If we don’t suspend them, what do we do? We constructively work to break the vicious cycle of violence.
It is a challenge to teach children the skills they need to stop choosing negative behavior when many of them do not have the emotional security required to make healthy choices. Instead of nurturing, trusting, and consistent relationships with loving adults, they have a hyper-vigilant emotional foundation that comes from a variety of factors, including a life of neglect, abuse, family conflicts, poverty, substance abuse, and unsafe neighborhoods. A vicious cycle revolves around the insecurity of their personal situation, which makes them more distrustful and susceptible to the culture of violence, which then leads to harmful behaviors that only perpetuate the lack of emotional security.
In this environment, many young people develop a matter-of-fact view of violence and death. They might not think what they are doing is wrong or understand what they should do instead; it conflicts with what they know is true in their real life. To protect themselves they respond the best they can to the harsh lessons they learn early in life. Without the social bonds and trust that come from a safe and caring family and with many of their basic needs not met, children fight to survive in unhealthy violent ways. The resulting coping mechanisms can persist into adulthood.
Dr. James Garbarino, in Lost Boys, describes the background of men on death row this way:
“Each of these men had been subjected to extreme child maltreatment, yet none received mental health treatment once that victimization was substantiated by the state child protective services agency. I could not help but think that if any one of these young men had been taken hostage by a terrorist group and tortured for years, there would have been no question about their need for and entitlement to mental health services upon their release. Yet we did not provide the same services to these ‘hostages’ once they were released from their tormentors. And now we intended to execute them” (Garbarino 1999)
One size does not fit all when we consider that young people’s anti-social, self-harming behaviors -gang membership, alcohol and other drug use, vandalism, theft, early sexual behavior, physical violence-is an understandable, though not desired, reaction to a life of neglect and abuse. Targeted early intervention with mental health professionals is essential when a child’s anti-social behavior is a reaction to coping with a personal life of pervasive violence. This is where the school, more than ever, needs to be a safe haven where the negative forces of a child’s life outside the school do not carry over into the educational environment.
Why are some children resilient against these negative forces?
Research shows that two-thirds of students living in dire conditions rise above and succeed in spite of their circumstances. What does this two-thirds have that the other one-third is missing? We can prevent or mitigate the negative effects of a high-risk childhood by providing assets that build the network of support and the personal efficacy that are characteristic of survivors of toxic environments. These assets benefit all children and are critical for the most vulnerable. They include:
- · Caring relationships.
- · High expectations.
- · Meaningful participation.
- · Autonomy and sense of self.
- · Sense of meaning and purpose.
(California Healthy Kids Survey 1999)
A study on the relationship between student and teacher safety and the nature of the school and home community in the Chicago Public Schools found this is true. (Steinberg et al. 2011) Controlling for academic achievement and type of neighborhood (crime and poverty levels), the schools with the highest suspension rates were less safe than those with low suspension rates. Researchers discovered that the neighborhood in which the school was located was not as influential as the students’ home neighborhood. The primary difference between schools that felt safe and those that did not was the quality of the relationships between school staff and students and parents. It depended on what happened inside the four walls of the school. The study concluded, “disadvantaged schools with high-quality relationships actually feel safer than advantaged schools with low-quality relationships.”
In addition, the report noted that a relationship exists between student low academic achievement and increased problems with school safety and order. Schools with a population of low-achieving students experience higher rates of violence. This finding supports growing research that recommends schools focus on raising the literacy rates of young children, adolescents, and adults to reduce violence in schools and in the community. (Jalloh 2009) Research on aggressive behavior, high school drop-out rates, crime, incarceration and recidivism, unemployment, and poverty show a positive correlation between these negative outcomes and poor literacy skills, especially among Latino and African-American men. The literacy-violence connection has been widely documented and the results show this aggression begins in the primary grades when children first experience frustration when trying to learn to read.
To succeed at academics, students need cognitive confidence (ability to read fluently with comprehension), text confidence (stamina to read increasingly difficult material), and social and emotional confidence (positive attitude and enjoyment of reading) (Jalloh 2009, 3) Students who have many negative risk factors in their lives need an intentional school support system and targeted early intervention efforts to teach literacy, math, and technology skills. Without this support these children become disengaged underachievers who stop trying, turn to violence to get what they need, leave school before they graduate, and live a life of poverty and crime. This reality reinforces the need for school-wide, intentional efforts to improve the interactions and relationships among staff, children, and families, and make the connection to academic success.
Teachers know we can intervene early and change this pattern. The Chicago Public Schools study gives credence to the belief that the way we relate to our students is the critical factor in reducing school violence and improving academic performance. A secure climate is necessary for children to take risks and learn. It is in our power to create a secure, caring climate that addresses the academic and social-emotional needs of our students and builds resilience against negative circumstances, regardless of their neighborhood of origin. And when there is a problem, we need to handle it thoughtfully and appropriately within the context of the student and the circumstances. One-size fits all rigid discipline policies do not work.
In Part Three we’ll see how there are better options that teach, in a lasting way, self-discipline, taking responsibility for one’s choices, restitution, and that result in better decision making in the future.