Parkland’s shooting is the most recent reminder that we have a chronic anger problem in our country.
Enacting sensible gun laws will be a necessary and constructive step forward for our country, but we can do more … much more.
We want to blame the NRA and the politicians for defending what, in our minds and hearts, is indefensible. If only legislators would pass more sensible gun laws, we want to believe that the curse of ongoing atrocities would be lifted from our country; but more is needed … much more.
Time to process
First, we need time to process the crushing incomprehensibility of yet another act of violence. One of the most difficult pieces of ‘processing’ is forgiveness. Scarlett Lewis, the mother of 6-year old Jesse Lewis (shot down in the Sandy Hook tragedy), is a living example of forgiveness in action. Her message is healing and deeply important.
Without accepting the challenge of forgiveness, how can we expect life to move forward and build better tomorrows? Watch Brené Brown’s short explanation about the essential, yet not-so-obvious elements of true, life altering forgiveness.
Is understanding possible, or even necessary?
Is it even possible to understand the toxic mix of emotions that sometimes transform into anger … which, over time, transforms into murderous rage? Understanding might be too much of a stretch for most of us, but that doesn’t excuse us from acknowledging – and constructively responding to – difficult truths.
Unprocessed experiences and emotions
Mental health issues as a ‘go-to’ answer dooms us to loose and sloppy responses. “Framing the conversation about gun violence in the context of mental illness does a disservice both to the victims of violence and unfairly stigmatizes the many others with mental illness,” says American Psychological Association President Jessica Henderson Daniel, and “… it does not direct us to appropriate solutions to this public health crisis.”
Acknowledging the role of shooters’ unprocessed experiences and emotions is a first step towards neutralizing the root causes of their explosive violence.
“… he’s going to explode.”
Sheriff’s offices got at least 18 calls about the Parkland shooter over the past decade. Those calls described guns in his possession, threats and violence. It got so bad that some teachers even went so far as to ban him from their classrooms. “Looking in his eyes, he just looked like there was a problem,” one teacher told The Washington Post.
Developmental delays are not meaningfully corrected with punishments. Expulsion, rejection, and exclusion do not help. Those responses from teachers and classmates only exacerbate problems – as we have witnessed too many times.
There are, though, constructively pre-emptive approaches, available for K-12 students that have been shown to ease the isolation, frustration and dis-empowerment resulting from warped perspectives on reality. When groups of young students consistently exercise, together, their innate reasoning and perspective-taking skills while focusing on age-appropriate challenges, unimagined (yet hoped for) alignments and connections develop.
The TOGETHER element is essential. Absolutely essential.
Collaborative problem-solving experiences, when age-appropriately relevant, (without intrusive, judgmental, or lecture-y comments from adults) does more to ‘build belonging’ than any structured curriculum ever could. Why? Because, as Dr. Lilian Katz’ research has documented:
“The younger children are, the more they learn from interactive experiences, rather than passive experiences.”
Solving age-appropriate challenges in collaboration with peers builds belonging by building mutual-respect along with self respect… experiences, we can all agree, are totally lacking in school shooters’ lives.
“Children who are generally disliked, who are aggressive and disruptive, who are unable to sustain close relationships with other children, and who cannot establish for themselves a place in the peer culture are seriously at-risk for the rest of their lives. The elements of social competence are not usually learned through instruction, or lessons, or lecturing, or preaching.
“Scolding or preaching about being ‘nice’ is the wrong content for relationships between adults and children.”
~ Dr. Lilian Katz
Even very young children resist being told what to do, how to think, and how to behave all of the time. Children are, though, completely open to, and interested in, collaborative problem solving around challenges that matter to their own well-being. It is an instinctive/primitive approach to real learning which, by the way, is conclusively validated by contemporary brain science. Putting into action, which includes giving personal voice to, personal understanding is one of the most efficient approaches to building real understanding that is really used.
Neuronal connections that can save lives
Amygdalae, small almond-shaped areas of the brain, located deep within the limbic system, receive all incoming signals from the environment in about 20 milliseconds. The pre-frontal cortex, where logic and self-regulation reside, receive those same signals about 280 milliseconds after the amygdalae… putting the pre-frontal cortex at a serious disadvantage for responding in the most well-reasoned and appropriate ways.
The result, when mindfulness practices and shared-thinking opportunities are experienced on a regular basis: walls of separation and isolation are dismantled, while connections between students’ prefrontal cortex (executive functioning) and amygdala are strengthened – due to an increase of gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), the calming neurotransmitter. Emotions are still felt, but they no longer have the power to consume, because neuronal connections to constructive options have been physically built up in the ‘hard-wiring’ of the brain … something lectures are incapable of accomplishing.
“Neuroscience tells us that positive emotions are generated in the brain when students develop their own ideas.” – Prof. James Zull
Real solutions exist, AND THEY NEED TO BE IMPLEMENTED NOW!
Young students need to directly experience feeling included, feeling that they belong … and we need to accept our responsibility to consistently provide those types of nurturing experiences in order to neutralize the toxic build-up of anger that is so impossibly, heartbreakingly destructive.
Young children, even by age 4, generally have strong reactions to always being told what to do … especially when it comes to their feelings and their interactions with others. Their strong reactions often show up as challenging behavior, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It really doesn’t.
From Challenging to Cooperating
The key to successfully creating more cooperation in early childhood environments is to provide young learners with multiple opportunities to discover how much they have in common with peers. This very practical approach is NOT achieved with lectures, books or videos … at least not nearly as effectively as it is achieved with peer group discussions.
We were never blank slates!
When children are treated as blank slates, most of them automatically resist. It’s almost as if they’re wired to resist … but is that such a terrible thing? Well, sure, it can be, when resistance turns into challenging behavior. But resistance can be interpreted as a signal that children have a solid sense of who they are and how “things” should be. Rather than treating children like blank slates who need to be taught everything, especially when it comes to their behavior, wise educators use relevant peer group discussions as one powerful key to successful turnarounds in their students’ behavior.
Five easy keys to designing successful peer group discussions
- Make sure discussions never, ever isolate or point to specific individuals.
- Use visual examples of the topic around which you want your students to discover solutions, (Google IMAGES is a great resource for pictures of: pushing, not sharing, pulling cat’s tail, street safety issues, whispering in front of others etc., etc.) but …
- … do NOT start discussions about specific behaviors – even though you’re showing a picture of that behavior. Instead, start discussion with broad where, what, who or how’s the kids will easily succeed at identifying and describing. (Neutral successes are important at this point.)
- After a few of those kinds of questions, then everyone is ready to “unpack” what’s going on in the picture you’ve shown them… just be sure the questions are open-ended and non-leading! If ever the questions you ask are not open-ended, then be quick to follow with, “Why is that your answer?” or “Will you tell us why you think that?”
- Paraphrase kids’ answers. Of course, that doesn’t mean ‘parrot’ their answers. It means saying, in your own words, what you think each child said for the purpose of making sure you really understood. (Other benefits of this 5th key: √Fully acknowledges each student’s contribution to the discussion. √Keeps you really, reeeeeally listening. √Because they’ll be especially interested in how you paraphrase their thoughts, when you add vocabulary-enriching synonyms for their most commonly used words they’ll be paying LOTS of attention.)
We all want to belong, and – actually – we all pretty much do… we just need to discover that fact together.
When you get right down to it, we all have a lot more in common than we have differences that separate us. For instance, none of us likes to be interrupted or pushed. None of us really likes to fight or interact with people who don’t consider fairness a value to live by… but …
… trying to reasonably and logically explain that to young kids, who function mostly out of the emotional part of their brains, is rarely – if ever – productive.
The good news is: getting groups of kids engaged in discussions around subjects that really matter to them, with questions that communicate respect for their intelligence and collaborative problem solving abilities …. well, that’s a horse of a different color !!!
Sometimes kids (little ones and big ones) have resistance to our direct efforts to grow their growth mindset. That’s when questions that are actually conversation starters, can help.
Conversation implies all kinds of POSITIVES: √ Respect for students’ perspective and problem solving abilities √ Interest in what they think and feel and deal with √ Engagement with their values, their priorities √ Trust in students’ intentions √ Listening, really listening
Listening is most important
When kids receive quality attention, on a regular basis, to express themselves – especially with regard to their challenges – they get to directly experience that they matter. When they feel that all-important sense of mattering, then the effort it takes to overcome challenges is much more likely to matter, too.
Of course, listening to endless, random complaints and whining doesn’t have much value for anyone.
But respectful conversations that start with respectful questions … now that’s a different story. Try it, and let us know how it goes. We’d LOVE to hear your experiences.
Empathy and self control are just two halves of the same coin, as are their opposites impulsivity and selfishness.
Neuroscientists have reached consistent agreement about the part of the brain where empathy activates responses. What’s fascinating is that current research is linking this same part of the brain with self control.
Can Empathy be Taught?
From the Kids’ Own Wisdom perspective: NO. And from the neuroscience perspective, I imagine the answer would be the same. So, what to do? Empathy is essential for humanity to remain humane.
Empathy can be drawn out. Empathy can be exercised. Several programs are succeeding at just that task. ROOTS OF EMPATHY is one time-tested program:
A growing number of educators and social entrepreneurs across the country are discovering that the secret to learning empathy, emotional literacy, self-awareness, cooperation, effective communication, and many of the other skills classified as “social and emotional learning,” lies in experience, not in workbooks and rote classroom exercises. Unleashing Empathy: How Teachers Transform Classrooms With Emotional Learning
Dogs in Classroom Help Children Learn Empathy
A South Carolina education program is proving that dogs themselves can do plenty of teaching: Healing Species, sponsored by the Pee Dee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Assault, is a compassion education and violence prevention program being taught in two schools in Florence and Darlington Counties. There is high hope that these programs will expand to other schools.
The concept is pretty simple: bring kind rescue dogs into classrooms to help kids learn empathy and pique their interest in difficult subject matter. But the effects are profound.
“Even for my toughest kids, the most street savvy, it almost physically transforms them into a child with empathy. I’ve got guidance counselors giving me specific instances where students are applying what they learned and taking care of each other when that wasn’t there before.”
Kids’ Own Wisdom is another effective approach that does not attempt to teach empathy. Instead, peer group discussions are structured around SOARR-ing questions to evoke kids natural inclination to collaboratively solve problems. Kids willingly (enthusiastically, even) resolve their own challenges. They just need the right kinds of questions, under the right circumstances (peer group discussions) to ‘spark’ their innate creativity and perspective taking abilities.
Did you ever, in your wildest dreams, imagine that neuroscience would combine with babies and dogs to help us help our students create better lives for themselves? Fascinating times, to be sure.
Neuroscience Explains: The Empathy-Self Control Connection
An interesting experiment helped to demonstrate this connection: Volunteers saw a picture of a man standing in a room with red discs on the wall. The volunteers could see all the discs, but they had to try to estimate how many the man in the room could see. This required them to shift their perspective to the man’s, and they were less able to do this when the rTPJ, (the location of empathy in the brain, as identified by scientists), was disrupted. What’s even more fascinating, this experiment predicted both impulsivity and selfishness – the opposites of self control and empathy – as measured in different experiments.
Long term consequences
Impulsivity and selfishness are just two halves of the same coin, as are their opposites restraint and empathy. Perhaps this is why people who show dark traits like psychopathy and sadism score low on empathy but high on impulsivity.
Perhaps, also, it’s why impulsivity correlates with slips among recovering addicts, while empathy correlates with longer bouts of abstinence. These qualities represent our successes and failures at escaping our own egocentric bubbles, and understanding the lives of others—even when those others wear our own older faces.
OBSERVATIONAL LEARNING, sometimes referred to as vicarious reinforcement, can take place at any point in life. It’s most common during childhood as children learn from the authority figures and peers in their lives. It plays an important role in the SOCIALIZATION PROCESS.
Factors That Influence Observational Learning – Psychologist Albert Bandura (describing his own perspective as ‘social cognitivism’) is the researcher perhaps best identified with learning through observation. According to Bandura’s research, there are a number of factors that increase the likelihood that a behavior will be intentionally observed and then imitated. Among them:
People who are similar to us in age, sex, and interests
When the situation is confusing, ambiguous, or unfamiliar
The key element to note in Bandura’s highly regarded observations is that peers learn from peers. Peers are highly motivated to pay attention to peers for all the obvious reasons – acceptance and trust being prime among those reasons.
-Albert Bandura, Social Learning Theory, 1977