COMMENTARY

Why Do Young Men Target Schools for Violent Attacks? And What Can We Do About It?

Barbara J. Howard, MD

June 16, 2022

Schools are intended to be a safe place to acquire knowledge, try out ideas, practice socializing, and build a foundation for adulthood. Many schools fulfill this mission for most children, but for children at both extremes of ability their school experience does not suffice.

When asked, "If you had the choice, would you rather stay home or go to school?" my patients almost universally prefer school. They all know that school is where they should be; they want to be normal, accepted by peers, getting ready for the world's coming demands, and validation that they will make it as adults. Endorsement otherwise is a warning sign.

When such important tasks of childhood are thwarted children may despair, withdraw, give up, or a small number become furious. These may profoundly resent the children who are experiencing success when they could not. They may hate the teachers and the place where they experienced failure and humiliation. Lack of a positive connection to school characterizes children who are violent toward schools as well as those who drop out.

Schools may fail to support the basic needs of children for many reasons. Schools may avoid physical violence but fail to protect the children's self-esteem. I have heard stories of teachers calling on children to perform who are clearly struggling or shy, insulting incorrect answers, calling names, putting names on the board, reading out failed grades, posting grades publicly, even allowing peers to mock students. Teachers may deny or disregard parent complaints, or even worsen treatment of the child. Although children may at times falsify complaints, children's and parents' reports must be taken seriously and remain anonymous.

When we hear of such toxic situations for our patients, we can get details and contact school administrators without naming the child, as often the family feels they can't. Repeated humiliation may require not only remediation, but consequences. We can advocate for a change in classroom or request a 504 Plan if emotional health is affected.

All children learn best and experience success and even joy when the tasks they face are at or slightly beyond their skill level. But with the wide range of abilities, especially for boys, education may need to be individualized. This is very difficult in larger classrooms with fewer resources, too few adult helpers, inexperienced teachers, or high levels of student misbehavior.

Basing teacher promotion mainly on standardized test results makes individualizing instruction even less likely. Smaller class size is better; even the recommended (less than 20) or regulated (less than 30) class sizes are associated with suboptimal achievement, compared with smaller ones. Some ways to attain smaller class size include split days or alternate-day sessions, although these also have disadvantages.

While we can advocate for these changes, we can also encourage parents to promote academic skills by talking to and reading to their children of all ages, trying Reach Out and Read for young children, providing counting games, board games, and math songs! Besides screening for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, we can use standard paragraphs and math problems (for example, WRAT, Einstein) to check skills when performance is low or behavior is a problem the school denies. When concerned, we can write letters for parents to sign requesting testing and an individualized education plan to determine need for tutoring or special education.

While Federal legislation requiring the "least restrictive environment" for education was intended to avoid sidelining differently able children, some can't learn in a regular class. Conversely, if instruction in a special class is adjusted to the child with the lowest skills, minimal learning may occur for others. Although we can speak with the teacher about "this child's abilities among those in his class" we can first suggest that the parent visit class to observe. Outside tutoring or home schooling may help a child move up to a regular class.

Sometimes a child's learning is hampered by classrooms with numerous children misbehaving; this is also a reason for resentment. We can inform school administrators about methods such as The Good Behavior Game (paxis.org) that can improve behavior and connection for the whole class.

While a social "pecking order" is universal, it is unacceptable for children to be allowed to humiliate or hurt a peer, or damage their reputation. While this moral teaching should occur at home, it needs to continue at school where peers are forced into groups they did not choose. Screening for bullying at pediatric visits is now a universal recommendation as 30% report being bullied. We need to ask all children about "mean kids in school" or gang involvement for older children.

Parents can support their children experiencing cyberbullying and switch them to a "dumb phone" with no texting option, limited phone time, or no phone at all. Policies against bullying coming from school administrators are most effective but we can inform schools about the STOPit app for children to report bullying anonymously as well as education for students to stand together against a bully (stopbullying.gov). A Lunch Bunch for younger children or a buddy system for older ones can be requested to help them make friends.

With diverse child aptitudes, schools need to offer students alternative opportunities for self-expression and contribution. We can ask about a child's strengths and suggest related extracurriculars activities in school or outside, including volunteering. Participation on teams or in clubs must not be blocked for those with poor grades. Perhaps tying participation to tutoring would satisfy the school's desire to motivate instead. Parents can be encouraged to advocate for music, art, and drama classes — programs that are often victims of budget cuts — that can create the essential school connection.

Students in many areas lack access to classes in trades early enough in their education. The requirements for English or math may be out of reach and result in students dropping out before trade classes are an option. We may identify our patients who may do better with a trade education and advise families to request transfer to a high school offering this.

The best connection a child can have to a school is an adult who values them. The child may identify a preferred teacher to us so that we, or the parent, can call to ask them to provide special attention. Facilitating times for students to get to know teachers may require alteration in bus schedules, lunch times, study halls, or breaks, or keeping the school open longer outside class hours. While more mental health providers are clearly needed, sometimes it is the groundskeeper, the secretary, or the lunch helper who can make the best connection with a child.

As pediatricians, we must listen to struggling youth, acknowledge their pain, and model this empathy for their parents who may be obsessing over grades. Problem-solving about how to get accommodations, informal or formal, can inspire hope. We can coach parents and youth to meet respectfully with the school about issues to avoid labeling the child as a problem.

As pediatricians, our recommendations for school funding and policies may carry extra weight. We may share ideas through talks at PTA meetings, serve on school boards, or endorse leaders planning greater resources for schools to optimize each child's experience and connection to school.

Howard is assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and creator of CHADIS (www.CHADIS.com). She had no other relevant disclosures. Howard's contribution to this publication was as a paid expert to MDedge News. E-mail her at pdnews@mdedge.com.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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