How schools can help pre­vent fu­ture mass shoot­ings

The Capital - - OTHER VOICES - Melissa El­lis Melissa El­lis is the Anne Arun­del County Board of Ed­u­ca­tion mem­ber-elect from District 4.

Re­spon­si­ble gun laws, greater ac­cess to men­tal health care, im­prov­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion in law en­force­ment. These are all ways that we may im­prove our chances in pre­vent­ing the next des­per­ate in­di­vid­ual from car­ry­ing out the next mass shoot­ing, hope­fully. But what if we also fo­cus on the long term?

What if we made im­prove­ments in our so­ci­ety that would re­verse the trend we see in Amer­ica’s youth of in­creas­ing in­ci­dents of anx­i­ety, de­pres­sion, sub­stance abuse and vi­o­lent be­hav­ior? An in­di­vid­ual who is ful­filled in life, who has mean­ing­ful re­la­tion­ships, who has pur­pose, will likely never be the next mass shooter.

Where do we have the most power to in­flu­ence the shape of fu­ture so­ci­ety? I be­lieve that is in our pub­lic schools.

I be­lieve that if our goal with ed­u­ca­tion was to de­velop in­di­vid­u­als rather than to teach kids to per­form aca­demic tasks ac­cord­ing to the lat­est, ever-chang­ing stan­dards, the re­sult would be stu­dents who are aca­dem­i­cally suc­cess­ful and so­cially and emo­tion­ally de­vel­oped and pre­pared for adult­hood. If we were more fo­cused on de­vel­op­ing the mind than hav­ing stu­dents jump through aca­demic hoops, we would create ex­pe­ri­ences in school that al­low stu­dents to grow so­cially and emo­tion­ally as well as in­tel­lec­tu­ally.

This strat­egy in ed­u­ca­tion would be a win­win for our stu­dents and teach­ers as this is what our highly ed­u­cated teach­ers spent years at univer­sity to be able to do.

As we moved to­ward a stan­dards-driven ed­u­ca­tion, the fo­cus be­came num­bers, turn­ing our stu­dents into data in the eyes of the school sys­tem. It is not that teach­ers and even ad­min­is­tra­tors do not care about their stu­dents, but the pres­sure on both the stu­dent and the teacher for the stu­dent to per­form cer­tainly in­ter­feres with the stu­dent­teacher re­la­tion­ship and has not been shown to im­prove learn­ing.

This pres­sure cou­pled with large class sizes leaves lit­tle mys­tery as to how stu­dents can fall through the cracks, both aca­dem­i­cally and so­cially. Re­search shows that sui­ci­dal episodes in stu­dents are not only on the rise but peak in oc­cur­rence in mid-fall and mid-spring, the low­est point in sum­mer. This is an im­por­tant in­di­ca­tion that we must im­prove the school ex­pe­ri­ence for the health and well-be­ing of our stu­dents.

In pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion, there is a huge dis­con­nect be­tween the science of learn­ing and how our kids are taught. Re­search in cog­ni­tive science shows that learn­ing is most ef­fec­tive when it is col­lab­o­ra­tive, when the var­i­ous senses are en­gaged, when the learner cre­ates rather than just takes in in­for­ma­tion.

Hu­mans are first and fore­most so­cial be­ings and, in­stead of us­ing that fact, we seek to sti­fle so­cial in­ter­ac­tion through­out the school day. Adding to that prob­lem is the fact that U.S. stu­dents spend more hours in the class­room each year than any other coun­try, and teach­ers have less plan­ning time than teach­ers in other coun­tries.

If we sim­ply read up on best prac­tices and ef­fec­tive in­no­va­tions in ed­u­ca­tion that are be­ing ap­plied around the world, we will find that the so­lu­tions al­ways lie in the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence, not in the aca­demic cur­ricu­lum, and cer­tainly not in in­creas­ing the num­ber of hours stu­dents are sit­ting at a desk.

Though we would not be the first, Anne Arun­del County could be a leader in the slowly grow­ing move­ment to trans­form ed­u­ca­tion into a ful­fill­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for stu­dents and teach­ers.

Cer­tainly, we can­not dis­count the im­por­tance of a healthy home en­vi­ron­ment and a safe com­mu­nity, and teach­ers can­not bear the en­tire re­spon­si­bil­ity of rais­ing our kids, but we can­not avoid tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for the whole child in ed­u­ca­tion when stu­dents spend well over 1,000 hours ev­ery year in school.

By nur­tur­ing healthy re­la­tion­ships in school, and in­te­grat­ing so­cial-emo­tional learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ences through­out the day, we will go a long way in im­prov­ing ev­ery stu­dent’s chance for suc­cess.

This does not mean adding costly pro­grams to our school sys­tem. This means putting our re­sources di­rectly into our schools with ad­e­quate staffing, small class sizes, fos­ter­ing par­ent-teacher co­op­er­a­tion and part­ner­ing with the com­mu­nity to make en­rich­ing ex­pe­ri­ences a reg­u­lar part of the school day.

When the stu­dent be­comes the fo­cus, the whole child, there will be lit­tle op­por­tu­nity for any to fall through the cracks.

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