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Hasbro Be Fearless Be Kind

When he enrolled in an eighth-grade elective, Seth had no idea it would totally change his life.

In fact, he hadn't expected to take an unusual elective at all — that is, until his dad, a science teacher at his middle school, brought up the idea of Seth taking a class called Unified Leadership, which focused on intellectual disabilities.

Seth is, in many ways, just like most teens you would meet. He plays baseball, video games, and likes to work on dirt bikes. All this is pretty standard fare for a teenager growing up in Swartz Creek, a small city in southeast Michigan.


So a class about disabilities was a bit out of Seth’s wheelhouse. But he said, sure, he’d take it.

The decision not only turned him into a social activist, it also had a ripple effect across his whole school.

All photos courtesy of Kayla Bright.

Unified Leadership was — and still is — a relatively new class that's part of the Unified Champion Schools program, which is funded by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs. In it, general education and special education students study together, helping promote a broader view of disabilities and social inclusion.

“They learn about different disabilities: what that means for the people who have them, what that might look like, the different challenges they may have,” says Kayla Bright, the special education teacher who leads the class.

Students were surprised to find, for instance, that celebrities — like NFL running back Jamaal Charles — face intellectual disabilities and still succeed at the highest levels, Bright says.

Of course, studying the issues in a classroom isn’t the be-all and end-all for unified learning.

Students also take part in public awareness campaigns, such as the “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign, which challenges inflammatory language used against people with disabilities.

They put up posters in school and even brought to school a well-known public speaker, Anthony Ianni, a former basketball player for Michigan State University who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder as a young boy.

Sports also fits into unified learning in another more active way. The program, through its Unified Sports initiative, also incorporates Special Olympics sports and related activities so that the students can play a number of sports together, including basketball, flag football, weightlifting, and track and field. Its explicit aim is to promote social justice in the more than 5,000 K-12 schools currently participating in the program.

This program helped Seth realize that kids with disabilities often face discrimination on the playing field.

Before taking the class, Seth hadn’t really considered this form of widespread discrimination. The troubling truth is that disabled students face a barrage of social obstacles at school. While bullying is rampant in the U.S., students with disabilities are at an increased risk.

After befriending the special education students in his class, it didn’t take long for Seth to better understand their struggles. He realized that disabled people are often treated as outsiders and disrespected, even though they shouldn’t be. He saw an opportunity to make a difference, to fight discrimination and to change others’ minds.

“Training together and playing together,” the Special Olympics website notes, “is a quick path to friendship and understanding.”

Studies back this up. They reveal that Unified Sports teammates often spend time together outside competitions, and as they get to know each other, the barriers break down between those with and without disabilities.

And this has certainly been the case for Seth, who has made good friends while coaching bowling and while competing in sports like shot put, weightlifting, and long jump.

But Seth knew that fighting discrimination meant more than just playing sports.

That’s why he has undertaken the hard work of helping curb his abled friends’ prejudices and helping them gain a greater sense of empathy for people with disabilities.

In part, this means fighting verbal harassment. Seth has seen his friends called the R-word by bullies. He knows that not only is this disrespectful, it feeds into the pervasive narrative that disabled students are outsiders, that they deserve ridicule — a narrative that can cause terrible harm and division.  

And that’s why he’s become so passionate about the “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign and urges others to disavow inflammatory language.

Though the Unified Leadership class just launched last year, it has already affected the rest of the school, thanks to the efforts of kids like Seth.

Kayla Bright, the class’s teacher, says that along with Seth, other general education students have begun hanging out with their special education peers. They've started seeing special ed students as potential friends, rather than outsiders to ridicule. Students who used to be shunned were now being included and treated with compassion.

It was a broad change that offers lessons for adults, too, Bright says — from the importance of empathy and acceptance to the language that we use to talk about disability.

Bright marvels at people like Seth, who are willing to stand up and confront discrimination rather than stand by and watch it happen. This fearlessness explains why Seth was recently awarded the Be Fearless Be Kind award from Special Olympics and Hasbro, the global play and entertainment behind hits brands like My Little Pony and Play-Doh.

Be Fearless Be Kind is the company's largest philanthropic initiative, designed to empower youth like Seth to have the empathy, compassion, and courage to stand up for others and be inclusive throughout their lives.

And though history books are filled with the stories of larger-than-life leaders, more often than not, the stuff of social change often boils down to these small acts of courage.

Befriending someone who’s different from you, repudiating hateful language, showing compassion for someone whose differences you’ve always feared — these are the things that result in real change.

That change is starting to happen on school playing fields. It's about time we all follow suit and get on the same team.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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