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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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
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

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