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Violence: What Schools Can Do

Credit: iStockPhoto.com/Bonnie Shupp

As incidents of youth violence continue to make news headlines around the country, the plea for schools to do something is loud and clear. Unfortunately, for schools and educators, the question of how to tackle this complex issue inside the classroom comes with no easy answer.

On one hand, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the majority of violent behavior among youth takes place outside of the classroom. Contrary to the overwhelming news reports in the media today the CDC also reports that youth violence — which is categorized as a range of behaviors from bullying, slapping, and hitting all the way to robbery, assault, rape, and homicide — has significantly decreased in the past 10 years. But this doesn’t make schools exempt from the issue of youth violence. Daily violence is a reality of many children’s lives, so schools cannot ignore the issue — whether it occurs on school grounds or not — inside the classroom.

“People may not believe that it’s the right thing or that schools should be responsible for kids’ behavior, but kids go to school,” says Assistant Professor Stephanie Jones, whose current research is on the effects of poverty and exposure to violence on social and emotional development in early childhood and adolescence. “School is a setting or a platform for … shifting kids’ behavior in ways that are more productive toward their own learning and toward their own future behavior.”

Determining how to address issues of youth violence can be tricky to negotiate since many school districts don’t have the additional time, commitment, and personnel, or financial support necessary to do so. Considering these potential roadblocks to youth violence education, Cambridge Public Schools Conflict Mediator Chandra Banks, Ed.M.’99, worries schools are less apt to act proactively before incidents occur. “They didn’t invent that phrase, ‘closing the door after the horse gets out’ just yesterday; I think that’s how we are as people. Nobody wants to do things preventively because they are hoping that things don’t go wrong,” Banks says. “But we can look at statistics and know that things are going to happen. People like to say, ‘Not in my classroom,’ ‘Not in my school,’ and [they say] if it does, it will only be isolated.

Build Relationships and Become a Resource Time and time again, research shows that violent acts among youth often come with warning signs and schools can be the first line of defense for recognizing when something isn’t right.

Former adjunct lecturer Betsy Groves, a licensed social worker and founding director of Boston Medical Center’s Child Witness to Violence ― a program that helps children, parents, and educators in violent communities or domestic violence situations ― often hears how adults feel uncomfortable discussing the issue, thereby reinforcing the notion that we shouldn’t talk about violence. This is exactly the type of environment schools should try to refrain from becoming. Groves, who teaches Childhood Trauma: Dynamics, Interventions, and Cross-Cultural Perspectives at the Ed School, says that building relationships with students and making an effort to talk about violent activities happening in the community and the world is a good place for schools to begin. “Our thought is, if kids feel they can trust the adults in schools, then they are going to talk,” Groves says. “This is more about being a resource.”

Arguably, schools and teachers can identify unusual behavior in students. After all, teachers spend hours each day with students, develop relationships, and can likely talk to kids about what’s on their minds. “Schools need to be environments where kids feel safe talking about these subjects,” Groves says. “We can’t keep it out of schools because [exposure to violence] interferes with [a student’s] work and ability to concentrate…. It’s always there whether or not teachers address it directly.”

In particular, Groves advocates for teachers keeping close watch over what’s happening in a community and working to facilitate discussions. “If something is going on in the community, take a minute to talk about it in class,” she says. Of equal importance is providing opportunities for children to express their feelings about particular events or experiences, perhaps through writing or art.

“The seeds of violent behavior are sewn at an early age,” Groves says, noting that teachers have huge and important roles in the lives of their students. “It’s not to burden them with that responsibility but to remind them that they got into this field because they care about kids and they can be used as a resource for kids.”

Teachers also have unique roles in modeling their own behavior to address and deal with conflicts in productive ways. At the helm of classrooms, they can teach empathy and understanding of another person’s point of view and set critical examples for students.

“[It can be] as simple as a teacher calling on the student, getting an answer to a question and not passing judgment as the right or wrong answer, then moving on to another student and saying, ‘Do you have a different idea about that? Let’s hear another perspective,’” says Assistant Professor Hunter Gelhbach, an educational psychologist who studies how improved educational settings can enhance social interactions of teachers and students. “It’s a way of acknowledging that people have different points of view and you may not agree with them, but it’s worth listening to all of them.”

How educators respond to student behavioral issues can also affect future behavior. As Gelbach points out, “If a teacher handles [the problem] in an aggressive, confrontational kind of way, they are modeling behavior for the other 24 students in the class as much as they are handling the one student who has been misbehaving.”

Build School Strategies Against Violence Although building relationships and modeling appropriate behavior with students is a key aspect of responding to issues of violence, educators are often left with the task of determining how to incorporate lessons on violence prevention into the classroom without taking time away from instructional learning. In the last decade, the number of tools to aid educators in violence prevention has grown considerably, including curricular strategies, school polices and programs, and school culture initiatives, according to Lecturer Mandy Savitz-Romer, director of the Ed School’s Prevention Science and Practice Program.

Some educators try to build academic skills and social-emotional learning simultaneously. For example, Jones suggests using a book lesson that encompasses “sophisticated” emotion and also builds a child’s vocabulary. This allows for children to learn how to better understand and regulate emotions, interact with each other, get along with other people, and become members of classrooms and communities. In addition, Jones explains that it can also reduce aggressive reactions to social problems and conflicts. “This is what kids need. They need to learn it in a very basic, fundamental, developmental way,” Jones says, suggesting that the developmental periods of ages three to eight and the preteen years can be crucial junctures for such lessons.

“One of the tasks of schools is to manage interactions with other people so they can learn what they are supposed to learn,” Jones continues. “Kids who can’t manage their interactions tend to be more aggressive and tend to have other types of problems to a greater degree than other kids.”

This isn’t to say that children older than middle-schoolers who have not directly experienced social and emotional learning in school, are a lost cause, but, as Jones attests, as children become older the approach may need to be different in teaching these lessons.

Other ways schools address issues of violence in the classroom is through curricular-based interventions integrated into the school day as a part of history, and in some cases, health education.

Gehlbach thinks it is possible for teachers to gracefully implement strategies into their lessons. In fact, some violence prevention and social learning strategies can actually refocus how students learn, for instance, rather than the teacher lecturing on a topic, students work together in a cooperative group. Another example, “Constructive Controversies,” is a classroom activity that prompts discussions and creative problem solving; first, students are selected to debate one side of an issue, then the same students are asked to debate the other. “These pedagogical approaches where students actually get to practice understanding the merits and demerits of different points of view on different issues is a really important and proactive activity schools can do,” he says.

Gehlbach believes that addressing social dynamics, particularly with high school students, can have powerful effects on minimizing violence. Oftentimes within schools, especially high schools, different social groups based on race, background, or social interests develop. By incorporating cooperative group work in the classroom where it forces students from different cliques to work together collaboratively, schools can actively try to minimize how important those groups distinctions seem among students. “When they do that, students start seeing each other much more as individuals instead of based upon their stereotype of what that group is like,” Gelbach explains. “Not to mention the fact that better learning tends to result [more] from cooperative group work than other forms of classroom instruction.”

Jigsaw, says Gehlbach, is one example of a cooperative learning technique. During jigsaw, students are divided into small groups. The teacher pitches a complex problem where every member of the group is responsible for researching a portion of the problem. Then, each student takes their portion of the problem to another group, eventually reporting back on the issue to their original small group. “From a psychological standpoint, you create multiple group identities so you are all working toward common goals,” Gehlbach says. “One of the robust outcomes is it improves student learning above and beyond having the teacher lecture or having students work independently.”

Another method many schools employ is teaching conflict resolution — a method of resolving conflict rationally — in order to avoid aggressive and disruptive interactions among students. Three years ago, Banks — the only conflict mediator in the Cambridge Public Schools  — implemented a peer mediation program in the high school that uses conflict resolution at its core.

If two students are yelling at each other, for example, a teacher or adult within the school would file a referral to Banks. She meets with those students and describes the mediation process, which involves the two parties sitting down without adult supervision to work out their problems verbally. Banks says that she emphasizes to the students that this is purely voluntary and that no adults will be there, and they can leave the mediation, if need be. She notes that this, along with the fact that the students have control, often results in them choosing mediation. Even more telling, she says, is that, contrary to what one might think about leaving two angry teenagers in a room together alone, the students often rise to the occasion.

Although there were doubts over whether teenagers could resolve their battles without the aid of adults, Banks reports that 98 percent of the students who had problems with name calling and threats — two of the top-referred issues — keep their agreements. Still, positions dedicated to violence prevention or conflict mediation, such as Banks’, are quite rare in school districts.

“It’s a huge undertaking,” she says. “School is a great opportunity to teach problem solving. If we are going to teach problem solving in math, let’s teach problem solving in relationships too. We have the kids — why not do it?”

Build Supports to Keep Schools Motivated Although schools seem willing to adopt violence prevention programs or strategies, many schools face challenges with implementing and sustaining such programs and initiatives. “It’s really hard for a lot of teachers, who are under pressure from the principal, from the school board, from the state,” Gehlbach says. “If it’s not raising test scores there’s just not room for it in the curriculum and so it tends not to be a priority in those places.”

Grace Kim, Ed.M.’10, a former private school teacher in New York City, knows the difficulties of implementing such curriculums and programs in the school. During her time in the Risk and Prevention Program (now the Prevention Science and Practice Program), Kim spent months interning as a Boston Public Schools counselor, where she, along with fellow HGSE alum Cory Perlowitz, Ed.M.’10, took to resurrecting the Peace curriculum, a school-based program that teaches young people the value of peace through literature and community service learning.

The curriculum, which was introduced in Boston almost 15 years ago, came following the death of Dorchester’s Louis D. Brown – a 15-year-old student who was shot and killed in gang crossfire. Brown’s story, Kim says, is vital to the curriculum and initiating conversations about loss but also activities community service to extend the social-emotional learning outside of the school/classroom setting as well. However, as the years went by and staff and administration changed, the curriculum had fallen by the wayside in the classroom.

As part of her research, Kim is trying to determine the best ways to implement curricula like Peace in schools. Through her meetings with teachers and principals, Kim discovered the importance of school administrations prioritizing the curricula. “It’s important for the administration to engage teachers, faculty, and staff in conversations about these programs to gain the buy-in of teachers,” she says. “Ultimately, teachers are the implementers of such programs and in order for these programs to be sustained, teachers must see the importance of teaching such curricula.”

Schools may achieve this through professional development in which the entire school staff is present, booster sessions for veteran teachers, and yearly trainings for new teachers on the purpose of the curriculum and how to implement it, Kim notes.

Ultimately, educators have a responsibility for making schools safe places, but it’s also necessary that schools are not viewed as the only means to conquering the issue of youth violence. “It is a real shared social problem,” Groves points out.

Despite violence being an issue that stems well beyond schools, schools can make a significant impact in addressing even the most basic aggression, one that will ultimately benefit all students in the long run. “When students are worrying about aggression from other students, they’re not applying those cognitive resources toward their learning,” Gelbach says. “So, in that sense, it’s a problem that schools have to attend to because it impacts our fundamental mission, which is helping students learn.”