By Barbara Kaiser and Judy Sklar Rasminsky
School shootings are very much with us, and no matter how hard we try, we can’t get them out of our heads.
First and foremost, we remember the terrible number of children and teachers killed and injured in a total of 35 school shootings in the U.S. so far this year. But school shootings affect us all, especially the teachers and children who must go to school and child care every day and the families who worry about them. School shootings have demolished our sense of safety.
What can we do about this?
Although schools across the country hold drills on lockdown procedures, there is no good evidence that they work, and they often evoke anxiety and stress instead of serenity. More important is a supportive, nurturing school environment—something teachers constantly strive to create and which is even more essential now.
In the meantime, we have begun to wonder if there is any other way that early childhood educators and K-to-12 teachers can have an impact on this epidemic. Can we help to prevent future shootings? Can we somehow reach and influence the children who might turn into school shooters and divert them from this path? Can we point them in a different direction? If so, how?
A Secret Service analysis tells us more about school shooters:
- They are mostly young men. The shooter in Uvalde, TX, was 19.
- They have histories of school discipline problems and contact with law enforcement.
- They have experienced bullying or mental health issues such as depression and suicidality.
- They have used drugs or alcohol.
- As young children they suffered from adverse childhood experiences, otherwise known as ACEs.
The last item on this list jumps out at us: That is, it tells us that during the first five years of their lives, at a time when their brains were establishing crucial connections, these children were very likely living with chronic, prolonged neglect and/or physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; witnessing or being subjected to violence; or in the care of adults who had mental health problems, including depression and problems with substance abuse, who were incarcerated or otherwise absent, or who were experiencing poverty, food scarcity, and/or homelessness.
As a result, these children didn’t have a secure attachment to their primary caregiver. And if no caring adult was there to love, protect, and support them through these difficult events, they were living with high levels of toxic stress—which amounts to trauma. The more adverse childhood experiences in their lives, the higher their risk for social, emotional, and cognitive delays that could harm them for life.
How can we possibly fight ACEs?
To protect a child in a dangerous situation, the body immediately activates the stress system’s fight, flee, or freeze response and sends in the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Under normal circumstances, when the threat disappears the stress system returns to a calm, relaxed state.
But if a threat is too long-lasting or intensive and the child has no caring adult to help him or her deal with it, the stress system responds more often and for longer periods than is necessary. As a result, the developing brain is overloaded with toxic levels of cortisol that disrupt its functioning, and the child is constantly on high alert.
For children who’ve been maltreated like this, the world feels like a dangerous place, and they arm themselves with challenging behavior. They believe that they deserve poor treatment and push away any adult who tries to love and accept them. Oppositional, defiant behavior is their way to communicate their fear and distress. It is a cry for help.
Under these circumstances, it’s no wonder that their teachers become angry and frustrated.
You can make a difference
But a teacher’s best response to their behavior is not to yell or use time-out or take away privileges or suspend the child. Rather it is essential for teachers to remain calm and compassionate and use their empathy, energy, and ingenuity to build a relationship with each child. Above all, they must not to take this behavior personally.
As trauma expert Barbara Sorrels tells us in Reaching and Teaching Children Exposed to Trauma, “Children who have been harmed in the context of relationship can only be healed in a relationship…. It is the ongoing, daily interactions with loving, emotionally responsive and caring adults…that bring about healing…. Because child care providers and teachers often spend more waking hours with a child than any other adult they are key players in the path to healing” (2015, 8-9).
How can teachers change their perspective?
The teachers’ point of view should not be “What’s wrong with this child?” but rather “What’s happened to this child?”
Instead of pushing the child away, says Sorrels, the teacher’s words and actions should convey that “We will love you through this unlovely behavior and help you to find new ways of behaving.”
Think of trauma-informed practice as best practice. The idea is to create a safe space where all children, especially those who’ve been traumatized, can learn to trust, where they feel respected, protected, and unconditionally accepted, where they believe they are valued, that they matter, that they are important to others, and that others will support them.
In addition to some of the tactics teachers are probably already using—such as having a predictable schedule with as few transitions as possible—here are some strategies Sorrels recommends to improve relationships with children with challenging behavior:
- Offer choices throughout the day so that children feel that they have some control over their lives.
- Teach children to ask for a compromise. This is a way for them to learn to express their needs and interests and regain their voice. Teachers can help them practice using role plays or puppets.
- Help children to see conflict as a problem to be solved, not as an opportunity to fight.
- Catch children being good by tuning into their interests and abilities. Talk less and listen more.
- Try do-overs, i.e., ask the child to replace inappropriate behavior with appropriate behavior—but make sure to explain what appropriate behavior is. Again, puppets and role plays are useful.
- To help a wound-up child to unwind, use slow, deliberate movement, quiet talk and singing, and gentle touch (but be sure to ask the child’s permission first). Talk about what both of you are feeling.
- Do not try to restrain a child without the direction and supervision of an expert. This can be dangerous.
Such a calm, caring approach reassures children that it’s all right to have strong emotions and these uneasy feelings won’t hurt their relationship with their teacher. They may even learn to tolerate them.
As a bonus, this attitude keeps the teacher from triggering the child’s stress response and escalating the challenging behavior.
The most amazing thing is that, used with patience and perseverance, this response can slowly change the way young children behave. That is, by improving their ability to deal with the stress in their lives, teachers can prevent them from acquiring some of the behavioral history described by the Secret Service and even stop them from eventually becoming school shooters.