School Shootings and Small Children: Turn Off the TV

This time the school shooting is in Newtown, CT, and most of the victims are children.

Horrified and upset, we stay glued to the news, grieving with the families and worrying about the safety of our own children. In the process we forget that they may be listening and watching, too.

We’re not bad people, we’re just concerned, but it’s important for us to remember that the news and young children don’t mix. The information and images are too frightening, too hard for them to process.

So let’s turn off our televisions and radios, our computers and cell phones, and try to put ourselves back together. Then we can focus on the children in our lives who depend on us to make them feel safe.

They have probably heard about this shooting or are at least aware that something terrible has happened. Let them ask questions and express their thoughts and fears. If we don’t allow them to do this, they get the message that we’re too scared to deal with the situation and they become even more frightened.

To find out what they know, ask open-ended questions and base your response on what they say. Let them know that it’s natural to be afraid and you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe.

Above all, spend time with them, listening, talking, reading, cuddling, and telling them that you love them.

For a helpful post on more we can do, see “Talking with Children about the Connecticut School Shooting” by Eileen Kennedy-Moore. 


Anxiety: A Signal of Challenging Behavior

Challenging and aggressive behavior often seems to come out of nowhere, but the truth is that if you look carefully you can see it on the horizon–in the guise of anxiety.

Anxiety in a child is a kind of early warning system that something is amiss, whether it’s the result of being left out of a group, stress at home, exposure to violence, even autistic spectrum disorder.

It’s hard to notice in a busy classroom because it’s internal; it doesn’t usually show much, and it doesn’t affect anyone but the child himself. But anxiety interferes with a child’s ability to learn and interact with his peers, and it can easily escalate to agitation and aggression if it isn’t addressed. We will certainly notice it then.

Become Sherlock Holmes

To see anxiety, you have to become a detective. To begin with, you must build a close relationship with every child and get to know all the children well–their temperaments, developmental levels, play skills, families, and cultures; what frustrates and frightens them; what makes them happy, mad, or sad.

You also have to learn to read the subtle physiological and behavioral clues the children display as they try to cope with their anxiety. For example:

  • Physiology. Tears, frequent urination, clenched teeth, blushing, pallor, rigidity, rapid breathing, sweating, fidgeting, vomiting, squeaky voice
  • Behavior. Downcast eyes, withdrawing, hair twirling, thumb-sucking, sucking hair or clothes, biting fingernails, hoarding, clinging, whining, being noisy or quiet, screaming, masturbating, smirking, giggling, crying

Figuring out what the child is thinking and feeling will help, too.

  • Thoughts. No one loves me; no one wants me; I’m no good; I don’t like it here; I don’t have any friends; no one will come to get me; I can’t do it; I’m bad; I want my mommy
  • Feelings. Distressed, troubled, afraid, nervous, excited, expectant, sad, irritable, grouchy, mad, insecure, frustrated, worried, confused, panicky

Reach Out

When a child’s characteristic clues appear, it’s time to connect–to smile, to sit nearby, to offer your help, to ask open-ended questions.

Pay special attention to your body language, facial expression, and tone of voice, which all convey far more than your words. You’ll want to do whatever works for a particular child.

This tiny intervention delivered at just the right moment will save you tons of time and trouble later, and protect the child from learning that challenging behavior is the best way to solve problems.

PS. Many of these ideas come from the WEVAS program created by Neil Butchard and Robert Spencler. For more information go to www.wevas.net


Can We Stop a Shooter-in-Waiting?

Is it possible to predict who will commit a school shooting?

Are there warning signs that teachers, administrators, and threat-assessment teams can use to alert mental health professionals and law enforcement that a child may kill himself, his classmates, or his teachers?

The answer is almost certainly no. Psychology hasn’t yet developed this delicate art, and it probably never will. Multiple interacting factors push a shooter to act, and the vast majority of people who are mentally ill are not dangerous. By and large, school is a very safe place.

Not so long ago, when life became overwhelming youngsters who were marginalized and disaffected usually headed for the person responsible for their trouble—an abusive father or the kid who bullied them. But ever since Columbine, these boys (and they are always boys) follow a well-established cultural script—a template. Violent media help them along by equating masculinity with guns and power.

What Can Teachers Do?  

Sociologist Katherine S. Newman, who has studied school shootings in depth, suggests that eliminating even one of the risk factors underlying a school shooting will reduce the chances of a future shooting. Here are some of her recommendations:

1.  Identify and include kids who feel marginalized, isolated, friendless, under attack, or bullied, because they are most at risk, especially if they’re also depressed or dealing with other mental problems.

In other words, strong relationships with teachers are crucial. Although kids who don’t fit in won’t ask for help because it isn’t “manly,” they desperately need someone who cares, someone who can model an alternative set of values and give them room to be different, someone who can refer them for appropriate help. Chances are such kids are not easy to get close to, but trying to build some sort of positive relationship is crucial.

Marginalized students also need an inclusive classroom climate where they can develop ties and become part of a community. If they feel they belong, maybe they will be less likely to carry out an attack. And because they often advertise their intentions, in a community their peers may know about—and disclose—their plans, enabling experts to intervene in time to prevent violence.

2.  Make academic, counseling, and disciplinary records available from grade to grade and from school to school.Newman writes, “The commitment to second chances, and the desire to avoid labeling kids in ways that prejudice future teachers is socially worthy, but it exacts too high a cost.”

A more open system would make it possible to spot patterns of behavior and get help for students who need it. We must balance the right to confidentiality against individual and public health and safety.

 What Do You Think?

Is it a good idea for school counselors, administrators, or teachers to have access to a student’s records? Should access be confined to administrators and school counselors, or should teachers be able to see records, too? Would knowing a student’s history affect your attitude and behavior toward him? How would you balance your knowledge with the student’s right to privacy?


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?


Welcome to Children with Challenging Behavior

As the authors of Challenging Behavior in Young Childrenwe’re always looking for new information on this subject that’s so near and dear to our hearts.

From her base in Nova Scotia, Barbara travels the world giving workshops and presentations, while Judy stays home in Montreal reading books and online materials—and both of us collect interesting and useful research, ideas, and opinions that we believe will interest you, too.

So we want to share some of our discoveries.

Most of the information we find is straightforward and reliable, some of it is controversial, and some is downright wrong. We’ll tell you what we think—but we also want to know what you think, what you disagree with, what you want to understand better, what you’d like to know more about. That is, we rely on you to help us.

If we don’t know the answers to your questions, we’ll try to find out, because something that makes you wonder probably makes others wonder as well, and the more that we know about children and their challenging behavior, the more likely we are to make a difference in their lives.

We’ll focus mainly on young children’s behavior, but we’ll also write about aggression and violence in older children and adults—such as the shooting in Aurora, CO—because what happens in early childhood has such a huge influence on what happens later.

Look for us in this spot… or sign up at the right to receive an email notice each time we post.