The Answer to School Violence Is Social-Emotional Learning

The Answer to School Violence Is Social-Emotional Learning
Shawn Gust/Yakima Herald-Republic via AP
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The public dialogue on gun violence is all wrong and activists are wasting a huge opportunity to reduce violence in schools. Gun control is a dead-end. The country is so divided that no changes will realistically reduce school violence. The same is true for arming teachers. Instead, schools should focus on the root causes of violence and implement social-emotional development programs.

A History of Violence

Since the 1999 Columbine massacre, prevention efforts have primarily focused on profiling. Figure out what the typical school shooter looks like and find him before he commits the crime.

This approach hasn’t worked. Time and again the killer is found before the massacre and it is still not prevented. Eric Harris had a website with a “hit list” that was reported to police a full year before he and Dylan Klebold massacred 13 people at Columbine High School. Nikolas Cruz killed 17 people earlier this year after countless red flags, including introducing himself to others as a “school shooter.” And there is a yet unfinished story of a boy who told classmates he wanted to shoot up his school and commit suicide. Police investigated, and the student was moved to a different school. It is unclear whether the new school is even aware of the situation or what they are doing to monitor his behavior or address any mental health issues.

The Profile

Numerous studies by the CDC, the Department of Education, and even the Secret Service havedetermined risk factors correlated with school violence. They’ve found that there is no “typical” profile for a school shooter. However, one finding stands out: Most violence in schools is committed by students or former students with mental health problems.

A common knee-jerk reaction is that we should find these people and prevent them from access to guns. But, that doesn’t address the underlying mental health problem or tendency toward violence. In fact, such an approach might prevent people from seeking help if they know they will be tracked.

If we really want to prevent violence, we need to address mental health and work toward healing and social-emotional development.

No Way Out

The behavior most highly correlated with school homicides is previous suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts. In the Secret Service study78 percent of attackers had either attempted suicide or had suicidal thoughts before the attack. Beyond the risk of these young people becoming homicidal, many more will eventually harm or kill themselves.

Among people between the ages of 10 and 35, suicide is the second leading cause of death. If we address the underlying causes of suicide, we will also address homicides.

Identifying these students on a case by case basis is difficult, but with broadly implemented social-emotional programs in place it’s unnecessary. All students benefit regardless of their emotional well-being.

Suck It Up

Bully behavior — both bullying and being bullied — is also highly correlated with school homicides. But the logic of today’s “Anti-Bullying” campaigns is flawed. They aim to eliminate bullying, but bullying doesn’t itself cause suicide or homicide. It’s another symptom of poor social-emotional development.

Some look disdainfully upon Anti-Bullying campaigns believing that facing playground conflicts builds resilience. That may be, but telling a child to “suck it up” or “deal with it” on their own may actually result in students becoming less resilient over time.  

We should neither seek elimination of conflicts nor stand aside and let them take place, hoping that children learn the right lessons. We don’t ask students to solve math problems on their own. We can’t expect them to navigate complex social situations without the guidance of an adult.

Tell Me About Your Childhood

An Adverse Childhood Event (ACE) is abuse, neglect, or trauma that causes high levels of stress. The greater the number of ACEs a person experiences, the higher the likelihood that person will be involved in violence or experience mental health and social problems. In other words, ACE experiences are cumulative.

But so are experiences with protective factors like strong family or community support, social connectedness, a relationship with a caring adult, problem solving skills, and access to mental health services. Protective factors are the opposite of risk factors. Actions and activities that promote protective factors may actually prevent the negative effects of trauma, help people heal, and reduce the likelihood of violence.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

SEL is the best tool we have available for violence prevention. It teaches relationship-building and fosters connectedness — protective factors that counter the effects of ACEs. And research shows that teaching SEL alongside traditional academic skills significantly improves overall academic performance.

As common as it is to see a therapist or take anti-depressants, mental health treatment remains a stigma, especially for children. But SEL is mental health by a different name, and because it can be beneficial for all students, it removes the stigma. I call it “surreptitious mental health.”

If we can teach children to express their thoughts and feelings, ask for their needs and wants, and resolve conflicts verbally, we can dramatically reduce violence.

The Left and Right can easily coalesce around this issue. If SEL can prevent violence and improve academic performance, why isn’t every school district making it a top priority?

Stanley Buchesky is the Managing Partner of The Edtech Fund and was the Trump Administration’s “Beachhead” team CFO for the U.S. Department of Education from January to June, 2017.

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