School shootings and the graphic violence we all see in the media change the way adults and children view the world — from bright and full of promise to a dark and potentially dangerous place.

Even at the tender age of two, a child may experience a bully’s threat or imitate his favorite cartoon character and tackle a friend in the playground. Exposure to violence can change the way children feel, act, and behave. Yet some children are more resistant than others and a rare few are immune.

Children are born with a remarkable range of potential. They are not born violent, nor are they naturally immune to the effects of violence. Only through personal experience can a child become able to resist aggressive behavior. During these early years, you can increase your child’s ability to be responsible, caring, and creative.

A vaccine against violence
Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D, a leading expert in brain development and children in crisis, has identified six core strengths that children need to be humane. A child with these strengths will be more resourceful, successful in social situations, and resilient, and even able to recover more quickly when exposed to violence. Without them, a child will be in greater danger of becoming violent and also less able to cope with verbal or physical abuse.

To help children develop these crucial strengths, Scholastic has launched KEEP THE COOL IN SCHOOL, a company-wide campaign against violence and verbal abuse. With this campaign, we hope to offer teachers, parents, and children the tools to identify, develop, and enhance these core strengths. Promoting a child’s emotional health is the most successful approach available to fighting violence.

The six core strengths
Violence infects our children. It is virulent in some and barely noticeable in others. Why do some children re-enact the violence they see on television while others do not? Why do some chronically teased children cope by developing a sense of humor, while others become self-loathing and still others plot to shoot their taunting peers? Most important, why do some children who make these murderous plans actually act on them?

It’s almost impossible to answer these questions. We rarely know what makes a given child violent. But we do know that children who develop six core strengths rarely become violent. These strengths build upon each other to contribute to a child’s emotional development. Together, they provide a strong foundation for future health, happiness, and productivity.

These core strengths provide a child with the framework for a life rich in family, friends, and personal growth. Our world changes daily and becomes increasingly diverse — and how much more complex that world will be when our children become parents! Teaching children these core strengths gives them a gift they will use throughout their lifetimes. They will learn to live and prosper together with people of all kinds — each bringing different strengths to create a greater whole.

1. Attachment: Being a friend
Attachment is the capacity to form and maintain healthy emotional bonds with others. It is first acquired in infancy, as a child interacts with loving, responsive, and attentive parents and caregivers.

Why it’s important: This core strength is the cornerstone of all the others. A baby’s interactions with his parents create his first relationships. Healthy attachments allow him to love, to become a good friend, and to have a positive and useful model for future relationships.

As he grows, other consistent and nurturing adults such as teachers, family friends, and relatives will shape his ability to develop attachments. The attached child will be a better friend, student, and classmate - which promotes all forms of learning.

When to worry: A child who has difficulty with this strength has a hard time making friends and trusting adults. He may show little empathy for others and act in what seems to be a remorseless way. Children unable to attach often lack the emotional anchors needed to buffer the violence they see. They may isolate themselves, act out, reject a peer’s friendly overtures, or withdraw socially. With few friends, and apparently disconnected from their peers, they are also at greater risk when exposed to violence.

2. Self-regulation: Thinking before you act
Developing and maintaining the ability to recognize and control urges — such as hunger and sleep — as well as feelings of frustration, anger, and fear — is a lifelong process. Its roots begin with the external regulation provided by parents or significant caregivers, and its healthy growth depends on a child’s experience and brain development.

Why it’s important: Pausing a moment between an impulse and an action is a life tool that helps your child physiologically and emotionally. But it’s a strength that must be developed — she is not born with it. Our expectations must be age-appropriate. For instance, it’s unreasonable to expect a 2-year-old to have complete bladder and bowel control before her body has matured.

When to worry: When a child does not develop the capacity to self-regulate, she will have problems sustaining friendships, learning, and controlling her behavior. She may blurt out a thoughtless and cruel remark and express hurt or anger with a shove or by knocking down another child’s work. Just seeing a violent act may set her off or deeply upset her. Children who struggle with self-regulation are more reactive, immature, impressionable, and more easily overwhelmed by threats and violence.

3. Affiliation: Joining in
The capacity to be part of a group springs from our ability to form attachments. Affiliation is the glue for healthy human functioning: It allows us to form and maintain relationships with others — and to create something stronger and more adaptive than we might be able to as individuals.

Why it’s important: Human beings are social creatures. We are biologically designed to live, play, grow, and work in groups. Your family is your child’s first and most important group, glued together by the strong emotional bonds of attachment. Most other groups that children join — such as a preschool class or neighborhood playmates — are based on circumstance or common interests. It’s in these groups that children have thousands of brief emotional, social, and cognitive experiences that can help shape their development. And it is in these situations that children make stronger connections with peers — their first friendships.

When to worry: A child who is afraid or otherwise unable to affiliate may suffer a self-fulfilling prophecy: She is more likely to be excluded, and she may feel socially isolated. Healthy development of the core strengths of attachment and self-regulation make affiliation much easier. But a distant, disengaged, or impulsive child won’t be easily welcomed into a group. And in fact, she may act in ways that lead others to tease or actively avoid her.

The excluded child can take this pain and turn it on herself, becoming sad or self-loathing. Or she can direct it outward, becoming aggressive and even violent. Without intervention, she will be more likely to seek out other marginalized kids later in life, and affiliate with them. Unfortunately, the glue that holds these groups together can be beliefs and values that are self-destructive or hateful to those who have excluded them.

4. Awareness: Thinking of others
Awareness is the ability to recognize the needs, interests, skills, and values of others. Infants begin life self-absorbed and slowly develop the ability to see beyond themselves and to sense and categorize the other people in their world. At first this process is simplistic: “I am a boy and she is a girl. Her skin is brown and mine is white.” As children grow, their awareness of differences and similarities becomes more complex.

Why it’s important: The ability to read and respond to the needs of others is an essential element of human communication. An aware child learns about the needs and complexities of others by watching, listening, and forming relationships with a variety of children. He becomes part of a group (which the core strength of affiliation allows him to do), and sees ways in which we are all alike and different. With experience, he can learn to reject labels used to categorize people (such as skin color). He will also be much less likely to exclude others from a group, to tease, and to act in a violent or aggressive way.

When to worry: A child who lacks the ability to be aware of others’ needs and values is at risk of developing prejudicial attitudes. Having formed ideas about others without knowing them, he may continue to make categorical, destructive, and stereotypical judgments: “She speaks English with an accent, so she must be stupid.” This immature kind of thinking feeds the hateful beliefs underlying many forms of verbal and physical violence.

5. Tolerance: Accepting differences
Tolerance is the capacity to understand and accept how others are different from you. This core strength builds upon another — awareness: Once aware, what do you do with the differences you observe?

Why it’s important: It’s natural and human to be afraid of what’s new and different. To become tolerant, a child must first face the fear of differences. This can be a challenge because children tend to affiliate based on similarities — in age, interests, gender, or cultures. But they also learn to reach out and be more sensitive to others by watching how the adults in their lives relate to one another. With positive modeling, you can insure and build on your child’s tolerance. The tolerant child is more flexible and adaptive in many ways. Most important, when she learns to accept differences in others, she becomes able to value what makes each of us special and unique.

When to worry: An intolerant child is likelier to lash out at others, tease, bully, and if capable, act out his intolerance in violent ways. Children who struggle with this strength help create an atmosphere of exclusion and intimidation for those people and groups they fear. This atmosphere promotes and facilitates violence.

6. Respect: Respecting Yourself and others
Appreciating your own self-worth and the value of others grows from the foundation of the preceding five strengths. An aware, tolerant child with good affiliation, attachment, and self-regulation strengths gains respect naturally. The development of respect is a lifelong process, yet its roots are in early childhood, as children learn these core strengths and integrate them into their behaviors and their world view.

Why it’s important: Children will belong to many groups, meet many kinds of people, and will need to be able to listen, negotiate, compromise, and cooperate. Developing respect enables your child to accept others and to see the value in diversity. He can see that every group needs many styles and many strengths to succeed. He will value each person in the group for his talents. When children respect — and even celebrate — diversity, they find the world to be a more interesting, complex, and safe place. Just as understanding replaces ignorance, respect replaces fear.

When to worry: A child who can’t respect others is incapable of self-respect. He will be quick to find fault with others, but can also be his own worst critic. Too often, the trait a child ridicules in others reflects something similar he hates in himself. The core of all violence is a lack of respect, for oneself and for others: Without it, children are more likely to become violent.

TM & © 2003-1996 Scholastic Inc. All rights reserved

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