Gun violence is now the leading cause of death among children in the United States, surpassing motor vehicle deaths and deaths caused by other injuries. Educators are too often faced with the challenge of talking with and protecting children from this unfortunate reality. Yet, many feel ill-equipped to address gun violence with children, families, or themselves.
To better equip the Bank Street community to process and respond to the very real threat that gun violence poses in the United States, the Graduate School of Education hosted a virtual event in which speakers shared critical research and concrete practices for educators to address the topic in their classrooms and beyond.
The hour-long presentation was organized by Soyoung Park, PhD, Director of Early Childhood Special Education Programs, Graduate School of Education, and Troy Pinkney-Ragsdale, Director of Child Life Programs, Graduate School of Education. In her opening remarks, Park framed the discussion as a “space for learning, processing, and inspiration—inspiration to cultivate communities of care, inspiration to take action in whatever ways we can, and inspiration to believe that things can be different, because one life is already too many.”
The first speaker at the event was Nicole Limperopulos, EdD, Director of Leadership Partnership Programs, Graduate School of Education. An expert on gun violence in urban schools and communities, Limperopulos brought great insight as she opened with a number of overwhelming statistics on gun violence in the United States. For example, in 2021, firearms replaced car accidents as the leading cause of death for American children. Additionally, our country accounts for 46 percent of the childhood population in the world, but 97 percent of childhood gun deaths worldwide.
After looking at gun violence through the numbers, Limperopulos moved on to discuss gun violence as an equity issue, sharing both a historical and present-day look at how people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds are and have been impacted by the gun violence “epidemic.” For example, according to Limperopulos, young Black males are killed by firearms at a rate that is 7.5 times higher than their White counterparts. She attributes this disheartening statistic, among others, to a “whole host of institutionalized racism and racist practices.”
“In communities where there are high poverty rates—as well as a high population of Black residents, whether in cities or suburbs—there is more likely to be higher rates of gun violence,” she said, adding that there is also a stark difference in how the media reports on gun violence and that victim blaming is an unfortunate reality when covering incidents of gun violence in more racially diverse communities.
Limperopulos also spoke to the impact gun violence has on children, emphasizing the “downstream effects for their mental and physical health, for their educational trajectories, for their economic stability, and broadly for their sense of being.” This is because in periods of acute stress, children’s brains prioritize safety, and they are less able to retrieve information they already know. According to Limperopulos, this can have detrimental effects on their ability to perform academically, exercise impulse control, and maintain concentration, and is even more profound in communities where the threat of gun violence may be higher.
To close out her presentation, Limperopulos offered insight into what schools in the United States are doing to support their students in understanding gun violence—or, perhaps more accurately, what they’re not doing. She explained that, after an incidence of gun violence, school administration and faculty will typically rush to restore a peaceful environment for students to learn. While these efforts are well-intentioned, this type of approach “denies students the ability to process their emotions and mourn their losses.”
So, what can educators do better to help students make sense of gun violence? This question was explored by Romelle Moore, Mental Health Specialist, and Margaret Blachly, Psychoeducational Specialist, both of Bank Street’s Center for Emotionally Responsive Practice (ERP). The goal of the center is to help schools develop emotionally responsive school routines, curricula, and adult-child interactions that support all children, including those with a traumatic history.
To showcase the type of ERP routines educators can use in their work, Moore invited participants to partake in a “word cloud” activity by submitting words and phrases that captured what they were feeling while exploring such a complex and sensitive topic as gun violence. Terms like overwhelmed, heartbroken, discouraged, motivated, and eager filled the screen, helping the group process their own emotions and understand those of their fellow educators.
After the exercise, Blachly went on to discuss techniques that educators can implement to help children process big feelings in age-appropriate ways. They introduced a framework called Inviting and Containing, which “invites” children to express themselves in a “contained”—or structured—space to make sense of what’s happening in the world around them. Examples include creating space for children to draw, play, write, tell stories, and other methods to help educators “know what children are holding in their hearts.”
Another approach discussed by Blachly was reflective technique, which encourages educators to verbalize what they’re hearing from a child that makes that child feel heard, seen, and known. Similar to Inviting and Containing, reflective technique is a way to help children process powerful emotions by having their experiences validated by trusting adults.
“Children need adults to respond in a non-judgmental way so that they can be able to move to deeper conversations and activities that can support children’s well-being and help them see a possibility for power beyond the power of weapons,” said Blachly.
Next, Blachly showed a pre-recorded video of a fellow ERP team member, Felice Wagman, consultant, who shared real-life stories of using Inviting and Containing as well as reflective techniques to support children who had recently experienced gun violence. She told the story of her experience in a fourth-grade classroom in Far Rockaway in which a student came in one day and explained to her that another child had been shot and killed on the subway.
“We talked. I listened. I reflected,” she said. “I reminded them that school is a safe place, and we do everything we can to make sure that kids are safe at school and there are a lot of safe grown-ups in the building.”
Wagman then instructed the children to go back to their seats and write or draw what it takes to live in a safe community. She set up stations around the classrooms with legos, magna tiles, and other building materials so that the children could create safe communities with their friends. According to Wagman, these types of Inviting and Containing techniques—when implemented routinely—help children identify the hurt that they feel and work toward healing.
The last emotionally responsive technique shared by the ERP team was bibliotherapy, which leverages literature and read-alouds as a tool to reflect and invite discussion around experiences, ideas, and identities that children can connect with. To demonstrate this technique in action, Blachly read aloud The Breaking News by Sarah Lynne Reul, a picture book that tells the story of how a young girl’s community is impacted by devastating news and shows how people can work to make things better, even in small ways.
“Small things don’t change everything, but they bring a sense of possibility,” said Blachly. “They bring a sense of groundedness, and they bring a sense of community. We need all of these things to give us the energy for the advocacy that needs to happen on a larger level.”
The event culminated in a mindfulness-based stress reduction technique led by Moore called the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, which engages the senses to ease anxiety and help people connect to the present moment. Participants were asked to look at their surroundings for five things they can see, four things they can touch, three things they can hear, two things they can smell, and one thing they can taste.
To view a recording of the virtual event, click here and use the password j$2Nk82N.