to support students’ identity development.
Source: Curry School of Education & Human Development

Identity development in adolescents begins with their personal backgrounds and changes as adolescents encounter new experiences, ideas, environments, and people. Adolescents begin to answer “who am I?” by thinking about themselves in various contexts and from different perspectives. Adolescents may identify themselves in many ways such as race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, and family. Younger adolescents are more sensitive to external feedback whereas older adolescents learn to hold stronger identity stances and consider themselves in broader contexts. There are many ways to navigate identity formation during adolescence that are relevant to education and distance learning. 

Why Identity Development is Important in Adolescence

According to Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, adolescence (ages 13-19) marks stage five of development and is key in the lifelong process of identity construction. During this period, individuals grapple with identity versus role confusion, and they focus on organizing their skills, interests, and values into a core sense of self. These tasks are also supported by key changes that occur in the brain during this time period, such as abstract processing, consideration of multiple perspectives and possibilities, and the reasoning of truths. Adolescents engage in the identity “search process,” in which they explore different identities and eventually commit and follow through. Adolescents spend a significant amount of time in school so peers and curriculum both play crucial roles during this search process. Since many students are engaging in distance learning at the moment, peer-interactions, online activities, and community support are elements educators must consider when building an identity-based learning environment. 

Adolescence is also the period in which individuals process their beliefs and attitudes about their ethnic-racial identity (ERI) membership. ERI is multidimensional, and it is impacted by how one’s racial identity is regarded by others, how identities are formed based on racial beliefs (or how a group “should” act), and the internal reconciliation of these various perspectives. It can be a combination of the maturity of one’s self-perception and the broader contexts that affect that self-perception. According to William Cross’s model of ERI development, a racial or ethnic “encounter” often catalyzes one’s processing. The “encounter” and how that impacts students’ ERI is especially important to keep in mind, as it could be affected by both the move to online classes and the current Black Lives Matter movement.

Adolescents Shifting to an Online Environment

Due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, the move online may affect adolescents’ identity development  by restricting their autonomy. In-person school can provide a needed environment in which students can engage in the identity search process, where they can “try on” different identities without familial identity constraints or pressures. For example, schools can provide a needed social outlet for  LGBTQ students to learn about their sexual or gender identity. Online learning, however, constricts students to their home environments and thus limits the search process. Students may not feel as comfortable exploring their identity with the influence of their parents and their parent’s beliefs surrounding them as they are learning.

In an online learning environment, teachers can continue to support identity development through assignments that have students engage with their interests. Teachers will likely need to rely on parents and families to engage with students through this process. However, not all students have the same access to resources at home so flexibility should be a guiding principle.

Building an Identity Focused Online Environment

Here are some suggestions for building a identity focused online learning environment that teachers could consider:

  • Have students read books that are of interest to them and form reading circles to share.
  • Create playlists of music, podcasts, or documentaries that relate to class material and introduce students to new ideas and perspectives.
  • Encourage students and parents to work together to engage with their community by walking around to historical sites and landmarks, or exploring historical sites online. Students can use this activity to talk with parents and/or other family members about their own identity. 
  • Have students reflect on current global and social events, such as the role of social media during COVID-19, being GenZ, the Black Lives Matter movement and Supreme Court cases.
  • Continue school-sponsored activities online so students have the opportunity to stay connected with others and gain support for organizations that are important for identity development.
  • Provide flexibility and freedom when doing identity-based work so that students are not constricted by labels. 
  • Cultivate cognitive routines with a set of prompts allowing the teacher to guide the activity rather than directly transfer knowledge (this helps students to develop their own opinions and think for themselves).Use prompts such as: “What was the biggest surprise?” or “I used to think ____. But now I think ___.” It is important to let students showcase their interests and knowledge!

In sum, the school environment plays a crucial role in adolescents’ exploration of identity, and their interactions both inside and outside the classroom help them answer the key “who am I?” question. It’s important for teachers to be aware of how the transition to online learning can impact this exploration and develop class strategies that allow students to continue engaging with the identity search process.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Juliana Salcedo is a graduate student in the Curry School of Education and Human Development working on her master’s in teaching for secondary science education. She is a recent graduate of the College of William & Mary with a degree in Biology and Chemistry.

Author Bio: Karis Lee is a student at the Curry School of Education working towards her masters in teaching secondary language arts. She is a recent graduate of the College of William & Mary, where she studied English and history.

Author Bio: Lily Zhang is a graduate student in the Curry School of Education and Human Development working on her master’s in teaching for secondary English education. She graduated from the University of Virginia in 2019 with degrees in English and Psychology.

Author Bio: Jack Wren is a graduate student in the Curry School of Education working on a master’s in teaching for secondary Mathematics education.  He recently graduated from UVA in May 2020 with a degree in Mathematics.

Reflections on Youth Voice, this Historical Moment, and Dialoging for Democracy

By Symia Stigler & Kaitlin Nichols


  • After attending the Dialoging for Democracy conference, members of City Year national staff reflect on the last eight months.
  • Lifting up youth’s voices and allowing them to speak their truths is essential, especially in the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • Supporting young people’s voices leads to transformative citizenship, even in the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Source: City Year

In November of 2019, Youth-Nex hosted a conference on “Dialoging for Democracy: Youth Moral Reasoning and Social Justice” in Charlottesville, VA. I was thrilled to be attending with three City Year colleagues and looked forward to exploring how the topic might support and stretch our service ideas rooted in social justice and transformative citizenship. 

What we did not know when we entered the double doors of the UVA Alumni Hall is that in the subsequent 195 days, George Floyd would be killed and that killing would be recorded and replayed on television, social media and in the minds of every conscious human. The shock and horror after 8 minutes and 46 seconds and the last cries of “I can’t breathe” stunned the world. However, this time, in place of recurring silence and deliberately closed eyes, thundering masses of citizens across the globe raised their collective voices and loudly proclaimed, “Black Lives Matter!”  

Given our current social and physical reality, the conference topic from eight months earlier, “Dialoging for Democracy”, still resonates with me, as does the words of the organizers who spoke at the conference.  

During the welcome, Dr. Johari Harris, a Research Assistant Professor at the Curry School of Education and Human Development asked, “How do youth process complex moral and social issues?” She asked attendees to consider how that processing changes as young people grow and develop. Over the course of two days panelists, youth and community organizers shared examples from research, policy, and practice to address these grounding questions. At the conclusion, Dr. Harris reiterated that…

The best way to support positive youth development in African American adolescents is through a strength-based approach which builds on their cultural backgrounds, while keeping their powerful and unique voices at the forefront of the conversation.  

In my role as national director of student engagement at City Year, I design and pilot social-emotional learning and development (SEL/D) resources that our City Year AmeriCorps Members use every day in their work as near-peer mentors. AmeriCorps Members partners with teachers to co-create positive learning environments and customize small group tutoring sessions for students in systemically under-resourced schools. Our SEL/D supports are grounded in relationships, which I believe are the most powerful lever in K-12 education. The trust and connections built between students and AmeriCorps Members, over time, prove fertile soil for social-emotional and academic growth. Each day of the school year, City Year AmeriCorps members support students as they lift their voices and speak their truths. When young people engage as equal contributors in classrooms and communities, their voices are elevated, their courage is unveiled, and their perspective and perpetual energy create momentum, demanding positive change in our world.  

-Symia Stigler, National Director of Student Engagement, City Year

Source: City Year

Having served as a City Year AmeriCorps member, I have seen firsthand the amazing things that can come from young people’s voices being at the table.

  • I saw it when a group of 7th grade students had the great idea to host a city-wide toy drive for the local children’s hospital and had their City Year team help make it happen.
  • I saw it when we heard our students wanting to do lessons in the concrete courtyard by our classroom, so we led a service project with the students to plant flowers, paint benches, and beautify the courtyard.
  • I saw it when we created interactive bulletin boards outside our classroom that students could add their voices to connected with a monthly theme – anything from honoring a loved one impacted by breast cancer, to writing a valentine for a Black person in history who made a difference in our world, to sharing tips for self-care leading up to the next standardized test.
  • I saw it in the one-on-one relationships, when my teammate worked closely with one of her students to help him apply for summer jobs he was interested in, and when my other teammate intentionally gave special attention to her student suffering the recent loss of her younger brother.
  • I saw it when my students helped me understand how to best meet their learning needs: when one student shared that using different colors helped her concentrate, we worked on reading comprehension with lots of highlighters; and when another student shared he preferred to read over breakfast, we ate together before discussing what we read.

And I’ve been seeing it now – when schools closed abruptly in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, our City Year AmeriCorps members stepped up to creatively connect with their students in the virtual space. Our young adult leaders have continued supporting these near-peer relationships by replicating viral video dances, recording videos assuring their students that they are still thinking of them, and coming up with thoughtful prompts and activities for students to engage in distance learning.

Participating in the Dialoging for Democracy conference alongside my City Year colleagues was a rich learning experience, and it was affirming to be able to hear from researchers and practitioners about the evidence base for the activities our young adult leaders are doing with their students every day. Now more than ever, it is important it is to uplift, celebrate, and listen to the voices of our young people – and embrace all the good that can come from it.

-Kaitlin Nichols, Sr. Impact Services Operations Manager, City Year
City Year Alumni ‘13, ‘14

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Symia Stigler brings over twenty years of field experience from education and youth-serving non-profits to her role as National Student Engagement Director at City Year Headquarters. In this position, Symia leads our work on upgrading or improving the network-wide Attendance, Social-Emotional/Youth Development, and After School tools and strategies. Symia is motivated by the power of relationships which are leveraged to forge new paths towards social justice in education.

Author Bio: Kaitlin Nichols currently serves as the Senior Impact Services Operations Manager at City Year Headquarters in Boston, managing operations and projects for our national group of program departments. Prior to joining City Year staff, Kaitlin completed two years of service with City Year Columbia as an AmeriCorps Member and Team Leader, serving middle and elementary school students across two school districts in South Carolina.  

What the School of COVID-19 Could Teach You About Strong Communities

By Mary Coleman


  • Mary Coleman is executive director at City of Promise, a nonprofit that provides cradle-to-college academic support for youth from Charlottesville.
  • As the coronavirus changes everyday life, the new “School of COVID-19” is exposing the resilience may families already have.
  • Many youth-serving individuals and organizations are recognizing the strong coping strategies already in our communities.
Source: Carrie Coleman

Schools may be closed throughout the country, but the “School of COVID-19” is hosting classes every day. What is the pandemic teaching those of us who serve youth? More importantly, how can we apply those lessons now and long after the emergency has passed?

As executive director at City of Promise, these questions loom upon my staff and me in our service to children and families in Charlottesville. Our program – modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone – has always depended upon in-person, on-the-street, and at-school engagement with youth. Moving to virtual academic coaching and mentoring was a painful transition, especially for staff with children at home who also need care and attention. The “School of COVID-19” forced us to dig deep to find the same kind of resilience we expect of the families we serve. The tables have turned. Those children and their parents are now our master teachers in the “School of COVID-19.”

For example, while the rest of us scramble and cry in the face of job loss and personal disruption, low-income persons draw from the strength they have built over time. The sad truth is, they have been here before. They have filed for unemployment before. They have relied on the food bank before. They have waited by the mailbox for government checks before.

While the rest of us complain about our hair salons being shuttered, black families carry on. They have been doing hair in the kitchen forever. Surviving without childcare or grandparents on call is tough, but it’s a daily reality for moms in our neighborhood. Can’t go anywhere because you’re sheltered in place? This is what it feels like for families who don’t have cars.

And what about virtual learning? Welcome to the world of those who always feel overwhelmed by their kid’s homework. COVID-19 is teaching us that being thrown into financial and personal uncertainty wears people down and creates household chaos that makes learning difficult. Coronavirus has taught us that Maslow was right: when basic needs are threatened, confidence and creativity are suppressed (read more about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs).

Those of us who find this stress new and overwhelming can turn what we are feeling into fresh resolve in our advocacy work by acknowledging the inner strength of the youth we serve.

Those who regularly face trauma and disruption show up to our after-school programs willing to engage. They never let on about how hard it is to jump through our hoops. Just the other day, one of our pathway coaches led a virtual session with a 6th grader who – determined to find a quiet place in her cramped public-housing unit – chose the floor next to the commode. This kid deserves our respect. She could write a book about “grit.”

And what about the parents? I spoke with a mom who came to City of Promise for the cleaning products and Kroger cards we distribute each Friday (thanks to donations restricted for COVID-19 relief). With a smile, she narrated the pride she felt because the trials of coronavirus haven’t plunged her into depression like they may have in the past. My eyes burned with tears as I realized that I focus too much on how far these parents have to go, instead of seeing how far they’ve come. This mom taught me a lesson about my own deficit thinking.

I’m sure many of us can admit that COVID-19 has exposed just how far we have to go as youth-serving individuals and organizations. It has exposed our lack of empathy. It has exposed our resignation that some children just don’t ever have internet or food on the weekend. It has exposed our complacency regarding a multitude of inequities and broken systems that make life difficult for the people we are trying to help. But if we are willing, we can learn from those very same people. They have so much to teach us. And we have so much to learn.


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Mary Coleman is executive director at City of Promise, a nonprofit that provides cradle-to-college academic support for youth living in the 10th and Page, Westhaven, and Starr Hill communities in Charlottesville. A fundraiser by profession, Mary served from 2005 to 2012 as Director of Donor Relations at Woodberry Forest School in Madison County, Virginia. Later, as Director of Institutional Advancement at The Covenant School in Charlottesville, Mary managed fundraising, parent programs, marketing, and alumni relations. In 2017, Mary became development director at City of Promise where she raised the profile of the organization in Charlottesville. Mary is a trauma and resilience trainer through the Greater Charlottesville Trauma-Informed Community Network.

Black American Parenting During the CoViD-19 Crisis

By Valerie Adams-Bass

I am a parent and an assistant professor who teaches an introductory course about humanitarian crises and children, Child Protection in Emergencies (CPiE). What we are experiencing with CoViD-19, is a humanitarian crisis. The CoVid-19 pandemic has caused an abrupt shift in the “normal day” and has brought challenges to all of us. In times of crisis (humanitarian), the needs of children and youth are often the last to be attended. While the global community appears to have been a bit better about considering the needs of children at the forefront vs. later in this crisis, we haven’t been super great at utilizing systems or putting systems in place swiftly here in the US. Even more so, the needs of Black Americans are often the last to be attended. To assist with coping particularly for  Black Americans whose higher contraction rates of CoViD-19 and morbidity related fatality is only now being publicly acknowledged, stay in side, hang out with your children and try some of these suggestions to help you during this dynamic and challenging period in your parenting and in our lives.

Source: In the Know Blog

Many parents are now at home parenting 24/7 and attempting to maintain a FT job that helps to keep the lights on, the mortgage or rent paid and the refrigerator full. Other parents are on the front lines and have limited time to have hands-on oversight. Whether you are at home 24/7 or you are setting up your home for your children while you are at work, it doesn’t matter how many children you have at home, I don’t take for granted that all parents and adults know what to do now that our children are home ALL day every day. I include in this list simple tips and strategies for integrating the awe-inspiring resilience of African Americans who generationally have had to overcome crises too often associated with being Black in America. The deterioration of Black communities have impacted how we think and transfer skills and knowledge to our children that is protective and models how “we got over”, but now is a time to reintroduce and practice those strategies. Our care for our children should be infused with our ways of being and our care for ourselves.

  1. Breathe, deeply. When you breathe deep you allow oxygen to reach your brain and you release tension. Your brain needs the oxygen to function at ideal levels. Deep, long breathes are also restorative and centering. When we breathe deeply we can also feel our body.
  2. Pray, meditate. Both mother wit and research have demonstrated faith is a protective factor for Black Americans! It helps with healing during sickness, with ailments and is calming. Spiritual or religious practice involve prayer or meditating on what is good and well. In spite of what is occurring, Black people historically rely on faith to get through difficult periods. Don’t, DO NOT let go of this practice. If you don’t already, include your children in your faith practices. I have a toddler. Sometimes she is in the mood to pray or practice gratitude, sometimes she isn’t. Today I found her in her room praying on her own, praying and expressing thanks to God. Works for me!
  3. Express gratitude for those who came before you and made a way. Look to what they did for strength and practical ideas to get through. If you have living family members who can tell you how “they made it” through segregation, the civil rights movement, serving in the military, or being the “first” in their field, now is the time to listen up. Black Americans have had to manage marginalization and acute societal contractions in the United States differently every time we have an occurrence. Call to ask, call, don’t text. Remember, telephones were made for talking. If you don’t have blood relatives to connect with, who are close friends and family you could reach out to for this conversation? A worry for many parents is the lack of inter-generational knowledge-again here is a space to invite your children into this conversation. Learning about how others they know have handled difficulties will likely prove useful for them as they learn about culturally based coping strategies. High school and college seniors, are understandably disappointed with the status of graduation celebrations this year. How might their perspective change if they heard family stories of resilience and persistence when public celebrations and appreciations of academic accomplishments for Black students were non-existent due to circumstance or could only be private and intimate? Turn these interviews into family histories. Tell our stories as keepers of our own culture.

There are 12 additional tips and strategies for Black American parents on the original post from the In The Know Blog.

This blog was also cross posted on Successful Black Parenting.


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Valerie Adams-Bass is a developmental psychologist who earned her PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies in Human Development from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. She focuses on adolescent development. Dr. Adams-Bass is an Assistant Professor of Youth and Social Innovations in the Department of Human Services at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education. She is a faculty affiliate with the Youth-Nex and an affiliate faculty member of the Racial Empowerment Collaborative with the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Pennsylvania.