A UBC expert says promoting empathy is an important way to prevent tragic school shootings like the one that took place at Columbine High School 15 years ago
On April 20, 1999, two teenage boys armed with assault rifles opened fire at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, killing 12 students and one teacher, and wounding dozens of others before killing themselves.
Since the Columbine massacre, other U.S. school shootings have followed, including Virginia Tech in 2007 and Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. These tragedies have left everyone asking how school shootings can be stopped.
Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia, seeks to understand the why and how of school violence with her research on child and adolescent development.
What can be done in schools to prevent another Columbine?
During a child’s early years at school, intentional and explicit attention needs to be paid to children’s thoughts and feelings, teaching them emotional understanding, self-awareness, and empathy with the same amount of focus that’s put on teaching math or science. Social and emotional learning focuses on helping children acquire the skills to get along with others, be self-aware, manage their emotions and make responsible decisions. These are the life skills that enable kids to be successful members of society. Parents and teachers also need support in developing the skills to promote these competencies in their kids. The best preventative method to stop something as tragic as Columbine from happening again is a systemic approach, one that looks at the whole child. It may sound terribly cliché, but it really does take a village to raise a child – a child that’s not just physically healthy, but socially and emotionally healthy.
How can these social and emotional competencies be developed?
There are programs around the world that promote empathy in children. One is Roots for Empathy, which started in 1996 in Toronto. It’s now in eight countries. The premise of the program is to bring an infant into classrooms ranging from kindergarten to Grade 8. The infant is a spark for talking about how we feel, how a baby feels, and how we learn to get along. The research shows the program decreases aggression and increases kindness in the kids. Another example is a program in B.C. called Friends for Life, which gives children the tools to better deal with anxiety. B.C. is becoming a world leader in empathy programs. Research shows kids who have been exposed to some form of social and emotional learning have fewer mental health problems, are financially better off and are more likely to vote when they’re older – in other words, they’re engaged with the community.
As someone who studies and works with young people, do you have any thoughts on why the Columbine shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were motivated to kill?
They didn’t do what they did because they were bullied. I believe it had to do with the issue of mental health. Both boys had mental health problems, and the relationship between the two boys was toxic and had catastrophic consequences. The shooting is a reflection of what happens when we don’t spot early warning signs or address issues of mental illness in young people. We need to provide adequate help and services to children and their families – families need to be involved in the plan.
You have two teenage sons, including one who is 17, the same age as Klebold was at the time of the shooting. What’s one way you parent your children that speaks to this empathetic approach?
There is no simple solution to what happened. But as parents we need to know our children and provide them with love and support – this goes on into the teenage years. For example, we know from research that parents should know who their child’s friends are. I joke with my sons and tell them they have to have their friends over to our house so that I can get to know them. I spend time talking with their friends too! Parents need to know who their child is hanging out with.
What have we learned from Columbine?
We need to talk to young people more. And listen. A lot of my research is about empowering youth and unless we involve them with coming up with a solution, to stop another Columbine, it’s going to fail.
Kimberly Schonert-Reichl is a Professor in the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, and Special Education in UBC’s Faculty of Education. She is also a faculty member in the Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP) and a faculty associate in the School of Population and Public Health.