Sowing the Seeds of Nonviolence
by Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Diane E. Levin
First published in Education Week

The recent school shootings by youth in Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Kentucky put a tortuous human face on the newspaper headlines that rank the United States as number one in the world in deaths by guns and reminds us of the more than doubling of violent crimes among youth since the mid-eighties. These tragic events have led to renewed discussions about what our society is doing wrong to produce child criminals. Harsher measures for disciplining children are suggested in an atmosphere that often blames children for the increases in youth violence. But where does responsibility lie for these tragedies and how should educators respond to them?

We know that children in this country are swimming in a culture of violence that comes in many forms—family abuse, violence on the streets, in the community, violence in the news. Every 10 seconds a child is abused or neglected. Every 2 hours a child is killed by a fire arm. On top of all this, there is entertainment violence and a popular culture saturated with glorified violence which shows children anti-social images, actions and models for how people treat each other and deal with their conflicts. On television alone children see 32 acts of violence every hour and over 1000 murders a year.

Children learn how to treat each other from how they are treated and from the social interactions they observe around them. They use this information to build their own ideas; they try out what they’ve seen and build on it with new experience. Children exposed to excessive violence can’t help but use it as a building block in this learning process.

In this climate, children need a lot of help making sense of the violence they have seen and learning alternatives to it. How are children supposed to sort out the conflicting messages that violence is exciting and fun in fantasy but not acceptable in actual human relationships? And where are children supposed to learn the many skills and concepts that go into knowing how to resolve conflicts without violence?

What if Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson, the two youths dressed in combat who pulled the triggers in Jonesboro, Arkansas, had gone to a school where children talked regularly with teachers about social issues of importance to them? What if Mitchell had learned the skills to express his feelings and get support from other children and adults when he experienced rejection from his girl friend? What if the boys had been part of a school conflict resolution and mediation program where they had learned a whole range of ways to resolve conflict creatively from their earliest years in school?

Conflict resolution and mediation programs have been adopted in schools around the country since the early 1980’s. When done well, these programs teach children a whole repertoire of non-violent ways to deal with the problems they face in their social world and help to counteract the lessons they learn from exposure to violence. They can help children feel a strong sense of themselves as skilled problem solvers empowered with the ability to transform conflicts into peaceful and gratifying situations.

Research on school conflict resolution programs is beginning to show that these programs can have a positive impact, especially when begun with children at an early age. Our own research bears this out. We have observed how the children who have been offered programs deal with social problems. They have strategies for what to say and do when conflicts arise and the capacity to generate inventive solutions. They express confidence in their ability to resolve conflicts with others and a conviction that positive conflict resolution is possible. This contrasts dramatically with the children we've talked to who have no such programs in their schools.

Derrick and Mark are good examples of this difference. Both are in urban, public school second grades in the same city. Their schools are similar in many ways, except that Mark has had a conflict resolution program while Derrick has not. During our visit to Derrick's class, the children drew pictures of conflicts in their own lives. Derrick's picture showed a recent conflict with a boy named George. Derrick told us as he drew, "George hit me in the hallway and I chased him. I said, ‘I ain't your friend no more,’ He said, 'I ain't either.' He pushed me. And so I punched him in the face. They [teachers] stopped the fight. We had to go to the office." In the discussion that followed, Derrick said that going to the office "felt bad" to him. He had been there before. We wondered aloud if there were any way to avoid the principal’s office or anything he could do so the fight with George wouldn't happen. Derrick answered these questions each time with a "nope." There was nothing he could do to change the cycle of violence entrapping him. There was nothing he could do to avoid going back to the principal’s office. But going there didn’t give him the tools he would need to prevent a return trip.

Mark had a different story. His conflict drawing showed a time when “a kid pushed me. He didn’t push me on purpose,” Mark said, “but I thought he did it for real. And I said, ‘Look, I don’t want to fight. Let’s talk it out. Let’s sit down and talk it out.’” The discussion with Mark revealed a child who was using skills for working out conflict he had been working on in his classroom all year—skills about how to recognize and talk about his own and others’ feelings, how to begin to understand that a problem involves two points of view at least, and that there can be solutions that satisfy both sides. In Mark’s classroom, he had learned these skills through hands-on activities using puppets, role plays and other experiences that made the skills concrete and used the children’s conflicts as the center of the curriculum.

Mark’s school had decided to make children’s social and moral development a legitimate and central part of the curriculum. At his school they realized that it was their job to help counteract the violent messages much of the rest of society was teaching Mark and other children. They realized that the best way to help children learn social responsibility is to embed social and emotional education into all classroom interactions throughout the school day. They believed that doing this not only prevents violence but builds social responsibility.

When an 11 year old boy who attends a school where conflict resolution is a cornerstone of the curriculum heard how Mitchell Johnson had threatened to kill his former girlfriend, he said, “If I had heard him say that, I would’ve put my arm around him and said, ‘Hey brother, you seem upset. Wanna sit down and talk?’” This is what a program that helps children deal with violence in society can do for them. It can provide them with tools for dealing with each new difficult situation they encounter in a creative and nonviolent way and an eagerness to try. It is a far more holistic and hopeful approach for society as a whole than the quick fix approaches which advocate expelling children from school, putting them in jail, and adding metal detectors to playgrounds.

Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed.D., is a Professor of Education at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA where she has taught teachers for 30 years, and a research affiliate at Lesley’s Center for Children, Families, and Public Policy. She has co-authored four books and written numerous articles on media violence, conflict resolution, peaceable classrooms and global education. Nancy is a consultant for public television, and has worked on shows for Arthur, Postcards from Buster, Zoom and Fetch.  Her latest work is a book for parents and all adults concerned about children today called Taking Back Childhood, set for release Spring 2008.