The public conversation has been a swirl of questions since the unspeakable mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut last week. How can we prevent these kinds of events? What does mental illness have to do with it? Can we control it by banning certain weapons? How will these child survivors handle it? How can we best protect our children?
We could buy our children bulletproof backpacks, as many parents are apparently doing in the aftermath. Or we can teach them lifelong skills that will not only build resilience for dealing with stressful events, but perhaps help schools and communities become environments where young people will not feel isolated, marginalized and desperate.
The American Psychological Association has tips for parents on how to help children build resilience. Their suggestions include things like “make connections”, “teach self-care”, and “nurture a positive self-view”. This is great advice, but a little vague. Even if a few parents look at the APA web site, how many have the skills to implement the ideas? Children, teachers and communities would be better-served by school-based programs:
- Mindfulness programs in school. Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio was so affected by a mindfulness retreat he experienced a few years ago that he wrote a book about it (A Mindful Nation) and worked to get funding for “Skills for Life”, a social and emotional learning program, in Youngstown, OH schools. Teachers receive training, which helps them with their personal stressors, and then they bring the program into the classroom. The children have responded enthusiastically, teachers have found that their classes are better-behaved, and academic performance has even improved. Goldie Hawn, through her Hawn Foundation, has supported a similar program called “MindUP” in the Miami-Dade schools. The program helps develop emotional resilience skills, as well as “helping children function in their environments in a more mindful and less stressful way”.
- “Teaching Tolerance”, a program of The Southern Poverty Law Center which aims to foster “school environments that are inclusive and nurturing”. They have developed many anti-bias education resources, including teaching kits, curricula and professional development programs. While their program was initially focused on building tolerance for people of different races and ethnicities, it is applicable to fostering acceptance for children with any kind of differences. One of their initiatives is the “Mix It Up at Lunch Day” which has been held every November since 2002. On that day, kids are encouraged to sit with someone new, someone outside of their “group”, at lunch. These kind of interactions help reduce bias and misconceptions about others.
- Compassion training. Dr. James R. Doty, Director and Founder of Project Compassion and Clinical Professor of Neurosurgery at Stanford University, has written, “Why, in a country that consumes 25% of the world’s resources (the U.S.), is there an epidemic of loneliness, depression, and anxiety…Our poverty in the West is not that of the wallet but rather that of social connectedness.” Neuroscience research, at Stanford and elsewhere, has shown that people can train themselves to be more compassionate and to feel greater empathy. This is vital for all of us to cultivate, no matter how old we are. As long as people do not feel connected to each other, it is too easy to forget about the people on the margins.
Will we ever eliminate all acts of violence? Probably not. But I would argue that time and money spent on building mindfulness, peace and compassion in schools are equally as important as resources for math and reading. Thich Nhat Hanh has written, “A fresh way of being peace, of making peace, is needed…We rely on each other. Our children are relying on us in order for them to have a future.”