It’s Time to Soften Schools, Not Harden Them

Opinion | Social-Emotional Learning

It’s Time to Soften Schools, Not Harden Them

By Isabelle Hau     Jun 13, 2022

It’s Time to Soften Schools, Not Harden Them

On May 24, the unfathomable happened. Again. Nineteen children and two teachers were killed in Uvalde, Texas, and 17 more wounded, in the sanctuary of an elementary school.

A natural human reaction is to defend, to protect and to guard—which translates into “hardening” schools.

School hardening proposals include protecting school entrances and windows, adding metal detectors and armed security on school premises, or even equipping teachers with guns. Others go as far as suggesting weaponizing children based on their GPAs, leveraging militia-based volunteers to guard schools or supplying classrooms with bulletproof whiteboards and kids with bulletproof backpacks.

School safety is a complex and emotional societal issue. Solutions start with gun safety regulations and “gun responsibility,” as Uvalde native and actor Matthew McConaughey calls it.

In parallel, though, we also need to double down on “softening” schools—to focus on building social emotional skills of students and educators and strengthen relationships between students and educators. The best solution is a combination of those two, as outlined in an action plan from an interdisciplinary group of scholars who have studied school safety and gun violence for decades. In this regard, a promising bipartisan deal is emerging that would include measured gun curbs, school safety, and child/family mental health measures.

Unfortunately, too much attention is still going to hardening schools, even when such strategies show limited effectiveness.

School security has grown significantly nationwide since the 1999 Columbine school shooting. Some 95 percent of U.S. schools now have controlled access to the building, up from 75 percent in 2000, according to Education Department data. And 80 percent of schools use security cameras, up from just 20 percent in 2000. Moreover, police are present in 48 percent of schools, up from a mere 1 percent of schools in 1975, according to ACLU data. The school security industry has grown into a $3 billion market.

Yet, the evidence on school hardening is limited and mixed. A systematic review of the literature by the University of South Florida concluded that “using surveillance systems, metal detectors, and access control devices, school administrators have made numerous attempts to enhance safety, although there is little empirical research available to evaluate these practices.” Similarly, a review by research organization RAND found that the evidence of the effectiveness of school safety technology is “severely limited or nonexistent.”

In some instances, researchers have identified negative effects of increased school hardening. Schools with more police have more suspensions, higher arrests, greater chronic absenteeism, and lower educational attainment, especially for Black and Brown students. Schools with security measures experience lower parent participation and lesser student participation in extracurricular activities. The same researchers note though that there is no demonstrated causal linkage with lower safety. Policing in schools may help reduce some violent acts, such as rapes or robberies. But, it does not help prevent school shootings or gun-related incidents.

What could help?

We should focus more on softening schools—doing the difficult but essential preventative work of creating safer school communities.

After all, school shooters share some common characteristics, according to an extensive analysis of school shooter profiles conducted by the U.S. Secret Service in 2019. While there is no single profile, most school shooters were victims of bullying. Nearly all experienced negative home-life factors. Most had a history of school disciplinary infactionsactions. All attackers exhibited concerning behaviors, and elicited concerns from others. Most communicated their intent to attack.

So what does softening a school mean? It is a combination of three main activities:

  • Teaching children socio-emotional competencies, such as empathy, kindness and collaboration, to mitigate the effects of bullying and trauma;
  • Promoting schools as relationship-centered environments, to ensure threats are being elevated; and
  • Eliminating exclusionary discipline measures, while supporting mental well-being to prevent the violent externalization of depressive symptoms.

Teach SEL Skills

Socio-emotional learning is demonstrated to help reduce violence and make schools safer. School SEL programs can also help reduce bullying, while curbing future violent behavior. Middle school students who bully others are less likely to continue on a path of violence after being taught positive behaviors.

The earlier SEL happens, the better. A study shows that 18-month toddlers exhibited three times more helpful behaviors after being shown images of facing dolls than back-to-back dolls, highlighting that prosocial behaviors can be primed especially in the early years. Several studies have shown that the effects of early interventions are long-lasting.

An example of the benefits is the case of Think Equal, a global education initiative endorsed by the United Nations Human Rights Office, teaching social emotional learning to 3-5 year olds. Think Equal now serves 200,000 little learners across 20 countries. The program increases emotional regulation and reduces challenging behaviors in children themselves, but also in surrounding communities. One of the district leaders where the program was implemented reports: “I not only saw incredible transformation of our children in this year, but I saw levels of violence in the community coming down.”

Many other socio-emotional programs have shown evidence of effectiveness in increasing empathy, social connectedness and sense of belonging, and reduction of challenging behaviors: Breathing for Change, Inner Explorer, Roots of Empathy, Second Step, to name a few.

Though social-emotional learning efforts have come under recent partisan attacks, a majority of teachers and parents support it.

Build Relationships, Not Walls

The U.S. Secret Service analyzed 67 school shooting plots that were successfully averted between 2006-2018. In every case, individuals contemplating violence exhibited observable behaviors. The community—first peers, and also parents and school staff—reported to the authorities and averted a tragedy.

This clearly speaks to the need for schools to be trusted relationship-centered environments, where students, teachers, school staff, family and community members are empowered to speak up if they see a peer in distress. This work intersects with school climate, student, family, community engagement, toward school safety.

In this regard, the movement toward community schools, where schools become the neighborhood hub for engaged parents and whole child services is very encouraging. In early childhood, Head Start centers have long been playing this critical role, by engaging parents and community as part of education.

Relationship-centered schools reject exclusionary practices, such as suspensions or expulsions, and favor restorative justice practices.

Support Mental Well-Being

Many students who plotted school attacks had mental health issues, frequently involving depression and suicidality. They had also been impacted by adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), including substance abuse in the home, violence or abuse, parental incarceration or parental mental health issues.

The good news is that we have solutions, starting with trauma sensitive schools, and dedicated mental health professionals and counseling support in schools and communities. Significantly lower expulsion rates and challenging behaviors have been recorded by teachers who had an ongoing relationship with a behavioral consultant, such as a consultant from the Center of Excellence for Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation. One model in early childhood education is the Lourie Center for Children’s Social & Emotional Wellness’ therapeutic nursery program that is changing the developmental trajectory of children with complex emotional and behavioral in high-risk families.

Nelson Mandela famously wrote that “people must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than the opposite.”

Let’s invest in teaching our children how to love. It is time to soften education to reconcile our individual and collective aspirations for life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

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