Social and emotional intelligence training will save lives — not more guns

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More than one million students and supporters in 62 U.S. cities participated in the recent March For Our Lives protest to create action on gun control. Others acted in 800 sister marches across the world with support from teachers, parents and survivors of school shootings.  

We can take the lead from these nonviolent student organizers. Instead of proposing funding for training teachers in K-12 as well as secondary education to use guns in classrooms, we need policies to fund the training teachers on social emotional intelligence.

This would prepare teachers to proactively prevent school shootings and support students who deal with trauma including shootings, natural and human created disasters. It would also help students overcome other barriers such as poverty and violence by equipping students with skills for life success and ways to cope with stress, disappointment and other setbacks.

This is urgent. A Maryland high school student recently fatally shot his former girlfriend and injured another before shooting himself. In Kentucky,18-year-old Timothy Felker told police recently bought an AR-15 and was planning a shooting in his high school because he had been bullied.

Training teachers in social emotional intelligence would also help them deal with students affected by bullying, who may then, become violent as a response.

The concept of social emotional learning has modern roots in James Comer’s 1960’s work on the Comer Development School Program at Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center.  More researchers joined the field which led to the creation of the Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning in 1994.

The 1997 publication of Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators in established and defined the field. The 1995 book by New York Times science reporter Daniel Goleman on Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ propelled the concept into popular culture.

Yet more than two decades later, it is not a pervasive approach.

A 2014 report shows that 83 percent of teachers wanted training in social emotional skills and very few pre-service teachers received training. Yes, private training is available through organizations like Teaching Heart Institute. Yale University has a center for social emotional training

But teachers do not have the time or the money to do this. Training needs to be supported at the federal and private levels and mandated.

The  U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education in a 2004 report found that “almost three-quarters of the (school shooting) attackers felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others prior to the incident. In several cases, individual attackers had experienced bullying and harassment that was long-standing and severe. In some cases, the experience of being bullied seemed to have a significant impact on the attacker and appeared to have been a factor in his decision to mount an attack at the school.”

According to the 2015 research by Interventions on Bullying and Cyberbullying in Schools: A Systematic  Review, “Bullying is a significant problem in schools. It is defined as intentional aggressive behavior by a single person or a group against a peer who cannot easily defend himself/herself. Cyberbullying is characterized by the use of electronic forms of contact.”

In my role as a grant maker in education, I see many promising practices that deserve to be scaled to meet the needs of students across the country. Many claim social emotional intelligence is something “nice to have” in addition to academics.

But adverse childhood experiences like violence, poverty, abandonment and abuse further increase students risk factors not just for possible acts of violence, but for dropping out of school and abandoning academics altogether.

Recently a Texas charter network launched a pilot of Cultures of Dignity program, “Owning Up — Empowering Adolescents to Confront Social Cruelty, Bullying and Injustice” to create space for conversations about these tough issues and to help students build skills to navigate difficult tasks and issues.

Still in progress, the program for middle and high school students reports unique incidents of bullying have dropped from 20 last year to five and out of school suspensions have dropped from 20 last year to zero during the pilot at their Uplift Peak campus of 1,400 students.

Other organizations such as Turnaround for Children work with schools in New York and Washington D.C. and have developed building blocks for learning. Using research in neuroscience and child development, they develop student skills and mindsets that prepare and support how students learn.

Their Building Blocks for Learning framework is based on premise from a 2012 study that “relationships are the fuel for human development; they foster trust and relief, and are a buffer against stress and research that has demonstrated that chronic stress and adversity, often experienced by children growing up in poverty, significantly impacts the development of areas of the brain responsible for these foundational skills. As a result, many of these students do not enter school with skills for controlling impulses, focusing attention or organizing thinking in a goal-oriented fashion.”

It is admirable that some K-12 schools are fending for themselves to provide social emotional training for teachers and students. But they are depending on funding and partnerships with nonprofits like Momentous Institute in Texas and Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning at Vanderbilt University.

Recently, a group of teachers at Cigarroa Elementary school who were trained on social emotional intelligence were able to apply their learnings with students to address real fears when a gas explosion killed a 12- year-old female classmate. The teachers were also equipped to assuage their fears around potential explosions from multiple gas leaks looming in the neighborhoods.

The teachers were able to use breathing and mindfulness practices each morning with students to calm these fears and manage day to day fall-out during school hours.  Creating time and space for students to share their anxiety in constructive ways helped transition into the day’s learning activities. This training was provided through partnership with local nonprofit United to Learn.   

From mindfulness to classroom management and handling more serious learning differences, these are ad hoc, non-mandatory and dependent on school by school leadership. Most teachers have not had this training through the teacher preparation program they completed.

This social emotional training requires resources when many school districts struggle with current levels of funding. Yes, myriad factors contribute to why a student chooses violence, but these factors and threats are not bound by geography or socio-economic class.

Yes, there may be tradeoffs for teaching time and school funding and we cannot ask teachers to work overtime. But the lack of social emotional intelligence among teachers and administrations and the lack of social emotional intelligence learning among students has proven fatal.

A 2016 study documents the importance of social-emotional competencies that help student not only in their academic learning but also their well-being, positive interpersonal relationships with teachers and peers, pro-social behaviors and lower involvement in disruptive, violent and addictive behaviors.

Emotional intelligence training in a school-based program at a secondary school in Israel with 70 teachers and 600 middle school students resulted in positive gains in the areas of stress management, emotional self-awareness, empathy, and interpersonal relationships. Teachers reported a shift in their relationships with students becoming more personal, closer and more meaningful through listening, asking questions and initiating informal encounters.

If we do nothing different, we will continue to fail to prepare students adequately for the world. But if we do opt to use social emotional intelligence training, we will prepare each student to live a successful, non-violent life.

Cynthia Yung is the executive director of The Boone Family Foundation and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.

Tags childhood education emotional training teacher training

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