Sowing the Seeds of Nonviolence

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The recent school shootings in Oregon, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, and Kentucky, allegedly by students, put an all too human face on newspaper headlines recording our country's No. 1 ranking in deaths by firearms and remind us that violent crimes committed by young people have more than doubled since the mid-1980s. These school tragedies have led to renewed discussions about what our society is doing wrong to produce so many juvenile criminals. Harsher measures for disciplining children are suggested in an atmosphere that often blames children for the increases in youth violence. But where does responsibility lie for these tragedies, and how should educators respond to them?

We know that children in this country are swimming in a culture of violence that comes in many forms: family abuse, violence on the streets and in the community, violence in the news. Every 10 seconds a U.S. child is abused or neglected. Every two hours, one is killed by a gun. On top of this, a popular culture saturated with glorified violence shows children antisocial images, actions, and models for how people treat each other and deal with conflicts. On television alone, our children see 32 acts of violence every hour and more than 1,000 murders a year.

Children learn how to treat each other from how they are treated and from the social interactions they observe around them. They use this information to build their own ideas. They try out what they've seen and build on it with new experience. Children exposed to excessive violence can't help but use it as a building block in this learning process.

In this climate, children need a lot of help making sense of the violence they have seen and learning alternatives to it. How are children supposed to sort out the conflicting messages that violence is exciting and fun in fantasy but not acceptable in actual human relationships? And where are they supposed to learn the many skills and concepts that go into knowing how to resolve conflicts without violence?

What if Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson, the two youths dressed in combat clothing who allegedly pulled the triggers in Jonesboro, Ark., had gone to a school where children talked regularly with teachers about social issues of importance to them? What if Mitchell had learned the skills he needed to express his feelings and get support from other children and adults when he experienced rejection from his girlfriend? What if the boys had been part of a school conflict-resolution and mediation program where they were taught a whole range of ways to resolve conflict creatively from their earliest years in school?

Conflict-resolution and mediation programs have been adopted in schools around the country since the early 1980s. When done well, they teach children a whole repertoire of nonviolent ways to deal with the problems they face in their social world and help counteract the lessons they learn from exposure to violence. The programs can help children feel a strong sense of themselves as skilled problem-solvers empowered with the ability to transform conflicts into peaceful and gratifying situations.

Research on school conflict-resolution programs is beginning to show that they can have a positive impact, especially when begun with children at an early age. Our own research bears this out. We have observed how the children who have been offered programs deal with social problems. They have strategies for what to say and do when conflicts arise and the capacity to generate inventive solutions. They express confidence in their ability to resolve conflicts with others and a conviction that positive conflict resolution is possible. This contrasts dramatically with the children we've talked to who have no such programs in their schools.

Derrick and Mark are good examples of this difference. Both are in urban, public school 2nd grades in the same city. Their schools are similar in many ways, except that Mark has had a conflict-resolution program while Derrick has not. During our visit to Derrick's class, the children drew pictures of conflicts in their own lives. Derrick's picture showed a recent conflict with a boy named George. Derrick told us as he drew, "George hit me in the hallway and I chased him. I said, 'I ain't your friend no more.' He said, 'I ain't either.' He pushed me. And so I punched him in the face. They [teachers] stopped the fight. We had to go to the office." In the discussion that followed, Derrick said that going to the office "felt bad" to him. He had been there before. We wondered aloud if there were any way to avoid the principal's office or anything he could do so the fight with George wouldn't happen. Derrick answered these questions each time with a "nope." There was nothing he could do to change the cycle of violence entrapping him. There was nothing he could do to avoid going back to the principal's office. But going there didn't give him the tools he would need to prevent a return trip.

Mark had a different story. His conflict drawing showed a time when "a kid pushed me. He didn't push me on purpose," Mark said, "but I thought he did it for real. And I said, 'Look, I don't want to fight. Let's talk it out. Let's sit down and talk it out.'" The discussion with Mark revealed a child who was using skills for working out conflict that he had been working on in his classroom all year--skills about how to recognize and talk about his own and others' feelings, how to begin to understand that a problem involves at least two points of view, and that there can be solutions that satisfy both sides. In Mark's classroom, he had learned these skills through hands-on activities using puppets, role-playing, and other experiences that made the skills concrete and used the children's conflicts as the center of the curriculum.

Mark's school had decided to make children's social and moral development a legitimate and central part of the curriculum. At his school, teachers realized it was their job to help counteract the violent messages much of the rest of society was teaching Mark and other children. They realized that the best way to help children learn social responsibility is to embed social and emotional education into all classroom interactions throughout the school day. They believed that doing this not only prevents violence but also builds social responsibility.

When an 11-year-old boy who attends a school where conflict resolution is a cornerstone of the curriculum heard news reports that Mitchell Johnson had threatened to kill his former girlfriend, he said, "If I had heard him say that, I would've put my arm around him and said, 'Hey brother, you seem upset. Wanna sit down and talk?'" This is what a program that helps children deal with violence in society can do for them. It can provide them with tools for dealing with each new difficult situation they encounter in a creative and nonviolent way and with an eagerness to try. It is a far more holistic and hopeful approach for society than the quick-fix approaches that advocate expelling children from school, putting them in jail, and adding metal detectors to playgrounds.

Diane Levin is a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston. Nancy Carlsson-Paige is a professor of education at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass., and a faculty member in the master's program in conflict resolution and peaceable schools. Together, they have co-written four books, including the newly released Before Push Comes to Shove: Building Conflict Resolution Skills With Children.

Vol. 17, Issue 38, Pages 31, 34

Published in Print: June 3, 1998, as Sowing the Seeds of Nonviolence
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