Monthly Archives: November 2011

McInerney murder retrial avoided

 Calif. teen pleads guilty to 2nd-degree murder in killing of gay classmate, faces 21-year term

Last summer the jury was unable to agree on a conviction of first degree murder or  involuntary manslaughter in the case of Brandon McInerney’s killing of classmate Larry King. Both were Oxnard, CA middle school students at the time of the shooting and of contention was the decision to try Brandon as an adult. Brandon was ready to be retried, again as an adult, when today the Ventura County Chief Deputy District Attorney announced Brandon had agreed to a plea bargain that will avoid the ordeal of a second trial. I could hear the collective sigh of relief from the people of Ventura County.

If there is any good to come from this tragedy it is that minds are more open to the realities of school life, that harassment of gay students is all too common, and that school staff and students are better prepared to intervene to stop the emotional violence of teasing, taunting, and name-calling before it escalates into overt physical violence.

For more information on this case, read my 8/28/10, 8/30/10 , 9/2/10, and 10/11/10 posts and search the McInerney murder case.

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New release date for The Violence Continuum

My new book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate, is now set for a December (not November) release.

I’ve seen the cover and love the way it illustrates the concept that violence is behavior that hurts others and also an abuse of power, and that it can be subtle or obvious, physical or emotional. What our children face in school is skewed toward the subtle end to the mid-point of the continuum, and the damage is serious whatever form it takes.

True grit: personal and social responsibility

What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” a  9/14/11 New York Times article by Paul Tough

In my recent three-part blog I focused on the “good ideas” this article presented for building moral and performance character and the missteps the two profiled schools made trying to put the good ideas into practice. The lack of understanding of child development and motivation so captured my attention, I never really addressed the meaning of the title.

The secret to success is failure.

How can opposites like success and failure be co-dependent? The author is channeling the message of the Friedrich Nietzsche quote, That which does not kill us makes us stronger, and the still familiar 19th century axiom, If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again. Human development, including academic learning, is by nature a succession of trial and error. The reality is that success in life depends on our ability to cope with and triumph over adversity. Life is full of adversity and grit is the foundation of resilience.

So why do some children…

  • Willingly put forth the effort to learn, while others balk at tough challenges and hard work?
  • Believe they can do whatever they are asked to do, while others lack confidence in their chances of success?
  • Take risks and rally from setbacks, while others become discouraged and give up?

The answer lies in how much grit they have developed from their life experiences, a combination of moral and performance character  strengths that include:

  • A sense of personal and social responsibility
  • Courage
  • Integrity
  • Tenacity
  • Self-discipline
  • Self-reliance
  • Efficacy and
  • Intrinsic motivation

These character strengths develop in the normal course of daily life as we set goals and overcome obstacles, unless…

  • Children are given everything they need, and they are protected from the character-building challenges of life.
  • We allow mediocre effort and accept mediocre outcomes.
  • Children are so emotionally, socially, or physically impoverished that the obstacles they face are monumental, and the supports that would help them prevail are absent.

In each of these three situations, schools can and should teach grit by:

  • Creating a healthy, non-violent school climate that feels safe, where students can take the risks needed to learn without fear of ridicule or shame.
  • Committing to a dignity-preserving discipline approach where students know clearly what we expect of them, and are consistently held responsible for their choices, and for fixing any problems they cause.
  • Intentionally teaching the qualities of grit through the curriculum, and high expectations and nurturing guidance.
  • Considering the context of students’ lives, their assets and stresses, and building from where they are in their moral development.
  • Providing experiences that foster students’ sense of efficacy – their belief that through their personal resources, hard work and tenacity, and the support of caring adults, they can prevail.
  • Modeling grit and other character strengths in everything we do.

Personal and Social Responsibility

This determination and sense of responsibility helps us reach our life goals, goals that hopefully benefit us personally and foster the common good. Because grit without a moral foundation is dangerous. Our grit needs to be driven by a pro-social belief system that respects the inherent human rights of all people, acknowledges the interdependence of members of a community, and motivates us to make constructive contributions to our school, our family, and society.

Part Three: Building on the good idea

Part three of my response to “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” a  9/14/11 New York Times article by Paul Tough

So how do we build on the good idea?

  • The KIPP school was on the right track when they asked teachers to embed concepts and the language of character strengths into lessons in all disciplines, to encourage self-awareness and personal skills, and to replace inappropriate learned behavior with positive thinking and constructive action. They then took a wrong turn and defeated their efforts by instituting a character report card.
  • The Riverdale school headmaster had “a philosophical issue with quantifying character,” and wisely chose to forgo a formal evaluation of each student’s character development. He also had concerns that “nice guy values” such as respect, tolerance, and honesty were too general and abstract to teach. He chose to personally lead a publicity campaign that stressed the moral and behavioral traits linked to success in life. Vocal, visible, passionate leadership is a critical part of a safe school climate plan that builds character.

But awareness isn’t enough to help all students develop into thinking, compassionate, self-directed, morally responsible members of our school, family, and civic communities. Between the rigidness of a character report card and the randomness of an awareness effort lies the intentional commitment to teach, model, and expect pro-social skills, character traits, attitudes, and behavior. This approach acknowledges that character development is a process, not merely a product, and that violence prevention and character education are the same thing. They are a way of being, not a program to implement. Without an artificial label or the constraint of a report card, learning to be non-violent people of good character…never goes out of style, is never is too time-consuming, and is never optional.

This is true because it is:

  • a belief system.
  • the heart of a holistic education.
  • the driving force behind the climate and culture of the school.
  • embedded in everything that happens from instruction to classroom management to formal discipline policies.
  • clearly visible in positive actions and healthy relationships.

How do we make sure schools are violence-free safe havens where students achieve academically and develop a social conscience?

By being proactive. The way to teach moral and performance character that creates a safe school climate is to focus our efforts on prevention, and then intervene early if a child is not making good progress. We treat it as a K-12 goal, get everyone involved – including parents – and take it seriously. These prevention and early intervention stages, followed by late intervention and post-incident responses when necessary, can do the most good for the most children.

Prevention centers around a psychology of success that creates respectful adult-student, student-student, and adult-adult relationships. It is founded on the premise that you can actively teach students to have and show empathy and compassion, to show consideration and tolerance of others, to be trustworthy and guided by integrity, and all those other nice guy qualities. A focus on prevention provides a school experience rich with challenges and supports that build the positive personal assets needed for a successful adulthood.

What does prevention look like?

  • A community where protecting each child’s dignity and basic human rights is a top priority.
  • An exciting, nurturing environment that provides personally motivating learning experiences and expects students to work hard.
  • A positive discipline approach that develops an intrinsic motivation to make good choices, by having students identify and take responsibility for their mistakes, and fix the messes they make.
  • A climate where students and adults are not allowed to be mean, use putdowns, bully, threaten, discriminate or show intolerance.
  • Efforts tailored to meet the unique needs of the school, grade level, individuals, and groups.
  • Children who are consistently and actively taught positive social skills and held to high, developmentally appropriate expectations for behavior.
  • Children skilled in the language of cooperation and conflict resolution, who have the self-control necessary to express themselves peacefully, and know how to get their needs met without resorting to hurtful behavior.
  • Effective teaching strategies that stress collaboration in place of competition such as working with a partner and cooperative learning, and being grouped with those you would not normally choose.
  • Regular class meetings that teach and offer practice for pro-social and language skills development including listening to and considering other people’s the perspectives, offering possible solutions to problems, and recognizing and expressing appreciation for the efforts of others.
  • A curriculum that stresses high-level thinking skills such as consideration of  historical and cultural context, cause and effect, points of view, personal choice and decision-making, and applies this thinking to real life situations.
  • A school staff of adults that believe in, consistently model, and expect non-violent, constructive behavior.

The pro-social skills learned in prevention efforts lead students to ethical behavior and rewarding relationships. This is the opposite of a psychology of failure that stresses comparison and competition, uses public shaming and punishments as consequences, that emphasizes extrinsic rewards, and damages relationships.

What does early intervention look like?

With effective violence prevention efforts in place, the next part of the safe school climate plan addresses those children who are, for some reason, not internalizing and applying the prevention messages to their lives. The staff of a safe school does not ignore negative behavior, nor does it give up on helping these children no matter how challenging.

  • A team approach that includes teachers, specialists, and their parents or guardians that creates a strong student support system.
  • Trusted adults that students can talk to and who check in on them regularly.
  • Anger-management and conflict resolution training.
  • In school and out of school mentoring and counseling services.
  • Support groups designed to teach coping skills.
  • Positive social norms efforts that can sway children who have one foot on the side of trouble to step back and join the majority of their well-behaved peers.
  • Students’ concerns are taken seriously and addressed.
  • Students, including those who are the source of misbehavior, feel safe and not alone.

So we build on the good ideas by…

  • Intentionally embedding them in all aspects of school life.
  • Believing that it is possible to teach positive social skills and strength of character.
  • Realizing it is as important to do this as it is to teach academics.
  • Keeping the promise we make to students, their families, and society, that schools are safe havens where all children are treated well and taught to treat others the same way.