For hostile youth, a little tenderness

March 30, 1998|By Karen Osterman

IN October, Mississippi police accused teen-ager Luke Woodham of taking a rifle to school, killing two and wounding seven. In December, in Paducah, Ky., Michael Carneal, a 14-year-old, was charged with attacking a group of fellow students and killing three. Again, the news brings another tragedy with two boys -- 11 and 13 years old -- accused of killing four girls and a teacher in Arkansas. In each instance, initial reports portrayed these students as social outcasts who had been ridiculed or rejected by their peers.

Michael Carneal had evidently endured years of teasing and harassment. For Luke Woodham, finding a girl who cared about him made his pain and isolation bearable; his rampage followed her rejection. It appears that the 13-year-old's actions were prompted by a romance gone wrong. In these cases, feelings of isolation and rejection erupted in violence against others. In other cases, students turn their anger inward -- choosing to destroy themselves.

Reactions to these tragedies include calls for increased security and gun control, but neither of these addresses or alleviates the anguish that drives students like these to the most serious forms of violence. Some say that answers lie in the schoolhouse and that schools need to pay more attention to emotional needs of kids, particularly in adolescence.

Research shows that all people share a strong basic need to experience belonging. This need to feel acceptance and respect from peers and adults intensifies in adolescence. Yet, while the emotional needs of kids grow as they move into their teens, schools become increasingly impersonal -- placing primary emphasis on academics and almost ignoring students' emotional needs. While the elementary school prides itself on offering a nurturing environment, secondary schools strive to prepare students for the "real world."

We also know that, in general, kids become increasingly alienated from school as they proceed from elementary through high school. For kids who are also rejected socially by peers, alienation and its effects are more severe. In many cases, the process of rejection begins as early as kindergarten and these patterns of rejection seldom change.

Acceptance is closely linked to status in school and status, particularly in the teen-age world, is linked to predictable characteristics: physical appearance, academic ability and athletic prowess. Being accepted by the peer group is no problem for those who meet at least minimal standards for looks, behavior and accomplishment. But, when the teen stands out as fat, slow, homely, or simply different, that student is unlikely to experience the support of fellow classmates.

Social isolation

Experiencing belonging, or alienation, has a major psychological impact on students. Kids who feel that they belong are more likely to participate in class and extracurricular activities. Those students who experience alienation are more likely to rebel or withdraw, rejecting in turn teachers, classmates, school and education. At best, these students cope by doing just enough to get by or actually dropping out. At worst, they experience anxiety and depression and turn their anger either on themselves or on others.

Before asking what schools can do to address this problem, we need to look at how schools now understand and deal with the problem. Teachers and administrators are often aware of peer rejection but ignore it. As in the case of sexual harassment, a typical response is to attribute the problem to the victim: "They lack social skills," "they're too shy or too aggressive." Current research, however, suggests that the primary source of the problem may not be the student but the setting.

A sense of belonging

We know that kids who demonstrate behavioral and social problems in one setting can move to a different setting and be successful. We know that we can in fact create classrooms and schools where kids feel they belong and that, in these environments, they can succeed. How do we do this?

Caring can be taught and students can learn to be more accepting and supportive of others who may be different from themselves. Acceptance and friendships emerge from positive and frequent interaction. Students are more likely to be tolerant of each other in schools that establish norms of acceptance and cooperation and provide opportunities for kids to talk and work with each other in and outside of the classroom. There are specific techniques for talking and working together that lead to better understanding. Kids and the adults who work with them need to learn the skills of listening and conflict resolution.

Schools have always recognized the importance of teaching the whole child; but society's single-minded and exclusive concern for test scores and academic outcomes has eroded the emphasis on social and emotional learning, particularly at the high school. Academic outcomes are clearly important. In fact, high expectations, challenging work and academic support all contribute to students' sense of belonging. But we have to recognize the reverse as well -- that students will not learn if schools ignore their emotional needs. The issue is important. There are lives at stake.

Karen Osterman, an associate professor in the Hofstra University School of Education, wrote this for Newsday.

Pub Date: 3/30/98

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