Fighting Violence with Early Childhood Education

This summer two horrific mass shootings shocked the country.

The first, in July, took place at the midnight opening of “The Dark Knight Rises”  in Aurora, CO, just down the road from Littleton, a town that’s still reeling from the Columbine massacre. The shooter, James Holmes, killed 12 and wounded 58.

The second attack, by an unrelated assailant, Wade M. Page, occurred in August at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, near Milwaukee. Six died and three were injured.

This fall, two school shooters joined this nefarious company. A 15-year-old was charged with assault and attempted murder in Perry Hall, MD; and a 14-year-old shot into the ceiling of a packed classroom in Normal, IL. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

Child with American flag and gun inTexas

A child with an American flag and a gun in Texas in the 1920s. Photo by Harry Walker, courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. UH Digital Library

Risk Factors

We know very little about these shooters, and we certainly don’t know what caused these attacks. But we do know some of the factors that increase the risk of violent and aggressive behavior, and we also know that risk factors are cumulative—one plus one equals more than two. They can easily become overwhelming.

In young children, these risks work to produce challenging behavior, and when that behavior continues into kindergarten and beyond it becomes harder and harder to change.

Children with behavior problems are frequently rejected by their peers, and as a result they’re deprived of opportunities to develop and practice the social and emotional skills they need for self-esteem and success.

Their behavior also creates problems in school, where teachers all too often make the situation worse by teaching them less and punishing them more.

No wonder children with challenging behavior develop into teens who drop out of school and turn to delinquency, gangs, drugs, and mental illness. As adults they’re more likely to commit violent crimes.

White Power

Even knowing nothing about his childhood, we can guess about how risk factors led one of these shooters down a dangerous path. The Milwaukee gunman was immersed in the neo-Nazi culture of racial hatred and its white-power music, “hatecore.” The songs he played on his guitar and bass were intended to incite violence and strengthen commitment to his cause.

To heighten the risk, he—and all of the other assailants, including the teens—had ready access to guns.

A Different Life?

But maybe once upon a time they were young children with challenging behavior. If they’d had strong relationships with their teachers and effective teaching, they might have turned out differently.

The police are lobbying for high quality early childhood education because research shows that it prevents crime.

What do you think? What causes violent behavior? Is it guns? Violent media? Poverty? Genes? And what can we do about it? Can high quality early childhood education prevent crime and violence?

6 Comments on “Fighting Violence with Early Childhood Education”

  1. I think that children raised to feel agentive: to feel that when they want to do something they can find or carve out a road to doing it, perhaps with help, are less likely to become violent. I think that a balance between co-operation and competition would help, rather than the enormous emphasis our society places on competition. I recommend reading Peter H. Johnston books, “Choice Words” and “Opening Minds” for some direction on what we can do, as teachers, to help.

  2. Leah Davies says:

    In answer to your questions, all of the above! I have dedicated my life to helping 3 to 9 year old children develop empathy and learn about feelings, plus basic positive behaviors. One preschool teacher said, “Because of Kelly Bear we don’t have any more hitting in my class.” In the Kelly Bear Feelings and Behavior books Kelly Bear shares his feelings and experiences FIRST and then asks children about their lives. The interaction books are to be read by a teacher, parent or other adult with a child or children. After reading each question, children respond as though they are conversing with Kelly Bear, so it is easier for them to speak openly. When the adult listens carefully and repeats what the child says, the child feels valued and accepted. The resulting adult-child communication and bonding fosters the child’s self-confidence and positive social skills. For sample pages, see

  3. Leah Davies says:

    I should have expanded on your questions: “What do you think? What causes violent behavior? Is it guns? Violent media? Poverty? Genes? And what can we do about it? Can high quality early childhood education prevent crime and violence?”
    I believe a high quality early childhood education can play a role in teaching children to get along peacefully with each other and coping skills that can promote wellness. However, preventing crime and violence that a child is exposed to from birth is a tall order. Certainly the stress of living in a neighborhood where there are shootings, drug abuse, and chaos can have a profoundly negative affect on a child. Also violent media including TV, video games, and internet sites provide frightening images that can stay in children’s minds for years.

  4. […] time the school shooting is in Newtown, CT, and most of the victims are […]

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