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Turning Evil into Good: How to Help Kids Respond to the Sandy Hook Shooting

If you’re a parent, teacher, coach or youth worker—you’ve likely had a conversation already with your kids about the Sandy Hook school shooting. Everyone is processing this massacre at their own pace and on their own level. I’ve seen tears, anger and knee-jerk reactions on what to do about it from both adults and children.

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But just like after 9-11, many adults aren’t sure how to have a conversation about the tragedy. So, they avoid it altogether. I believe we must understand how to not only talk about events like this, but to transform them into “teachable moments.” I think there’s a way adults can help students debrief what happened in a practical yet heartfelt manner; in a way that includes both wisdom and empathy and that turns an “evil” into a “good.”

Over the next three days, I plan to help leaders who work with elementary school students, middle school students and high school/college students “unpack” what happened, how we can respond in a redemptive way and how we might prevent tragedies like this in the future. Kids will return home from school this week and ask parents about the extra police officers on campus or the principals that are acting extra cautious in the hallways.

What is Your Role?

As you talk to your students about the Newtown, CT shooting, I hope these principles are helpful:

1.  Host Not a Guest

Just like a host, initiate the conversation. Don’t be a guest where you wait for them to do something. Limit media exposure but watch the news together. (Be age appropriate.) Spark conversation on current discoveries. Engage instead of avoid.

2.  The Indian Talking Stick

The Talking Stick was used by Native American tribes to confront conflict. The one holding the stick got to talk. Let them express themselves first—how much do they know? How deeply do they feel?  What are they ready to process?

3. The Mirror Effect

Your students will look to you for an example of how to respond. Model empathy. Speak deliberately and carefully about what happened. People do what people see. I remember learning this lesson after terrorist attacks on 9-11. This is vital.

4.  The Waldorf Principle

Mr. Waldorf awarded a motel clerk named George Boldt the opportunity to run the finest hotel in the world—because he knew how to serve. With your kids, find a way to serve people in your community who are marginalized and may need empathy. This is one primary way we can turn evil into good—by doing the reciprocal of the violence we all just witnessed.

What is Their Response?

As you work with your kids, provide these images that illustrate their role:

1.  Thermostats and Thermometers

You know the difference: thermometers only tell you the climate; thermostats set the climate. Enable your student to be thermostats, who set the tone and attitudes of their peers. I believe we can reduce bullying and violence this way. School violence can be reduced greatly by even a fraction of students who lead the way.

2.  Build a Bridge Not a Wall

Often when we meet people who are different than us—we build a wall, because we prefer the familiar and comfortable. We like others like us. Students must learn to embrace peers who are marginalized or different and build a bridge of relationship.

3. Baggage Fees

Just like when we travel by airplane, the more bags we have the more it costs us. Kids (and adults) must address emotional baggage that leads to violent outbursts—things like resentment, bitterness, unforgiveness, jealousy…you get the idea. This is baggage that may cost all of us if we don’t check it.

4. Driver not a Passenger

In life, just like in cars, there are two kinds of people: passengers who want a ride and can blame others when they don’t get to their goal, or drivers who take responsibility to get to the destination. This kind of violence isn’t just the problem of the police or the school principal. It’s all our responsibility.

We all must be looking for signs around us and be aware of anyone who may withdrawal or feel deep anger toward authorities or other students. Why not start a little movement of turning “evil” into “good” playing offense not defense.

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Turning Evil into Good: How to Help Kids Respond to the Sandy Hook Shooting