MORAL IQ TIP: Violence is learned, but so too is calmness. Ask yourself: if my child only had my example to watch, what would he catch today?
Dear Dr. Borba,
All the articles about these school shootings have me so upset. How does something like this happen? I’m suddenly terrified to let my fourteen-year old go to school. Isn’t there anything we can do to stop this violence? J. S. from Palm Beach, Florida
Over these past few months I’ve received countless letters from parents who share a deep concern about the safety of their children’s schools. So if you’ve had a few worry pangs, believe me, you’re not alone. Be assured that children do not become homicidal maniacs overnight. They’ve usually had a gradual, steady build-up of risk factors (such as neglect, bullying, toxic parenting, failures, poor coping skills, exposure to violence, substance abuse) with limited positive experiences to counter them. Their anger starts slowly mounts, until it turns to rage then finally explodes. Do keep the perspective that 99.9% of schools are safe, but there clearly are things we can do to make our kids safer. The biggest mistake is that we continue reacting instead of preventing such atrocities and we need to start earlier. Here are a nine ways teachers and parents can make a difference in making our schools safer for our children:
1. Take threats seriously. Over seventy percent of adolescents who commit homicide or suicide, tell someone their plan before carrying it out. We must stress to kids take threats seriously and report them. Then schools should provide options for reporting such as: a 24-hour hot line, a “concern box,” designated staff members and peers, and a school Web site to email threats. Many students fear peer retaliation, so methods to report anonymously should be available.
2. Set a zero tolerance to bullying. The Secret Service study of student shootings found the only commonality was that each shooter was repeatedly bullied by peers. Schools, parents, and neighbors must set a zero tolerance to bullying. And that expectation (and infringement consequences) should be signed by all students and their parents. We must expect and demand that children treat all living beings in a moral manner and it has to start with adults.
3. Keep shooters’ photos off front pages. The media must keep the shooters off their paper’s front page and television screens. It just fuels a vulnerable kid looking for attention, and the result is too often a copy-cat shooting.
4. Teach anger management and conflict resolution. The only way kids are going to learn peacefulness is if we show them how to manage their anger. An effective strategy is called 1 + 3 + 10. Explain to your child: “When you feel your body sending you a warning sign that says you’re losing control, do three things. First, stop and say: ‘Be calm.’ That’s 1. Now take three deep, slow breaths from your stomach. That’s 3. Finally, count slowly to ten inside your head. That’s 10. Put them all together and you have 1 + 3 + 10, and doing it helps you calm down and get back in control.” Then help your child repeatedly practice it so he learns it.
5. Zero tolerance to weapons. Putting a fire arm into the hands of a troubled kid with a short fuse is creating a time bomb just waiting to explode. What’s especially frightening is that half of our American adolescents say they can access a gun in less than an hour. We must do everything we can to keep weapons out of our schools, and the best way is to not make them accessible to kids.
6. Monitor media viewing. Over 1000 studies-including reports from the Surgeon General’s office and the National Institute of Mental Health-validate that TV violence influences aggressive behavior in some children. Be aware of the ratings for violence on television (as well as music, movies, and video games) then set clear standards for your child and stick to them.
7. Nurture strong moral habits. Three virtues are especially critical in protecting kids against violence: a conscience that guides them to know right from wrong, empathy that helps them feel the victim’s pain, and self-control that halts immoral intentions. These core virtues are teachable, we just need to prioritize them in our homes and schools so our kids learn and use them.
8. Post warning signs for violence. Warning signs for children who may be at risk of violence should be posted everywhere such as doctor offices, Boys and Girls Clubs, school newsletters, media and list resources where parents can seek help. We must identify troubled children early and get them the help they urgently need. If you have even the slightest concern about your child, act on them now!
9. Prioritize our kids. It has been estimated parents today are spending 40 percent less time communicating with their kids than their own parents did with them and spending eleven fewer hours with their children each week compared with the 1960s. It clearly is affecting our kids. Our most important role is to raise our kids to become decent, loving human beings who feel loved. Doing so means our kids must be put back on the top of our priorities.
These warning signs of violence were developed by the U.S. Department of Education
• Social withdrawal
• Excessive feelings of isolation or rejection
• Being a victim of violence
• Feelings of being picked on and persecuted
• Uncontrolled anger
• Low school interest and poor academic performance
• Impulsive and chronic hitting, intimidating, bullying
• Expression of violence in writings and drawings
• History of discipline problems
• Past history of violent and aggressive behavior
• Drug use and alcohol use
• Affiliation with gangs
• Inappropriate access to, possession of, and use of firearms
• Intolerance for differences, prejudicial attitudes
• Serious threats of violence.