What Can I Do about Sandy Hook Elementary School?
Making the decision to have a child – it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart walking around outside your body.
– Elizabeth Stone
And this is the very reason why the events of Sandy Hook Elementary School have shaken us all to the core. Because it is our very exposed heart that has been wounded. It’s inconceivable that innocent children’s lives have been taken in what is supposed to be a safe haven, a daily environment in which we entrust our most sacred heart. The friends and family that I’ve spoken with about the occurrence have consistently said, “I have to do something. It’s not enough to be horrified and sad. I have to take action.” And so what can anyone do to make a difference – to heal a gaping wound and to prevent something like this from happening in the future? I too am eager to do something. Here are some ideas to get started.
Begin at home. Make sure you are really connecting with your children daily. Disconnect to connect. Iphones, pads, and other devices have become vehicles for connecting with everyone except those we are physically with – typically our most intimate family. Because the beeps, light flashes, and constant press of these machines bring our attention back to the device, it requires great discipline to put them down, turn them off, and tune in to our children. Set a timer for yourself if you need to but give your children your full, undivided attention even if it’s only for a short time each day. Find out what’s going on in their heads and hearts. Laugh together. Talk and, most especially, listen well if they are scared or upset. Be patient if deep connection doesn’t happen immediately. If you’ve been disconnected, then it takes time to build trust. We can see now that that connection is critical in keeping them and others safe.
Partner with your child’s teacher. Ask if there are ways you can support your child’s teacher in building community amongst classmates. Teachers are often open to parents coming into the classroom to share experiences, read stories or give presentations on their careers. Making a personal connection with your child’s teacher will enhance communication, develop a trusting relationship and create a stronger alliance between the school and your family. Take it a step further if you are interested and able and volunteer as a teacher’s aide in the classroom regularly (weekly or monthly). Research shows that students perform better in school when parents are involved. But in addition, students are safer if parents are directly involved with the teacher and the classroom.
Partner with your school. It’s likely that your school is reviewing their crisis management plan and communicating it to parents. If they aren’t, then they should be and you can advocate for that to take place! You should be aware of what they plan to do in an emergency including a situation like Sandy Hook. How you will be notified and what role you can play? That plan should be in writing. It should include a plan for communications amongst school staff but also, with families and with students. How will students be directed in an emergency? How will a tragedy be talked about with students after it has occurred? Is there a forum for conversation that is a safe, trusting space? But in addition, make sure that there are conversations and a clear plan for prevention.
Advocate for school-community supports. What supports are there for students who need more than the school can offer? In schools, these are typically referred to as “intervention supports.” If the response you receive is “We have academic tutors for those students who are not performing academically.” That’s not enough. What supports are there for students who need emotional and social assistance beyond what the school personnel can directly address? The students you may be thinking of are the 5-10% of a school population who act out and demonstrate clearly anti-social behavior. Certainly there need to be supports for those children. But in addition, nearly every child in a school at one point or another during their school career needs additional emotional support that a teacher likely will not be able to provide. My parents separated when I was in sixth grade and I needed to see a counselor during that time. I hadn’t needed outside supports my entire school career. But I needed it then. So considering that many children will need additional support, the following questions need to be addressed.
- How do you identify students who are in need of outside assistance beyond what the school can provide?
- Who is responsible for working with the students and families in order to seek assistance?
- Is that staff person aware of, in communication with and able to refer students and families to adequate mental health services in the community for those that are in need of it?
The schools with which I work have a social worker or counselor who is primarily responsible for cultivating trust between families, students and the school. They work closely with teachers to identify those students who are displaying risky behaviors and ensure that students who need more support than a classroom teacher can reasonably provide, get that support in the community. Parents confide in that person when a relative dies or a family member is admitted into rehabilitation. The social worker guides the family through the support-seeking process so that the intimidation or embarrassment is reduced and the family gets the help they need.
Promote school-family-community connections. Preventing a crisis from occurring also involves connection. Families need to feel connected to the school. Students need to feel connected to the school and each other. Teachers need to feel connected to students, parents, the principal and the larger system. Research-based positive school climate, social and emotional learning and character education initiatives all have the potential to build a sense of connectedness between all individuals in a school community if this is seen as an explicit goal. Greater communication among caring adults means that problems are identified quickly and at the start so that they can be addressed before they escalate to the point of a crisis. The profile of individuals who perpetrate school shootings is typically that of an introvert, sometimes, the victim of bullying, but often, a student that goes unnoticed. In schools with which I work, there is no child that goes unnoticed. Every person – staff and students – is greeted each morning through a Morning Meeting. Each student gets the opportunity to share something about themselves daily. This – connectedness in school communities – is the way that we turn this problem around in the long term. But it requires work and commitment on everyone’s part to make it successful and sustain the change for the benefit of all.
Organize and mobilize parents. I know of two committed parents (in two different states) who, through volunteerism and advocacy, have created a focus on social and emotional learning to prevent bullying and other violence in their respective districts. One such individual in Strongsville, Ohio, a member of their PTA (Parent Teacher Association), noticed that the state PTA organization was not talking about the need for social and emotional learning in schools. She developed and proposed a resolution for the Ohio PTA to focus on “maximizing student potential and achievement through positive school climate and social and emotional learning.” It now serves as a national model for other PTAs. It happened because of her persistence. She continually asked questions, enlisted experts and other parent supporters, believed in the importance of her cause and pushed the agenda forward until her voice was heard and the resolution was adopted. In my experience working with numerous policy and practice issues with school districts over the years, if a small group of parents exert their influence and assert that something is essential to the education and well-being of students that is not currently being addressed, schools and school districts have no choice but to take notice and respond. That famous quote from Margaret Mead rings true: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Advocate for policy and practice change. Though social and emotional learning in education has made great strides in influencing the way schools operate in the past 20-30 years, there is still much work to do. The conversations around education nationally continue to focus on the three Rs (Reading, Riting and Rithmatic) and seem to often neglect and marginalize the other critical three Rs (Respect, Responsibility and Resilience). That must change. The national conversation on educational essentials must include our current realities. Students need to be prepared for the global knowledge economy with creative and critical thinking skills, collaborative abilities, strong communication competencies, respect for differences, and the ability to think responsibly and ethically in their decision making. Those same students need to be self aware and become practiced in controlling their impulses and managing their emotions to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. Write to your local politician, your Congressional leaders, your President and Arne Duncan, the Secretary of U.S. Education. All these individuals need to hear consistently that addressing the social and emotional development of kids and promoting connectedness in schools is not a “nice-to-have” but has become an essential for the education of our citizenry.
Of course, sending positive thoughts or prayers to the families affected by this tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary is something we all can do. I hope you will make a commitment to taking action in your own way. If you need support in doing so, please call upon me or the following organizations to help you along the way. Though all of them are located in the United States, many of them will have resources that extend globally.
Jennifer Miller, M.Ed., Educational Consultant
Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL)
CASEL was founded in 1994 by Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, educator/philanthropist Eileen Rockefeller Growald, and a group of distinguished researchers and practitioners. We are a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that works to advance the science and evidence-based practice of social and emotional learning.
The Responsive Classroom approach is a widely used, research-backed approach to elementary education that increases academic achievement, decreases problem behaviors, improves social skills, and leads to more high-quality instruction.
Edutopia – The George Lucas Foundation
Edutopia is dedicated to transforming the learning process by helping educators implement the strategies below. These strategies — and the educators who implement them — are empowering students to think critically, access and analyze information, creatively problem solve, work collaboratively, and communicate with clarity and impact. Discover the resources, research, experts, and fellow Edutopia members who are changing our schools. Join us in reinventing the learning process!
National School Climate Center
Our goal is to promote positive and sustained school climate: a safe, supportive environment that nurtures social and emotional, ethical, and academic skills. NSCC is an organization that helps schools integrate crucial social and emotional learning with academic instruction. In doing so, we enhance student performance, prevent drop outs, reduce physical violence, bullying, and develop healthy and positively engaged adults.
Educator’s for Social Responsibility
Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR) works directly with educators to implement systemic practices that create safe, caring, and equitable schools so that all young people succeed in school and life, and help shape a safe, democratic and just world. Founded in 1982, ESR is a national leader in school reform and provides professional development, consultation, and educational resources to adults who teach young people in preschool through high school.
Character Education Partnership
Character Education Partnership (CEP) is a national advocate and leader for the character education movement. Based in Washington, DC, we are a nonprofit, nonpartisan, nonsectarian coalition of organizations and individuals committed to fostering effective character education in our nation’s schools.
National Center for Learning and Citizenship
Part of the Education Commission of the States, The National Center for Learning and Citizenship (NCLC) assists education leaders to promote, support, and reward civic education and service-learning as essential components of America’s education system. The NCLC’s mission is to: 1). Identify and analyze policies and practices that support effective service-learning and civic education; 2). Disseminate analyses of best practices and policy trends; 3). Convene national, state, and local meetings; and 4). Network to share information about service-learning and civic education. The NCLC also works closely with other national, state, and local advocacy groups in order to contribute to a collective public voice in support of the civic mission of schools. The NCLC complements the mission of the Education Commission of the States with a unique level of expertise and collaboration within the fields of civic education and service-learning.
Social Development Research Group
For over 30 years the Social Development Research Group (SDRG) has sought to investigate and promote healthy behaviors and positive social development in youth and adults. SDRG is a recognized leader in the field of prevention research. Our efforts to understand how risk and protective factors influence development have resulted in hundreds of articles in peer-reviewed journals and led to the development of tested and effective interventions.
University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Center for Mental Health in Schools
We are a center for policy and practice analysis. Because we know that schools are not in the mental health business, all our work approaches mental health and psychosocial concerns in ways that integrally connect such efforts with school reform and improvement. We do this by integrating health and related concerns into the broad perspective of addressing barriers to learning and promoting healthy development. We clarify the need to restructure current policy, practice, research, and training to enable development of a comprehensive and cohesive approach that is an essential and primary component at every school. We stress that without a comprehensive component for addressing barriers to learning many students cannot benefit from instructional reforms, and thus, achievement scores will not rise in the way current accountability pressures demand.