hands1In the relatively short time since the massacre at Columbine High School in April 1999, the incident has grown to embody the need for educational and gun-control reform in the United States. But it has also focused attention on how dangerous and stressful places schools can be—and not just the ones in which children are carrying propane bombs and handguns. Aggressive people at school—whether they are students, teachers, or others—create enough tension and fear to seriously interfere with learning.

Dr. Stuart Twemlow is co-author of the new book Creating a Peaceful School Learning Environment: a Program for Elementary Schools (in press) A clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, Twemlow has, in much of his research, examined the bullies within classroom environments. He has found that bullying and harassment are very alive today and contribute in no small part to school atmosphere; kids bully other kids, kids bully their teachers, teachers bully kids, even janitors bully kids.

Add to this picture the fact that recent brain research has confirmed that stress inhibits certain kinds of cognition and memory and it becomes apparent that violence of all sorts at school and in the classroom could be having a major impact on learning.

“Without any doubt, children who are under constant adversity from being bullied, experience violence in the school, or who have other fears for safety, will not learn as well as children whose school is a safe, predictable, and nurturing environment,” says W. Thomas Boyce of the University of California, Berkeley. Boyce, who studies the impact of stress on children, says that simple biology accounts for some part of the difficulty. “Constant arousal,” he says, “results in a variety of bodily changes that may interfere with cognitive processes by affecting actual brain functions.”

David Sousa, author of How the Brain Learns: A Classroom Teacher’s Guide and Learning Manual, agrees: “The emotional climate of the classroom can determine what the brain turns its attention to. A peaceful classroom means that the survival and emotional needs of the students (and teacher) have been met so they can concentrate on higher-order thinking.”

Restore peace, and learning resumes, say researchers. “Once coercive power struggles are settled,” write Twelmow and his colleagues, “the climate usually becomes conducive to both academic learning and a happy and stress-free environment for teachers and students.”

Bullies Be Gone
Thus, a growing number of educators—both in the United States and abroad—are searching for ways to ensure a safe learning environment by creating peaceful, stress-free classrooms and schools.

Elizabeth Putnam, a primary school teacher for 16 years in the United States and now director of Conflict Resolution Education in Wellington, New Zealand, believes that the key to a peaceful classroom—particularly in primary schools—lies in the involvement of children with their own learning and conflict resolution. She particularly focuses on two ideas: cooperative learning and peer mediation.

Cooperative learning is a non-competitive pedagogy that attempts to build on social as well as academic skills. In essence, this method encourages risk-taking, involves children relying on each other more, and builds on the strengths a student already has. This is a facet reliant on the ideas of Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences.

Peer mediation is a method of conflict-resolution that somewhat lessens the teacher-student dichotomy and involves other students in the process more. Both concepts, says Putnam, “operate from the basis that students can and should be responsible for their own learning. Students should be encouraged to problem solve for themselves.” Ultimately, she says, these ideas will become second nature, and when a conflict arises, the parties involved learn to sort it out themselves.

A Model Program
In Eugene, Oregon, an intervention program called Linking the Interests of Families and Teachers (LIFT), is being studied by a team of researchers at the Oregon Social Learning Center for its effectiveness in reducing aggressive behavior in young children.

The LIFT study involves 671 students in 32 classrooms, approximately half of which attend intervention schools, the other half control schools. The program involves parents, teachers, and students, and is intended to confront aggressive behavior from every angle—not just isolating it in one situation, like the playground.

It seems to be working. Based on observations on school playgrounds, after being exposed to LIFT, the most aggressive children were “virtually indistinguishable from the average child in that social milieu,” says Mike Stoolmiller, the study’s lead author.

“Programs like LIFT that bring together parents and teachers have the potential to make school safer and more enjoyable for all kids,” says Stoolmiller. “Positive academic and social experiences at school can serve as a foundation for good work and social adjustment in adulthood. In a very real sense, our schools could teach peace.”

Stoolmiller, Mike; Eddy, J. Mark; Reid, John B. “Detecting and Describing Preventive Intervention Effects in a Universal School-Based Randomized Trial Targeting Delinquent and Violent Behavior,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

McEwen, Bruce S.; Sapolsky, Robert, “Stress and Cognitive Function,” Current Opinion in Neurobiolgy. 1995; 5:205-216.

Sousa, David. “The Ramifications of Brain Research,” School Administrator. January, 1998, n 1, v 55.

Twemlow, Stuart W., et al. “Improving the Social and Intellectual Climate in Elementary Schools by Addressing Bully-Victim-Bystander Power Struggles,” Chapter 9 in Social Emotional Learning and the Elementary School Child: A Guide for Educators. Edited by Jonathan Cohen, 2000.