Get Connected. Someone’s life may be counting on it.

Once again, we have a shooting in a school. Once again, everyone is pushing some sort of policy agenda. I think that the reality is that there are some things we can control and some things that we cannot. Larger policy changes are things that, while we can have some influence, are ultimately controlled by larger systems. We need to look right in front of us for where we can have immediate influence.

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I have been a licensed school psychologist for almost 20 years and in the past few years have  entered school and special education administration. I have also been a youth ministry coordinator and worked on crisis intervention teams. I’ve seen and studied the raw Columbine HS security tapes. I’ve taken a knife from a student. I’ve helped counsel children and staff after suicides and/or murders of both students and our school staff. The completed suicides were accomplished with guns, rope, trucks, and trains. We can blame guns or anything else, but one common thread in situations of violence I have observed has had to do with how CONNECTED the individual felt at home and in the school or larger community.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has about 3,000 students and Columbine HS had about 2,000. I live not far from a high school with 3,200 students on one campus. My local HS where I serve on the board has only about 380 students, but that can also increase the weight of any school bullying or to decrease the chances that a student will find another group of students that he or she feels is like them or understands them. Even with a lower student to teacher ratio, it is very easy for a student to be lost in the sea of faces if the school does not make active efforts to include every student. I was blessed enough to have attended a short talk and then to have a private discussion with Frank DeAngelis, the principal of Columbine HS in 1999. I also had a chance to have dinner with Darrell Scott, father of Rachel Scott, one of the murdered Columbine students. Both talked of students needing to feel connected – to home, to school, to the community, and even to a larger spiritual power and family.

For those of us in education, you have almost certainly been introduced the the Danielson Framework for Teaching. For those who are not, it is a set of about 20 components that provide common language and observable aspects of classroom instruction and professional practice. One of those is “Creating an Environment of Respect and Rapport.” The “Critical Attributes” that would be observed for this component are listed below. I think that they would apply for how we as parents and the community would also strive to increase our connectedness. I’ve edited the language to apply to all who work with any child.

The adult demonstrates knowledge and caring about individual children’s lives beyond the class, school, group, or home. We greet the children at the door of the classroom or when they come home. We ask about school and classes. Generate discussion with your kids by asking questions that need more than a “yes/no” answer like, “What is the funniest thing that happened in school today?” Even better, build on what you have heard before to build a sense of trust and that you are listening. “You said yesterday that you had a presentation/game this week. How did that go?” Adults and even other students can be a part of this feeling of being connected. As a parent, I recently chaperoned my second junior high dance this year. There was a bit of drama at the last one and I could remember some students who seemed like they were “outliers.” I made sure to find those students and wave Hi and to have conversations that recalled the last dance and I asked about other things they talked about back then. Those kids seemed to have a mix of genuine surprise as well as genuine appreciation. I would say this second dance went much better. We also have a responsibility to our children’s friends. When I pick up my children from youth group or at school I am likely to have short conversations with their classmates and to ask them about things we have talked about before. I love it when one of my kids’ friends says, “Hi, Mr. Palmisano!” and starts a conversation with me first. I certainly hope there are other adults looking out for my children the same way. As a counselor/psychologist there have been a number of times when a student has needed to share something with his or her parents but is not ready, yet. This is to be expected. Kids often need a few adults they can count on. When there is a failure of a parent to be connected, likely other adults have failed that child, as well. We have shared with some my children’s friends that if there is ever something major that they can contact us and we will help them eventually figure out a way to work it out with their parents. They eagerly have been, again, surprised but very appreciative and went right to their phones to put in our number. (Note: this is a practice best used with an understanding or existing agreement with that friend’s parents.) Again, I hope that the same understanding and rapport exists between my children and their friends’ parents.

There is no disrespectful behavior among children. While a level of respect can be there with an adult present, a respectful culture only truly exists when it does not require coercement. It will hold even without the adult present. There are many school and local communities that appear to have a strong welcoming culture, but in the social media world there is bullying and gossip. How often do adults in a school think a child is liked but, when they look more closely and develop relationships with students, adults find out that these same “friends” brutally harass them online. In my local school community almost every grade level has a “secret” Facebook group where some parents feel comfortable lashing out at the teachers and schools. Clearly, the overall culture still needs some work. We need to let this culture permeate all that happens in your school, your family, and your community. We set up shared beliefs with the input of all involved and encourage them to take ownership. In my family, there is an often stated understanding “You don’t have to like everyone, but we always expect you to be nice to them.” They are expected to still smile at their classmates and to greet them or interact with respect. They are even expected to go one step further (see the next attribute below).

When necessary, children respectfully correct one another. Most recent studies and best practices to counter bullying behavior acknowledge that the effects from punitive behavior and adults stepping in are only mildly effective, at best. They suggest that the best interventions are when the students learn the skills to step in and not just to be a bystander. Even if the child who is the target is not a particular friend, children should be encouraged to acknowledge what they know is disrespectful. Someone needs to step in and be strong enough to say “Cut it out.” My daughter told me of a time when a JH boy was being teased and she stepped in and told the boys that were teasing him that she didn’t appreciate it. Other girls followed the lead and told the other boys they didn’t like what was going on either. The teasing stopped. This can and should happen on social media as well. Without adult monitoring, it is the only way. Luckily, it is also the most effective. The same is true with the adult groups mentioned above. It usually takes one person to step in or to mention something positive and you will see the “likes” on those comments increase. Tell your children: “Be the One.” This is where leaders are made and where those in distress realize they are not alone.

Children participate without fear of put-downs or ridicule from either the adult or other children. The adult respects and encourages all children’s efforts. The “cool kids” seem to be involved in the obvious things where crowds support them. Lonely kids seem to have less common interests. Sometimes, those interests put children directly in the path of direct ridicule or dismay and disapproval from their parents. Children need to know that others believe in them. As long as an interest is not unhealthy, children deserve to explore those interests. There is a saying from Maya Angelou that notes that people won’t remember so much what you said, but how you made them feel. It can be a difficult thing to disagree and to be scared about a child’s interests, but we can still stand by them. In most situations children will figure out on their own that a certain path or interest is not the best for them. If they know that you stood by them, it will pay off. Use these experiences as a chance to increase your connectedness with child or student. Ask questions. Start a dialogue and see if you cannot get a child to share these interests with you.

Other times, you may see children who do not seem to have any interests. Like Lucy told Charlie Brown, “You need involvement.” A child who is not connected runs the risk of feeling like it wouldn’t matter if he or she disappeared. I encourage you to watch this video from Count Me In founder Shane Feldman – “Pain to Purpose” – about how he found involvement after he felt unconnected to his new school. Encourage children to reach out. Create an open atmosphere where students can find their place and their voice.

So, one answer to “What can we do?” is to get connected with your children and the children you meet. Encourage your students and children to be involved. Encourage them to welcome others. Start conversations. Ask questions. The stakes are too high. In the interviews after the murders in FL, most students and teachers acknowledged that they had concerns and were not 100% surprised that this young man carried this out. I am humbled to confess that when one of the youth I worked with committed suicide a number of years ago that a few of us had to admit that if you had said one of the students in the group was going to commit suicide, this might have been the young man we would have guessed. The same is true with a young man I knew in HS and a teacher I used to work with that both took their own lives. As students, children, teachers, parents, community members, and anyone in between, we all have a responsibility to reach out and to be connected. Someone’s life may be counting on it.

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Edward Palmisano

Edward Palmisano

Edward Palmisano is the father of two awesome children and humbly “like a dad” to others. His daughter has cyclic vomiting syndrome, which brings a deeper challenge and also reward to his fatherhood experience. Ed holds licenses in regular and special education administration as well as school psychology. He also serves on his local school board and tutors in the community. His faith inspires his belief that a father’s first responsibility is to guard his own house and to be the first example to his child’s moral upbringing.

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