Education Commentary

Violence Is Preventable

By Maurice J. Elias — May 19, 1999 7 min read

Goal 7 of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, adopted by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 1994, says that “by the year 2000, every school in America will be free of drugs and violence and will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning.” In the same year the law was passed, the National Association of State Boards of Education encouraged states to incorporate long-term strategies to prevent violence in schools.

The horror of the events last month in Jefferson County, Colo., reminds us that we are a long way from meeting this goal. Despite the loss of so many young people at schools over the past year and a half-- Springfield, Ore.; Jonesboro, Ark.; West Paducah, Ky.; Pearl, Miss.and the staggering number of homicides of inner-city youths, we continue to return to our numbness and inaction. As adults, we must take responsibility for the fate of our children. In response to the Columbine High School tragedy, President Clinton called for more police protection in schools. And for now, maybe this is just what our nation needs. We need to do whatever we can to make our children feel safe--metal detectors, hall monitors, spot checks on security measures, dress codes, suspensions, expulsions, and other such measures. But, we keep responding to the fires instead of building the safety nets over time.

The society in which young people are growing up today bombards them with images of violence. The media suggest that violence is an acceptable way to resolve conflict, and that treating people with disrespect and ridicule is often funny. Yet, the National Institute of Mental Health has established the link between aggressive behavior and exposure to media portrayals of violence. Furthermore, the American Psychological Association reports that by the age of 18, the typical child will have seen 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence. Moreover, in most cases, the perpetrators were not punished.

The causes of violence extend beyond virtual violence--and include poverty, institutionalized and individual racism, intolerance of differences, abuse, lack of parental supervision and guidance, and the breakdown of family structures. Many young people today who experience or who are exposed to violence don’t think they will live past the age of 20. Their violence is fueled by a lack of hope, a dearth of positive connections to the American dream, and a sense that they have nothing to “risk.”

Clearly, adults have abdicated their responsibility for providing positive direction, guidance, and attention to the needs of children. The events in Colorado clearly represent loud cries for identity and recognition that went unheard.

As a nation, we need to take in the pain and suffering of the families and friends of Columbine High School and seek out ways to assure that others do not walk down the same path. There is no single, simple remedy to this problem. Our response to these complicated issues has to be a wide-ranging public response. When we think about solutions, our focus needs to be not on any one program or project, but rather include efforts involving the private sector, national and local governments, neighborhood organizations, religious communities, law enforcement, mental-health professionals, educators, researchers, and businesses. We must all mobilize our energies.

We need to question deeply what our vision of education is for our young people and what the role of schools is within that view. Schools are our society’s primary formal institution for socializing children into their roles as concerned and responsible citizens in a democracy. This is a tremendous responsibility. It involves recognizing that our goals are not only to produce students with fabulous test scores, but students who become fabulous people. We want our children to become knowledgeable, of course, but also responsible and caring. We want our youths to have academic skills, but we also know that life success is based at least as much on emotional intelligence as on intellectual intelligence. We need academic standards to improve our students’ skills in math, literacy, science, and social studies, but we also need standards in life skills so that we are effective in our interactions with others in the workplace, community, and family.

We live in a social world. Among the most important skills necessary to navigate it successfully are being able to engage in thoughtful decisionmaking, understand signs of one’s own and others’ feelings, listen accurately, remember what we hear and learn, communicate effectively, respect differences. Such skills allow students to participate effectively in cooperative work groups, to appropriately express their emotions, to solve problems nonviolently, to express empathy, and to engage in self-directed behavior. As a publication of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development put it in 1997:

Social and emotional competence is the ability to understand, manage, and express the social and emotional aspects of one's life in ways that enable the successful management of life tasks. ... Social and emotional learning is the process through which children and adults develop the skills, attitudes, and values to acquire social and emotional competence.

These social and emotional learning skills, which make up much of what the psychologist and writer Daniel Goleman called “emotional intelligence,” can be taught to all children and youths in coordinated, multi-year programs as part of the existing school curriculum. And the research is clear: Violence is preventable. We know that sustained long-term teaching of these skills can help prevent many of the problems such as interpersonal violence that students experience today, as well as foster more caring, cooperative, learning environments.

The research is clear:
Violence is preventable.

Fortunately, there are scientifically based guidelines available that can help schools produce knowledgeable, responsible, caring students and communities. After reviewing the scientific literature, making site visits and interviewing practitioners throughout the country, and examining their own experiences over many years in the field, members of the Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning--an international network of educators, scientists, and concerned citizens--compiled the book Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators (ASCD, 1997) and presented a list of 39 guidelines for providing effective social and emotional education. Several that are relevant to fostering a safer, more caring school climate follow:

Build and reinforce life skills and social competencies; health-promotion and problem-prevention skills; coping skills; and social support for transitions, crises, and for making positive social contributions. Link efforts to build social and emotional skills to developmental milestones, as well as to the need to help students cope with ongoing life events and local circumstances. Emphasize the promotion of prosocial attitudes and values about self, others, and work. Integrate social and emotional learning with traditional academics to enhance learning in both areas. Build a caring, supportive, and challenging classroom and school climate to assure effective social and emotional teaching and learning. Integrate and coordinate social-and-emotional-learning programs and activities with the regular curriculum and life of the classroom and school. Foster enduring and pervasive effects in this type of social and emotional learning through collaboration between home and school.

The focus on reform and renewal among educators, politicians, and the public continues to miss the mark. To change a school’s culture so all children can learn, we must address the relationships that exist in that school. Adults and young people who develop skills to communicate with one another, problem-solve together, believe in the richness of diversity, and embrace conflict as an opportunity to grow, can and do contribute to the kind of school culture we search for in schools today. But we can’t change a school’s culture unless we are willing and able to reflect on our own capacities to accept and respond to change ourselves. The problem is not “out there.” It begins with each and every one of us.

Thousands of schools around the country are invested in promoting the kind of learning that will foster children’s social and emotional development. In such schools, prosocial values are visible everywhere in interactions among students and staff. Students constantly reflect on and discuss ways to live together peacefully, to deal with angry feelings appropriately, and to be assertive without being mean. In many schools, student mediators, peer counselors, and youth leaders earn the respect of their peers by helping to keep the peace.

The Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning, also known as CASEL, has identified research-based programs that address these issues. Among them are such widely acclaimed programs as the School Development Program, the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program, Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies, the Child Development Project, Social Decision Making and Problem Solving, Second Step, and the Responsive Classroom.

The impact of Columbine High will be felt around the country for a long time. But more tragedies will unfold if we continue to ignore this call to action before us. We must not close our minds and hearts to the kind of teaching and learning we need to see in schools across America. As Sister Helen Prejean, the author of Dead Man Walking, said:

When we teach children to look into others' eyes when they talk, and to negotiate when they disagree, and to express anger and frustration in words without striking a blow, then we can remove metal detectors from entranceways and convert some of our prisons into community colleges.

Together, let us wage peace in our schools.

Maurice J. Elias is a professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Linda Lantieri, a founding director of the Resolving Conflict Creatively program of Educators for Social Responsibility, is a co-author, with Janet Patti, of Waging Peace in Our Schools (Beacon Press, 1996). Janet Patti is a professor of educational administration at Hunter College in New York City. Herbert J. Walberg is a research professor of education and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Joseph E. Zins is a professor of education at the University of Cincinnati. The authors are members of the leadership team of the Collaborative for the Advancement of Social and Emotional Learning.