(ANS) — While conflict resolution programs are introduced in high school to teach alternatives to violence, research increasingly points to the first five years in a child’s life as the critical period for influencing social and emotional development.
“A lot of children’s habits, the basic foundation for the ways they think and relate, are established in those first years,” said Larry Dieringer, executive director of Educators for Social Responsibility, a Boston-based organization that has developed a conflict resolution program for the very young called Adventures in Peacemaking.
Lisa Cureton, a childcare director and teacher trainer in Maryland, said giving children the social and emotional tools to handle life’s experiences is just as important as developing their intelligence.
Citing the two student suspects in the Littleton, Colo. high school killings, Cureton said they obviously had the intellectual ability to build the bombs and plan their attack. What they lacked was emotional intelligence.
“We work so diligently in giving our children cognitive intelligence but we are losing the battle as it relates to social and emotional development,” Cureton said, referring to the work of Daniel Goleman and his book “Emotional Intelligence.”
The Adventures in Peacemaking program, which has been implemented in 600 after-school programs in 25 communities nationwide and has reached an estimated 16,000 children, aims to give children emotional coping skills at a young age, before they have developed a protective mask that is difficult to crack.
Geared for both pre-school children and schoolchildren through the sixth grade, the program is designed for after-school hours and emphasizes having fun. Activities like “The Lily Pad Hop,” “Human Camera” and “Beat the Wave” teach cooperation, differing perspectives, and the effects of stereotyping. Youngsters learn to express their feelings, communicate with each other, respect differences in cultural background and work together.
“We can remove that hardening of the heart before that hardening even occurs,” by giving children the skills to deal with their emotions, says Cureton. “Then we’ve really done some work and can really make a change for tomorrow.”
Positive reinforcement is another tool that seems to help turn around negative student behavior in the lower grades. A program called Give Peace a Chance in Nashville, Tenn., revolves around small efforts to reward students for good deeds. Positive notes from other children are stuffed into envelopes stapled to a wall for each child at Goodletsville Elementary School. Slights and hurts are recorded with tacks on a Peace Fence that are removed when the affront is resolved.
So many children grow up in a violent environment that they do not know what peace means, said Carolyn Bush, the fourth grade teacher who initiated the program. “We decided to create an environment to let them know what peace really is,” she says.
Raising awareness about the culture of violence that children live in is another goal of Educators for Social Responsibility, said Dieringer. “It is important to recognize that we live in a culture that too often celebrates violence, especially through the media,” he said. “It’s important for us as adults to directly address some of the factors that contribute to this culture of violence, like the availability of weapons. There are some larger, cultural factors that we as adults have to take responsibility for.”
At Sweeney Elementary School in Santa Fe, N.M., the BULLYPROOF program tries to dilute the effects of violent television shows and movies by emphasizing peaceful storytelling and entertainment [See ANS Article]. Through puppet shows and a rap opera, children are given examples of how to address bullying through characters like the Listening Lynx, Loving Lion, and Respectful Raven.
Making abstract concepts concrete through games and activities is at the heart of Adventures in Peacemaking, too. “So much of the information we give kids is not fun,” said Cureton, who after four years of working with the program in Maryland is now training others to use it.
“The piece that was powerful (in Peacemaking) was giving youngsters the opportunity to practice skills they needed without it being lecture based. I could see how the children would learn and discern those skills without really knowing it,” said Cureton.
Adventures in Peacemaking was initiated four years ago by AT&T employees who were concerned both about increasing violence among children and the quality of after-school programs. Backed by the company’s Family Care Development Fund, Educators for Social Responsibility and Project Adventure — an experiential learning company — teamed up to develop the curriculum.
Educators say the program works. Vicki Wright, who introduced Peacemaking at the Children’s Learning Center in Longmont, Colo., said after one year physical confrontations between her children are down and the whole atmosphere of the room has changed for the better.
“We have a lot of challenging children and some behavior problems,” Wright explained. “Those sorts of things are way down. The children have learned how to use anger management tools and how to use words in an appropriate way.”
Change doesn’t happen overnight and the program asks for a one-year commitment from participating after-school programs. But once the curriculum has had time to take hold, the effects are often remarkable, Cureton notes. After the first year, children in her program began to communicate more effectively and started to cooperate with each other.
“By year two I saw a drastic change,” she says. Children who had been enemies started holding hands, sitting next to each other and treating each other with respect. “Cursing stopped, fighting completely left the program and children began to function” as a community, she explains.
Says Cureton, “I see it as a vehicle for change. I see it as changing the behaviors of our children and giving them the tools they need to cope with what’s happening in our society. We’re touching a lot of lives.”
END © COPYRIGHT 1998 The American News Service
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Larry Dieringer, executive director, Educators for Social Responsibility, Boston, Mass., 617-492-1764.
Vicki Wright, assistant director, Children’s Learning Center, Longmont, Colo., 303-651-1008.
Lisa Cureton, childcare director, University for Tots, Suitland, Md., 301-856-0782.
Join Together, Boston, Mass., 617-437-1500, web site: www.jointogether.org A project of the Boston University School of Public Health, JoinTogether’s web site compiles news reports and offers extensive resources and links on community strategies to prevent gun violence and substance abuse.