The Rescue Mission of Public Schools


Jon Oliver and James Alan Fox

October 15, 2004

A Marshfield High School junior is accused of plotting a Columbine-style attack. In Boston, a middle school student allegedly brought 50 hollow-tip bullets to school and hid a revolver near school grounds.

Despite the emphasis in recent years on safety and security, many schools remain chaotic places where some undisciplined students enjoy free rein. Though trying their best to respond, teachers and administrators (as well as parents) often feel overwhelmed. Three-quarters of educators surveyed last spring by Public Agenda, a New York opinion research organization, said they would be more effective in teaching if they did not have to spend so much time dealing with misbehavior and disruption.

More than one-third of teachers reported that they or colleagues have even considered abandoning the profession because student misbehavior has grown impossible to handle. Partly, they are ill prepared to be a "cop with chalk." Teacher training and certification programs tend not to place much importance on methods for maintaining order in the classroom or how to impart basic social skills to students.

As we continue to emphasize higher academic standards, we also need to promote children's social skills. In a world that is rapidly spinning more and more out of control, we must help youngsters learn to control themselves.

As early as preschool and the elementary grades, students must be taught the skills needed for survival and success in real life, skills that many fail to acquire at home. A majority of parents, according to Public Agenda's research, admit failure in teaching their children discipline at home and see this as the leading cause of behavior problems in school. Not equipped with the social skills to deal with bullying, peer pressure, and the toxic youth culture, youngsters often resort to violence or perhaps join a gang for an alternative form of socialization.

In recent months Bill Cosby has made headlines across the country with no-nonsense comments about how black youngsters lack the skills to assume personal responsibility or use self-control in their lives.

While his courageous remarks have raised awareness, the question remains: What can we do to help American children (not just African-American children) in today's out-of-control culture?

In light of the Public Agenda's research findings, it is apparent that teaching social skills must be a priority for public education, arguably as important as test scores. The challenge is that many teachers were not trained in how to coach these social skills nor were many parents taught these skills when they were growing up. Many do not see how important the connection is between teaching such skills and teaching academics.

In many school districts the emphasis for professional teacher development is on helping them to elevate their students' test scores. But how can teachers teach if the children aren't prepared to learn? Children must be taught fundamental life skills in the same sequential and straightforward way they are taught the alphabet and the number line.

But what about the parents? Dr. Phil McGraw has recently been touting the importance of helping parents to raise their children to be safe, healthy, and happy individuals. It is not just up to the teachers and schools to provide social skills, of course. Parents must make sure their children are prepared to enter school and society with skills to survive and succeed.

They should not be afraid to set limits and provide the necessary boundaries to help children with skills such as self-control.

All adults, both teachers and parents, can concretely and tangibly teach skills such as self-control, responsibility, and cooperation to children through defining, discussing, and helping them experience the skills. For example, a teacher or parent can blow bubbles in front of young children and tell them to use their self-control to resist the temptation to break them.

A simple activity like this can generalize into not touching a gun, alcohol, cigarettes, and avoiding a confrontation with a bully. It also gives children a point of reference for what it feels like to use the skill of self-control. In this way, they can develop an alternative response to frustration, besides disruption or worse - violence.

It is critical that these skills reach all children, especially those whose blank expressions mask lifetimes of pain. These are the youngsters who have been bullied, physically abused, or mentally scarred to the point that they are indeed a danger to themselves and others. These are the children who without warning might grab a gun and start shooting or otherwise erupt in unforeseen rage. Like time bombs, we don't know when they'll explode, nor do we know exactly who they are.

When children internalize skills like self-control, self-confidence, responsibility, and cooperation at an early age, they are better equipped to cope with the hand that life has dealt them. Carrying these skills rather than weapons through middle and high school and on to adulthood, they will be able to break the cycles of violence in their lives and within our culture. The goal of "no child left behind" must be more than just an academic exercise.

Jon Oliver is executive director of the Lesson One Company in Boston and co-author of "Lesson One: The ABCs of Life." James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. .