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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Whenever the brain registers threat, it organises the body to fight the danger, flee from it, or hide from it. 

Here’s the rub. ‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually dangerous, but about what the brain perceives. It also isn’t always obvious. For a strong, powerful, magnificent, protective brain, ‘threat’ might count as anything that comes with even the teeniest potential of making a mistake, failure, humiliation, judgement, shame, separation from important adults, exclusion, unfamiliarity, unpredictability. They’re the things that can make any of us feel vulnerable.

Once the brain registers threat the body will respond. This can drive all sorts of behaviour. Some will be obvious and some won’t be. The responses can be ones that make them bigger (aggression, tantrums) or ones that make them smaller (going quiet or still, shrinking, withdrawing). All are attempts to get the body to safety. None are about misbehaviour, misintent, or disrespect. 

One of the ways bodies stay safe is by hiding, or by getting small. When children are in distress, they might look calm, but unless there is a felt sense of safety, the body will be surging with neurochemicals that make it impossible for that young brain to learn or connect. 

We all have our things that can send us there. These things are different for all of us, and often below our awareness. The responses to these ‘things’ are automatic and instinctive, and we won’t always know what has sent us there. 

We just need to be mindful that sometimes it’s when children seem like no trouble at all that they need our help the most. The signs can include a wilted body, sad or distant eyes, making the body smaller, wriggly bodies, a heavy head. 

It can also look as though they are ignoring you or being quietly defiant. They aren’t - their bodies are trying to keep them safe. A  body in flight or flight can’t hear words as well as it can when it’s calm.

What they need (what all kids need) are big signs of safety from the adult in the room - loving, warm, voices and faces that are communicating clear intent: ‘I’m here, I see you and I’ve got you. You are safe, and you can do this. I’m with you.’♥️
I’d love to invite you to an online webinar:
‘Thriving in a Stressful World: Practical Ways to Help Ourselves and Our Children Feel Secure And Calm’

As we emerge from the pandemic, stressors are heightened, and anxiety is an ever more common experience. We know from research that the important adults in the life of a child or teen have enormous capacity to help their world feel again, and to bring a felt sense of calm and safety to those young ones. This felt sense of security is essential for learning, regulation, and general well-being. 

I’m thrilled to be joining @marc.brackett and Dr Farah Schroder to explore the role of emotion regulation and the function of anxiety in our lives. Participants will learn ways to help express and regulate their own, and their children’s, emotions, even when our world may feel a little scary and stressful. We will also share practical and holistic strategies that can be most effective in fostering well-being for both ourselves and children. 

In this webinar, hosted by @dalailamacenter you will have the opportunity to learn creative, evidence-informed takeaways to help you and the children in your care build resilience and foster a sense of security and calmness. Join us for this 1 ½ hour session, including a dynamic Q&A period.
 
Webinar Details:
Thursday, October 14, 2021
1:30 - 3:00 PM PST
 
Registrants will receive a Zoom link to attend the webinar live, as well as a private link to a recording of the webinar to watch if they cannot join in at the scheduled time.

Register here:
https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/thriving-in-a-stressful-world-a-heart-mind-live-webinar-tickets-170348045590

The link to register is in my story.♥️
So much of what our kids and teens are going through isn’t normal - online school, extended separation from their loved people, lockdowns, masks. Even if what they are going through isn’t ‘normal’, their response will be completely understandable. Not all children will respond the same way if course, but whatever they feel will be understandable, relatable, and ‘normal’. 

Whether they feel anxious, confused, frustrated, angry, or nothing at all, it’s important that their response is normalised. Research has found that children are more likely to struggle with traumatic events if they believe their response isn’t normal. This is because they tend to be more likely to interpret their response as a sign of breakage. 

Try, ‘What’s happening is scary. There’s no ‘right’ way to feel and different people will feel different things. It’s okay to feel whatever you feel.’

Any message you can give them that you can handle all their feelings and all their words will help them feel safer, and their world feel steadier.♥️
We need to change the way we think about discipline. It’s true that traditional ‘discipline’ (separation, shame, consequences/punishment that don’t make sense) might bring compliant children, but what happens when the fear of punishment or separation isn’t there? Or when they learn that the best way to avoid punishment is to keep you out of the loop?

Our greatest parenting ‘tool’ is our use of self - our wisdom, modelling, conversations, but for any of this to have influence we need access to their ‘thinking’ brain - the prefrontal cortex - the part that can learn, think through consequences, plan, make deliberate decisions. During stress this part switches off. It is this way for all of us. None of us are up for lectures or learning (or adorable behaviour) when we’re stressed.

The greatest stress for young brains is a felt sense of separation from their important people. It’s why time-outs, shame, calm down corners/chairs/spaces which insist on separation just don’t work. They create compliance, but a compliant child doesn’t mean a calm child. As long as a child doesn’t feel calm and safe, we have no access to the part of the brain that can learn and be influenced by us.

Behind all behaviour is a need - power,  influence, independence, attention (connection), to belong, sleep - to name a few). The need will be valid. Children are still figuring out the world (aren’t we all) and their way of meeting a need won’t always make sense. Sometimes it will make us furious. (And sometimes because of that we’ll also lose our thinking brains and say or do things that aren’t great.)

So what do we do when they get it wrong? The same thing we hope our people will do when we get things wrong. First, we recognise that the behaviour is not a sign of a bad child or a bad parent, but their best attempt to meet a need with limited available resources. Then we collect them - we calm ourselves so we can bring calm to them. Breathe, be with. Then we connect through validation. Finally, when their bodies are calm and their thinking brain is back, talk about what’s happened, what they can do differently next time, and how they can put things right. Collect, connect, redirect.
Our nervous systems are talking to each other every minute of every day. We will catch what our children are feeling and they will catch ours. We feel their distress, and this can feed their distress. Our capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

Children create their distress in us as a way to recruit support to help them carry the emotional load. It’s how it’s meant to be. Whatever you are feeling is likely to be a reflection what your children are feeling. If you are frustrated, angry, helpless, scared, it’s likely that they are feeling that way too. Every response in you and in them is relevant. 

You don’t need to fix their feelings. Let their feelings come, so they can go. The healing is in the happening. 

In that moment of big feelings it’s more about who you are than what you do. Feel what they feel with a strong, steady heart. They will feel you there with them. They will feel it in you that you get them, that you can handle whatever they are feeling, and that you are there. This will help calm them more than anything. We feel safest when we are ‘with’. Feel the feeling, breathe, and be with - and you don’t need to do more than that. 
There will be a time for teaching, learning, redirecting, but the middle of a storm is not that time.♥️

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