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This innovative program uses brain science to teach Chicago teens how to stop violence

The CHILL trainers (left to right): D’Atrey Brinson, Devin Swift-Bailey, Judge Moore, Jonathan Jackson, and Janea Moore at the Get in the Game Teen Summit on Nov. 18 at Malcolm X College in Chicago. (Photo credit: Philip G. Tarver)

Chicago teen Lauryn Hill spent her high school career steeped in the lessons of violence and loss. One friend was shot 22 times. Another died at a vigil when someone sprayed bullets at the crowd of mourners.

Many of her peers at Percy L. Julian High School on the South Side also are reeling from losing friends and family to Chicago’s increasing street violence — there were 762 homicides last year, the highest number since the 1990s.

Now, community leaders are combining the neuroscientific research from Yale University and relationship research from the Gottmann Institute to help solve the problem. Hill recently joined hundreds of teens from the South and West sides of Chicago for a training on how to prevent violent conflicts by tuning into what happens in their bodies when they become angry. Then the young adult trainers in the program, known as CHILL, show them how to de-escalate the conflict and walk away.

On a late fall day, the group gathered at Malcolm X College in one of the modern complex’s airy classrooms and watched people act out different scenarios and decide how to best respond.

The first performer insulted his buddy’s sneakers. The two role players began snarling at each other. But then one pulled back, took a breath and lowered his voice. His friend, who had been mirroring his aggression, slowed down too.

In the next scene, three CHILL trainers role-played an on-edge cop, a nervous driver and a voice inside the driver’s head. As the driver got agitated, spilling her purse and reaching toward the floor, the young man playing the police officer went ballistic, thinking she was going for a gun. Trainers froze the action and turned to the teens. “What is going on here?” they asked.

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Hill says watching one situation go from potentially dangerous to calm and then being asked to analyze the next one was eye-opening.

“They gave us scenarios that they know we go through now as teenagers — especially living in Chicago where there are always a lot of high-pressure situations,” said Hill, a strong student who has been a witness to but not a participant in violent situations. “It was helpful. When you’re outside like that, looking in on the situation, it helps you to see that what they’re fighting over is really unnecessary.”

Conflict-resolution specialist and South Side native Andra Medea designed CHILL last year in consultation with leaders of the South Side chapter of the NAACP. It is informed by the neurobiology research of Amy Arnsten, a professor of neuroscience at Yale University, and by the relationship research of clinical psychologists at the Gottman Institute in Seattle.

Arnsten’s research challenges the idea that people think better under pressure. Instead, she’s found, we barely think at all.

Arnsten has studied how the body’s release of adrenaline in response to stress causes an immediate release of high levels of the neurotransmitters neuropenephrine and dopamine in the brain. This action effectively takes the prefrontal cortex — our brain’s center of higher thought and reasoning — offline and hampers our ability to use logic and memory.

CHILL is also inspired by research from the Gottman Institute on marriage conflicts, which found that in relationships that turned violent the couple’s whose prefrontal cortexes shut down — called “flooding” — at the same time suffered the most. On the other hand, the institute found that when the couples were offered self-soothing training prior to conflict, they were better able to counter the effects of adrenaline flooding, and their relationships improved.

If it worked for two people in a violent relationship, Medea reasoned, why couldn’t it work for two teens in a violent neighborhood?

Chicago’s recent spike in violence has taken a heavy toll on its teenagers and children. About 20 percent of Chicago’s homicide victims and a quarter of those injured in shootings in 2016 were 19 or younger. On the evening of the training, South Side resident Jovan Wilson, a 15-year-old grandson of longtime Illinois U.S. congressman Danny Davis, was killed trying to break up a fight over a pair of sneakers.

Medea grew up on the South Side during the civil rights era of the 1960s, giving her an early education in defusing conflicts before they became violent. She and the leaders of the Southside NAACP imagined de-escalation training that could merge brain science with behavioral tools adapted for the city’s youth.

They wanted to show kids examples of real-life escalations that would draw from their own experiences. They also wanted the science presented in language the teens could relate to, by role models they would want to emulate.

So, Medea enlisted young adults from the South Side to be the trainers.

Devin Swift-Bailey, 24, who works at Chicago Youth Centers, where he helps with after-school activities and enrichment for South and West Side kids, helped lead the training at Malcolm X.

“I told those kids, ‘I’m not that much older than you and I’m very much aware of what you’re going through,’ ” he said. “They said that they also didn’t want to be a punk. But I told them that you don’t have to respond. That you can have the maturity level to differentiate between what’s worth your time and not worth your time.”

Trainer Jonathan Jackson, 20, said initially he was hesitant about teaching CHILL, because he was skeptical it would work. Now, Jackson says, he de-escalates others all the time.

“I started using it on my family and friends,” he said. “I use non sequiturs on them and brainteasers — little distracting questions you can throw at people [when they’re flooding]. ‘Do you like relish on pizza? What’s the capital of Little Rock?’ You know there is no capital of Little Rock, but you’ve made them start to think again.”

The CHILL training helps teens understand what is happening in their brains when they are angry or emotionally charged. This awareness, and the tricks they learn to interrupt the adrenaline flooding, help them break old behaviors.

When teens becomes agitated during a confrontation, they can feel they have no choice but to fight back, and the physical symptoms of flooding appear: Throbbing head, racing heart, dry mouth, shaking legs, sweaty palms, shortness of breath. Coordination may go.

As they feel an urge to fight, the trained teens notice both that feeling and the physiological responses.

“Say you’re 12 or 13 and your best friend said something awful about your mother. Your initial realization that ‘Hey, I really want to punch him out’ breaks the momentum” of the punch, says Medea.

“The initial reaction may not be ‘I want to calm down,’ but that [internal] dialogue creates enough confusion to slow you down, and the ability to recognize your own behavior wakes up the part of your brain that you need to inhibit your worst impulses.”

Taking deep breaths can help. If the teen can’t move away, then unclenching fists or relaxing muscles will make a difference, or he can count to 10. He can start walking or swinging his arms to counteract the flooding, according to research.

If the kid does something unexpected like joking, talking in non sequiturs, or singing loudly, he may end up both turning back the flooding and dissolving the standoff.

Teens learn in the training that if they’re flooding, then the person they’re in conflict with is likely flooding too. Neither of them will be able to truly hear what the other is saying, think clearly or hold a reasonable conversation.

Deborah Gorman-Smith is director of the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention at the University of Chicago. She has helped design and evaluate violence intervention programs for 20 years. Gorman-Smith wasn’t involved in the development of CHILL and cautions that Medea and her team should have the program’s effectiveness evaluated, but, she says, she is guardedly optimistic about what the teens can learn through such a program.

“What we do know increasingly about the violence that’s happening in Chicago right now is that so much of it is about these small conflicts that quickly escalate and they escalate with kids who have guns in their hands,” she said. “Obviously, if they didn’t, the incidents wouldn’t be quite so deadly. So the stakes are just so much higher in these neighborhoods.”

Medea emphasizes the training may not instantly result in better choices. The first time they’re in an altercation post-training, they might still throw a punch. But they may also understand that they didn’t have to, she said.

“The third or fourth time you’ll stop yourself because you’ll realize you never got what you wanted those previous times. And that’s the goal,” Medea says. “Getting better and not giving up on yourself.”

For Arthur Wells, an 18-year-old senior at a South Side high school, CHILL training made a lasting impression. Like Hill, he has lost people close to him to gun violence over issues that he said should not have resulted in death.

“Personally, I had an issue with anger in the past,” he said. “But I feel like after being in that room with [the CHILL trainers], now I would think about staying calm, and a lot of the things they taught me I do take into consideration now.”

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