Monday, November 03, 2014

Making the Case for Social-Emotional Learning in Our Schools

         The fact that the phrase “school shooting” exists is clear evidence of how we are failing our children. The fact that we have systems in place to mobilize grief counselors within our communities, that there are protocols and sample dialogues to help parents talk to their children about gun violence in their schools tells us we are doing something wrong.  That a “popular,” “happy” high school student from a “prominent” family could post his anguished feelings multiple times over a period of weeks on Twitter prior to shooting his friends and turning his weapon on himself and the media headlines read “Motive Still Unknown” is shocking to me.
            I am not blaming the family and friends of school shooters for not intervening, not anticipating that they will react this way to their deep sadness. I am saying that we as a society are failing our kids in an elemental way by waiting until something horrific happens to talk publicly about difficult emotions instead of teaching our kids how to recognize and process those emotions throughout their lives.
            Two vital things we know are at play here. First, adolescent brains are literally wired differently than adult brains. The brain of a teenager is subject to emotional storms that are not yet mitigated by logic, primarily because that portion of their brain is not yet fully developed. When a teenager is feeling strong emotions, they are not being ‘dramatic’ or ‘over-reacting,’ they are simply responding to the chemical reactions swirling around in their heads. To expect them to push aside or disregard those biochemical impulses is simply unrealistic. Instead, we have to teach them to mitigate those responses, to acknowledge their feelings and process them appropriately, but all to often we expect them to “get over it” or we feel uncomfortable when they are upset and we minimize their feelings to make ourselves feel better.
            We spend billions of dollars each year teaching our children to read and write, to apply mathematical formulas to complicated problems, to find patterns in history and science, and we neglect to talk to them about what it means to be human. While it is vitally important to have these kinds of conversations within family systems, it is equally as important to acknowledge these emotional challenges within a wider audience, to normalize them as much as we can.  If we continue to send the message that learning to identify and process deeply painful feelings is a private endeavor, we are missing the opportunity to show our children that they are supported within a wider community, that they are not alone.
            The second thing that we know is that violence is often rooted in disconnection. People harm others when they feel powerless, often because they are struggling with ideas of their own worth or their place within the community. When an individual does not feel part of the system or supported by it, they are more likely to objectify and dehumanize the other people around them. It is through that objectification that the threshold for violent acts is lowered – it is much easier to harm someone you don’t feel connected to, that you have demonized. Our educational system emphasizes individual accomplishments and competition, values independence, and isolates students who are ‘different,’ both academically and socially. Without some sort of social-emotional education that acknowledges the developmental stages of teens and tweens within the context of the demands placed on them, we cannot expect them to flourish. We may be raising a generation of students who can compete in the global economy, but without teaching them what it is to be human, to experience pain and rejection, to accept discomfort and work through it, we are treading a dangerous path. Every time our children cry out in pain we are presented with an opportunity to listen, to validate those feelings, to model empathy and compassion and to teach them how to navigate those difficult times. This isn’t about individual or family therapy, this isn’t about mental health treatment, this is about acknowledging that our children are whole human beings who are developing physically, mentally and emotionally and ignoring their social-emotional development is creating a problem for all of us.  Our children are killing each other to get our attention. What is it going to take for us to start listening to them?

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