Teachers understand a fundamental truth about society, that there is no quick fix. The children who act out in class can either be isolated and punished, or worked with so that we adults can understand what is going on in their lives and how we can help them to address their challenges in a more productive and positive way. Sometimes, as happened horribly last week in Boston, the crime is so heinous that the global response to the individual and his act is unreservedly punitive, and rightly so. However, the next thoughtful step, after dealing with the perpetrators, is preventative. How do we stop another young person from going down this self-destructive and socially disastrous path? What were the underlying causes and conditions that converged on that street, at that moment in time? Any high school history student gets the concept of causation drilled into them. There is a hierarchy of causes from obscure and far removed to immediate and irrelevant. In the Boston case, the fact that the accused young men immigrated to the United States was a factor - but not one that would inevitably lead to these horrible choices, any more than the decision to purchase a pressure cooker was the ultimate cause. So while the politicians scramble to demonstrate "leadership" and take firm action, and the families and the city mourn; what can we, as educators and parents, take away from this awful tragedy?
Ultimately, this is a story about alienation, not from a country or a set of values, but an alienation from humanity. Every day we see children who are lonely, or ostracized from their peers. Students who lack the social skills both to integrate into larger groups, or the confidence and generosity of spirit to open up their "clique" to someone who is a little different. Many schools, ours included, place a great emphasis on social-emotional learning. We dedicate a team of counsellors and three hours of class time a week to explore the issues that keep us from connecting positively one from the other. For children who lack some of the basic interpersonal skills to get along we run facilitated, integrated play groups every day at lunch so that our less able "novice" players can pick up verbal and non-verbal cues from "experienced" socializers as to how to interact effectively with other people. You can't prevent terrible things from happening. But maybe schools can make a difference, one child at a time.
As parents, we live in a busy and stressful world, but we have to be mindful to set aside significant time each week for interpersonal interaction around the home - playing games, doing chores together, taking walks, going to the park or the aquarium, or simply sitting down for a family meal. The more we can stay connected with our kids at home, and they can stay connected with their peers at school or at play, the farther we move them away from the personal isolation and alienation that are bound to end in personal, if not societal, tragedy.