The Road to Preventing School Shootings Starts with This

A shot rings out. Another follows. Then the sound no civilian should be made to hear. . .the sound of automatic weapons. The sounds of running, shouting, and terror fill the air. It’s unfathomable and yet becoming all too familiar. 

Your heart breaks when you hear of someone entering a school and opening fire. You want the people in charge to create positive change! You hope schools take appropriate action to minimize your children’s exposure to violence.

School shootings are a political hotbed. An NBC News article recently published details a growing belief among conservative parents that social-emotional learning (SEL) programs designed to reduce racial disparities, particularly in school discipline, cause mass shooting school violence. The article discusses a Texas school shooting last October and how parents received a political flier six months later calling for the elimination of SEL programs.

Conservative opponents of social-emotional learning worry that schools implementing SEL programs will stop holding students accountable when misbehaving. These Republican leaders are seeking the elimination of SEL practices and the institution of harsher disciplinary policies in schools. In continuing this conversation, now consider the following:

“Violence begets violence; hate begets hate, and toughness begets a greater toughness. It is all a descending spiral, and the end is destruction — for everybody. Along the way of life, someone must have enough sense and morality to cut off the chain of hate.” -Martin Luther King Jr.

Regarding our reactions

You may recall a time when someone yelled at you, and you reacted by yelling back. Violence is met with equal violence, even if it is only in volume used to express displeasure. Yet, with emotional maturity, violence could be met with understanding. You are less reactive when you learn how to eliminate your emotional triggers. Social-emotional learning decreases violence.

According to a recent study, Social Emotional Learning Practices in Schools and Bullying Prevention (Fredrick, Traudt & Nickerson, 2022), SEL programs aid in reducing externalizing and aggressive behavior. Emerging research also suggests that these programs can prevent bullying perpetration and change students’ attitudes toward bullying.

What is the path to becoming a school shooter?

A 2004 study by the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education found that nearly three-quarters of school shooters had been bullied or harassed at school. The majority of school shooters are late adolescent males; almost all of them could be described as marginalized by society. Marginalized kids feel ostracized, persecuted, harassed, and left out by society.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) provides a solution

Marginalized kids must be seen and surrounded by empowering supervision and supportive peers. By embracing these kids, fostering a culture of inclusiveness in schools, and teaching them how to emotionally deal with bullying, we can reduce the incidences of shootings.

There is a program called, You Can Sit with Me, in which select student ambassadors wear a wristband that lets all children know they are available to talk, no questions asked. You Can Sit with Me is an inclusive and kindness campaign. It is a simple wristband with a life-changing message. You Can Sit with Me ambassadors wear a highly visible yellow wristband worn by children in schools, sports clubs, and community groups to show that they welcome anyone to sit with them and they are inclusive.

Children are trained what to do and say if someone comes to sit with them by asking, “Are you OK?” At no time does a child offer advice or intervene in the problem; rather, offering a safe place to sit and seek help from a teacher or adult if needed.

This program, initiated in primary and carried into middle schools, could minimize the marginalization of individuals who may otherwise fall off the deep end.

Parents can help children by teaching them everybody is an individual who brings their unique gifts to the world. Teach them to be curious about differences, as distinct from reacting with fear or judgment. 

School programs that can help our kids

Schools can promote inclusivity and tolerance by encouraging children to seek out those who are alone and open conversations with them. The child alone on the playground may be timid; they benefit significantly from being asked to join group activities. Not all children will voluntarily join a group; the group members are responsible for including people they previously overlooked. Be inclusive rather than exclusive.

Schools can also promote mutual respect and kindness between students. Jack Kornfield speaks about a teacher who did this in her classroom in his YouTube video, Seeing goodness in another human being. The teacher asked the students to write down all the names of their classmates, and next to the name, write something they see as good in the person. The teacher collected the documents, cut them up, and collated them. After gathering and sorting the papers, she handed each child a paper with their name with 31 insights about the good others see in them. This focus on remarking on the good in everyone is a powerful way to open the children’s hearts to each other. 

Parents can be part of the solution

Another aspect that could benefit children is for parents and schools to teach children how to deal with bullying emotionally. The bully’s need to control often stems from unprocessed emotions from traumatic events that left them vulnerable and helpless. They will do everything they can to not be in that position, often lashing out before they can be hurt. 

Understanding that hurt people hurt people, can open compassion, and allow children to see the bully in a new light. The “seeing the goodness” exercise could help change the bully/victim interaction dynamics. Schools can also bring in the Who I Am Makes a Difference blue ribbon program, run by Helice “Grandma Sparky” Bridges. Those who participate in this powerful program learn to place a blue ribbon, which says, Who I Am Makes a Difference, above the recipient’s heart. This simple effort has been documented to save lives. When was the last time you were told you make a difference? How would it make you feel if someone acknowledged you for making a difference? How do you think a kid would feel?

Teaching children how to manage their thoughts and feelings is key to teaching them how to deal with bullying. 

Techniques for kids to emotionally deal with bullying

Children who learn to process their feelings using the three-step “Feel, Name, Allow” sequence develop inner strength and find it harder to be triggered by another’s behavior or words. They develop core strength and know who they are, so they are less susceptible to being influenced by the words and actions of others.

The process: Ask your child to focus on the feeling; describe how it feels and where it is located. Ask your child to name the feeling. Encourage your child to allow themself to feel what they feel. When your attention is focused on the feeling, your mind is quiet, and the feeling is allowed to flow. The feeling will dissipate after about 90 seconds. This process can be repeated each time the mind focuses on a problem. 

A valuable perspective for your child is from the Talmud, “We don’t see the world as it is; we see it as we are.” This means the words used by others reveal how they view the world. If someone criticizes you or your child, their words reveal everything about who the critic is and nothing about who you or your child is! Your child can think of it as if they are a mirror, reflecting the bully’s words to show the bully his inner turmoil. No words need to be said by your child; they know they are the mirror. When a child understands the criticism reveals the critic, they are freed from assigning the meaning of those words to themselves. 

When you are reactive to the words or behavior of another, you are emotionally triggered. Your reactiveness is often based on past events; emotions that were never processed rise when you experience behavior that subconsciously reminds you of the original event. Every time you are reactive, your reaction reveals an inner wound you can heal. Thus, the person to whom you are reactive is a mirror for you, showing your inner wounding.     

For young children, it may be helpful to teach them a technique taught by Dr. Tim Jordan: replacing the charged word with the word tomato. Sounds silly? Yes. Nevertheless, very powerful. Teach your child that when called a name, they can tell themselves, “It’s just a word; I can replace the word with tomato. I know I am not a tomato. It is just a word.”

Teaching children to see others with compassion and respect the goodness in each person will result in fewer children feeling marginalized. The fewer marginalized students we have, the fewer school shootings there will be. 

When children learn to manage their thoughts and feelings and value themselves, there will be fewer hurting people continuing to hurt people. The hurting cycle can be broken when we take the time to teach love, compassion, and emotional intelligence.

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