All of the talk lately about school shootings and arming teachers reminds me of one of my heroes. Antoinette Tuff was the school bookkeeper in Georgia’s DeKalb County who in 2013 single-handedly prevented a school shooting. A man walked into the school office with an AK-47 and 500 rounds of ammunition and said he wanted to die. Tuff did not have a weapon. Instead, she somehow coaxed him into putting down his gun, connected with him by listening to him, and then talked with him about a devastating divorce she’d just been through.
While Tuff was calming the gunman, students and teachers were able to quickly and safely leave the building. Nobody was injured. She used kindness and compassion to help save the lives of countless children and their teachers.
Such social emotional skills — which over time allow us to make good decisions and maintain healthy relationships — are important for all of us and especially critical to teach our kids as they grow up in these times of school massacres and active-shooter drills.
As the full-time peace teacher at Lafayette Elementary School in Washington, D.C., instructing more than 500 kids every week, I see a big part of my role as triage. I do my best to look out for the lonely, angry ones, the ones who always seem to be on their own, the ones who aren’t connecting with the other kids. I don’t know anything about their reading or math skills. There are other wonderful teachers to take care of that. All I’m concerned with is their hearts and happiness. I’m lucky my school values this kind of learning enough to employ me so I can work with these kids every day.
I see schools spending more and more money on guards and staff whose sole purpose is to break up fights and discipline kids. Instead, how about getting to the root of these problems? Educators who teach students how to deal with difficult emotions might be the most urgent need.
Years ago, students in my conflict resolution workshops started calling me the “peace teacher,” and the title has stuck. At Lafayette, all of the kids take my weekly peace class.
In class, we turn out the lights, and I tell students to count breaths or focus on one of their five senses. It calms them down and allows them to connect with their emotions and think about their bodies. They become more aware of their feelings and learn how to recognize anxious thoughts but not be consumed by them — the foundation of emotional smarts.
I started out 15 years ago teaching conflict resolution, but I realized that children had a hard time remembering how to use conflict resolution skills when they are in a real conflict and are actually angry. They didn’t have any skills to help them recognize their emotions and calm down enough to work things out peacefully. This is what led me to bring mindfulness into my classes.
I was surprised to learn the children loved it. They see it for what it is, learning to identify their feelings and think before they act. Through that, they focus better, manage their emotions, calm themselves down, and become kinder and more compassionate. In essence, they learn to be more peaceful.
Some students started telling me they were even doing it at home to relax or fall asleep at night. Kids said mindfulness made them feel kinder, less nervous, more confident and better rested.
After a year of teaching mindfulness at Lafayette, reports of fights and bullying were down. All children need to learn these skills — not just the ones who are referred to the school counselor for extra help.
What started out as a little experiment quickly grew to be a schoolwide program with all classroom teachers leading daily “mindful moments.” We even have an alternative recess space called “peace club,” where kids can go to decompress.
Children in the District and across the country are living in an increasingly scary, uncertain world. They are anxious. Active-shooter drills are terrifying, and it is harder and harder for parents to keep kids sheltered from the latest horrific headlines. Yes, we must make sure our schools are physically safe. But we also need to be sure our kids have the skills to deal with these difficult emotional times.
Of course, no amount of school-based intervention can completely compensate for serious problems in the home or the community, but I believe we owe it to our students to give their hearts as much attention as we give their heads.
Here’s what you can do to bring mindfulness and social emotional learning to your children and your school:
- Introduce mindfulness to your family. Mindfulness doesn’t have to be serious. We have lots of fun in peace class. There are wonderful books such as “Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda” and “Anh’s Anger” to help kids learn some of the basic concepts. There are apps you can download, such as Calm and Mind Yeti, that have recorded lessons for children to try. I have mindfulness videos on my website you can watch free, and I also recommend mindfulness from hip-hop artist JusTme. For adults I suggest 10% Happier.
- Take Five. One of the simplest but most useful mindfulness practices I teach in peace class is called “take five breathing.” All you do is trace your hand slowly with your finger while breathing in and out. Breathe in as you trace up starting at your thumb, breathe out as you trace down. It’s simple, fun and it really works.
- Advocate for mindfulness in your school. More schools are beginning to catch on, but not all mindfulness programs are created equal. Research is starting to show that it is the combination of mindfulness and social emotional learning that makes the difference. Many programs offer eight-week introductions to mindfulness. This is a great start, but as someone who has been teaching mindfulness weekly to children from pre-K to fifth grade, I can say that this is where the real change starts. It’s ongoing, and it’s schoolwide. That commitment is why we are seeing calmer, happier children who are better equipped not only to interact with their friends but also to interact with the world.
Linda Ryden is the peace teacher at Lafayette Elementary in Washington, D.C. She has written two children’s books, “Rosie’s Brain,” which helps children learn how to calm down when they’re angry, and “Henry Is Kind,” a book about compassion.