Why I’m Unfortunately Not Surprised By More Incidences Of School Violence

Why I’m Unfortunately Not Surprised By More Incidences Of School Violence

Yet another incident of violence in a school. Over the last few weeks, there were shootings and stabbings in Kentucky, Texas, and New York high schools. We cannot deny or avoid the problem, even if we desperately try. Our children hear of these incidences, and even though they are relatively rare, we can only imagine the thoughts and feelings our children are sitting with. As parents we are fully aware of our deep concern, fear, and outrage over this epidemic.

From when our children are young, we teach them to avoid strangers. Sadly, it is the individuals they are familiar with that are the most likely to harm them. This includes their partners, family members, friends, and others they know. It’s frightening to accept that reality.

Children and adults are being injured, and in very unfortunate cases, murdered, just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Research has shown that school shootings and other acts of violence are rarely impulsive acts. They are typically well thought out and planned in advance. For many offenders, they observed violent films, violent video games, and participated in repetitive viewing of violent media. The most common goal is for retribution. 61 percent are motivated by a desire for revenge, and 75 percent felt bullied, persecuted, or threatened by others.[i]

We also need to be aware of the “Werther Effect” which is defined as a duplication, copycat, of another suicidal act. Because these events are well-publicized, it can trigger an increase in similar acts for days or weeks after an incident.  

What we can do.

Gun control is typically brought up and debated following an incident. The fundamental issue being neglected is that society and schools don’t necessarily teach constructive ways to cope and deal with depression, anxiety, disappointment, frustration, and other significant emotional states and emotions.

There isn’t guidance in teaching about emotional regulation, frustration tolerance, identifying core values, problem solving skills, etc. These constructs serve as the foundation to allow for regulating difficult emotions, fortifying a moral compass, and inevitably facilitating sound decision making.

Our Schools

Schools make it a point to conduct workshops on kindness, diversity, bullying, inclusivity, drug and alcohol use and abuse and many other topics, but don’t teach the foundational skills. The “do this” and “don’t do that” one shot deal workshop structure conducted at schools is unproductive and ineffective. It’s counterintuitive to how kids learn and integrate information and antithetical to research on learning theory.

Teaching about emotional states and emotions unequivocally matter. According to research, they are known to contribute to:

• attention, memory, and learning,  • decision making,  • the quality of relationships,  • physical and mental health, and, • performance and creativity. There is a plethora of studies that support the need to integrate social emotional learning (SEL) in schools and at home because of the long-standing positive benefits.

Some evidence based school SEL and mindfulness curriculum that can be advocated for include:

RULER” – Yale Child Study Center – (Pre-K-HS),

2.  casel.org – (Preschool-HS),

3.  “Second Step” – (k-8th grade)

4.  “Mind Up” – Goldie Hawn Foundation – (Pre-K-8th grade) – www.mindup.org,

5.  “School Connect” – (High School),

6.  “Choose Love Movement” – (Pre-K-HS), and

7.  mindfulllifeproject.org – (Elementary School-MS).

By integrating SEL’s 5 competencies — self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision making, and relationship skills into curriculum content, educators are not only giving students opportunities to practice their social-emotional skills, but also showing them how integral these skills are in their daily lives.

As Parents

The more environments that are supporting our children in learning and strengthening their social and emotional intelligence (EI), the greater the benefit for all of us. It is important that we, as parents, advocate for a greater emphasis on SEL in the curriculum, but in the meantime, there are also measures we can take to strengthen the social and emotional intelligence of our children.

Role modeling for children by facilitating discussion around feelings, and making connections between children’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors is essential. Facilitating an emotional climate is also critical. A parent can’t just infuse skills, they need to maintain a climate that is conducive for emotions to be expressed, accepted, and effectively worked through.

The way for parents to teach EI is to focus on:

• Recognizing emotion;

• Understanding emotion – i.e., knowing the causes and consequences of emotions;

• Expressing emotion – i.e., knowing how and when to express emotions with different people and in multiple contexts and under varied influences such as personality, gender, power, social norms (family/work), and race, ethnicity, and culture, and

• Regulating emotion – i.e., the thoughts and actions we use to prevent, reduce, initiate, maintain or enhance emotions.

Here are some diagrams and exercises helping to make the connection for children regarding understanding and identifying their emotions:

  1. Feelings chart to measure feelings on each day, or throughout the day.
  2. Feelings chart with 63 different facial expressions, to discuss or identify different feelings. Part of emotional intelligence is being able to identify and describe feelings and this will help help to expand their literacy around this. 
  3. Another one to help with emotional literacy. An extensive list of words to describe physical and emotional states when your needs are satisfied, and when they aren’t. 
  4. A feeling wheel.
  5. Develop coping cards:
    • When I ________, I feel ______ (also rate intensity of feeling from 1 (low) to 5 (high) because ________.
    • What I need is _________________________.
  6. See here for other activities and ideas on ways to explore emotions. 
  7. For other ways parents can integrate SEL, see my blog on Huffington Post “Parenting With Emotional Intelligence: An Aspect Of Parenting That’s Too Often Overlooked

As parents, we need to strongly consider taking a stand and advocate for fundamental change that would teach our children skills to regulate their emotions and would guide them in making more mindful decisions. Scarlett Lewis, Jesse Lewis’s mother who was a victim of Newtown, and created an SEL program called “Choose Love Movement” stated, “If this program had existed when Adam Lanza was a young child, it would have saved my son’s life and it would have saved Adam Lanza’s life.” About Adam she compassionately wrote, “He did what he was supposed to do, and it was up to us to help him. He was just a kid.” 

Viewing curricula through a social, emotional, and moral lens is like a habit of mind: the more kids do it, the easier and more habitual it becomes. Perhaps the greatest benefit of teaching lessons like these is that kids will start to examine their education, their decisions, their interests, and their relationships through this lens. They will be assisted in cultivating a more thoughtful and discerning approach in their general life. What more can we want for our children and the peers our children interact with.

[i] CIRG/NCAVC. (1999). The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective.


About the Author: Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D.

Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D., MPH, LCSW-R. is the President/Clinical Director of Westchester Group Works, a Center for Group Therapy in Harrison, NY and maintains a private practice. She is the Co-Founder and Clinical Director of “Thru My Eyes” a nonprofit 501c3 organization that offers free clinically-guided videotaping to chronically medically ill individuals who want to leave video legacies for their children and loved ones.

She is Adjunct Faculty at New York University (NYU) in their graduate program in the Silver School of Social Work. Michelle is a Board of Directors member at The Boys & Girls in Mount Vernon. She is author of the book “Free Your Child From Overeating” 53 Mind-Body Strategies For Lifelong Health” and is also a Huffington Post blogger.

You can visit her website at: www.michellemaidenberg.com and link to her blogs at: http://www.michellemaidenberg.com/blog/. You can also visit her foundation at: www.thrumyeyes.org.

 

One Comment

Tara Fishler

I read your well-written article on a break from teaching the “Restore 360” curriculum from Morningside Center For Teaching Social Responsibility. It is a fabulous Restorative Practices program that is implemented in many schools, including Lehman HS in the Bronx, where I am the Restorative Practices Coordinator. I appreciate the resources you included, some of which we we just speaking about in our 5-day training. I would add that more restorative work needs to be done in our schools and communities, which should include preventative relationship building and constructive ways to repair harms that may occur. These can help with breaking the “school to prison pipeline” and providing often missing or insufficient mental health services. Keep up the good work!

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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