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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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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