IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The 6-year-old accused of shooting his teacher shouldn’t be punished under the law

Interventions can help violent children — and their parents.
Messages of support for teacher Abby Zwerner grace the front door of Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Va.
Messages of support for teacher Abby Zwerner grace the front door of Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Va., on Wednesday. John C. Clark / AP file

According to the police, a 6-year-old boy at Richneck Elementary School in Virginia used a gun legally purchased by his mother to intentionally shoot his teacher on Friday. The event is shocking and unnerving, and, as with other crimes, we instinctively want justice for the victim and a way to ensure the perpetrator doesn’t do further harm.

So it’s easy to see this child as deeply troubled and label him a menace to society. Some of us may want to lock him up and throw away the key. But as a psychologist who researches traumatic stress and treats its survivors, I hope we don’t. Instead, I hope we have compassion and provide mental health intervention for the injured teacher, the classmates who witnessed the shooting, the community that’s reeling from the attack — and also for the child who pulled the trigger. Why? Because, research shows that most children who get intervention early for violent behaviors recover.

The research indicates that “positive and warm relationships,” rather than punishment in the form of reprimands and negative consequences, have the greatest impact.

We can assume the child is no doubt suffering from trauma himself because shooting someone, whether intentional or not, is a devastating experience. That means he needs treatment. Moreover, the typical legal remedies don’t make sense for a person too young to understand the full extent of his actions or what long-term punishment entails. 

“Given a 6-year-old child’s lack of cognitive and moral development, it makes little sense to pursue aggressive criminal or juvenile justice prosecution of the child,” said Dean Kilpatrick, a professor at Medical University of South Carolina and the director of the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center.  “He does not have the capacity to be legally responsible for this act.”

Indeed, moral development is incomplete in young children. There are different theories as to when humans develop the ability to tell right from wrong, but psychologists generally believe a core understanding of right and wrong happens no earlier than at 9 years of age. Damion Grasso, a psychologist and associate professor at the University of Connecticut, also noted that often, “young children, especially those exposed to violence, can imitate violent behaviors without fully comprehending the ramifications of their actions.”

The good news, he said, is that this means that “there’s a lot of ‘catch-up’ that can happen with proper nurturance and caregiving.” Since imitation is part of how children explore the world, good modeling provided by parents, teachers, community leaders and even peers means they can absorb those behaviors as well. 

Patricia Kerig, a professor at the University of Utah and a leading expert on recovery and resilience in youth, pointed to a large body of research demonstrating the short-term effectiveness of interventions for both conduct disorder — a psychiatric condition in individuals under 18 who engage in a habitual pattern of aggression toward people and animals, destruction of property, deceitfulness or theft and serious rule violations — as well as “what might be thought of as ‘garden variety’ aggressive behavior — bullying, getting in fights on the playground and reactively aggressing against peers.” 

Early interventions for children can include preschool intellectual enrichment and skills training that provide cognitively stimulating experiences that might not be offered at home. These can help a child develop a strong foundation for thinking things through and foster an openness or motivation to learn. They can also involve teaching social and emotional skills to help manage one’s feelings, relate more effectively to others, see different perspectives and engage in effective problem-solving. 

In addition, at-risk children who demonstrate impulsivity, attention deficits or difficult temperaments can be taught how to make healthy connections with others, including how to safely resolve conflicts. Chicago Child-Parent Centers are a good example of how to provide these interventions. They’ve been found to improve academic achievement among children as well as reduce the occurrence of crime in adulthood. 

Interventions can also help parents. Teaching parents how to reduce harsh and ineffective parenting skills, utilize positive parenting practices — such as offering praise and encouragement — and engage in closer monitoring of their children are essential to helping children have a healthy view of themselves and the world. 

Parents can also learn how to better handle their children’s tantrums, disobedience or defiance — such as rewarding children for appropriate or prosocial behaviors and administering negative consequences for inappropriate or other aggressive behaviors. Learning to set and consistently enforce limits helps children learn self-control and choose appropriate behavior. It also teaches children they are more likely to get what they want without violence and how to express difficult emotions without attacking others. 

Meanwhile, school-based programs that help kids develop self-control and social competency skills have had positive effects on reducing the occurrence of aggression. After-school and community-based mentoring, such as providing recreation-based, drop-in clubs and tutoring services, may also assist in reducing youth engagement in delinquency and later offending. The rates of improvement vary and depend not only on the level of intervention but also the age of the child.

Kerig said there’s also some evidence for the effectiveness of these types of interventions for “callous-unemotional traits,” a subset of conduct disorder behaviors that are considered signs of serious psychopathy and a potential precursor to antisocial behavior. Furthermore, the research indicates that “positive and warm relationships,” rather than punishment in the form of reprimands and negative consequences, have the greatest impact. “As these children are primarily motivated by self-interest, the best way to influence them appears to be making sure that they like the people around them,” according to a paper from the University of Oslo, so they show “consideration for them as someone they like.”

To be sure, pointing a gun at an adult and shooting her at point-blank range may be violence of greater caliber than what the research to date confirms is treatable. And I certainly don’t want to draw sweeping and overly upbeat conclusions saying that every individual can be rehabilitated.

Let’s use the energy from all our intense emotions about this tragic incident to advocate for this child getting the help he needs.

But whatever intervention is used, said Duke psychiatry professor Robin Gurwitch, “the earlier children and families seek mental health services, the better.” The sooner children at risk are engaged in interventions, the more likely good skills are to take root and blossom rather than allowing poor, ineffective or dangerous ones to develop and solidify. 

Because we have no idea at this point what the circumstances of the child who shot his teacher are or what other problems he might have, it is premature to speculate on the exact type of treatment required. But make no doubt, mental health intervention is needed, and there are treatments that can be drawn on to help him.

The reportedly intentional shooting of a teacher by a 6-year-old is awful and heartbreaking. Let’s use the energy from all our intense emotions about this tragic incident to advocate for this child getting the help he needs, in addition to the teacher, classmates and all in the community who have been affected.