The Fourth "R": Reflections on Sandy Hook

What occurred inside that devastated school building in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012 is a direct result of what does not often enough occur inside of school buildings: the study of emotional intelligence. Although this boy was apparently somewhere on the autism spectrum — which is itself a social skill deficit — and ended up being pulled out as a child and schooled all alone at home for a time, all children need intense social skill training. As one later classmate said of him about his experience during high school, “No one took the time to find out why he was the way he was.”

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While schools can’t know what goes on in a child’s home, they certainly can endeavor to get to know what goes on inside the child’s head…and heart. They may not be privy to the reasons for a family to feature the collection of guns and rifles, and value shooting as a sport, but they can be privy to what comes into their building. As Dr. Dan Siegel says in The Mindful Brain, along with reading, writing, and arithmetic, reflection needs to be cultivated as the fourth ‘R’ — reflection on self, others and the world around us; in other words, the cultivation of attuned and pro-social behavior. Students must be taught to do it, and teachers must be taught to guide them; social skills are as vital to the survival of our society as the decoding of letters and numbers…maybe more so. How tragically ironic that a relationship-oriented principal and a dedicated psychologist went down with all the other beautiful and innocent lives on the ship of disaster that was sunk by an emotionally illiterate high school graduate, one who had quietly morphed into a sociopath due to something that was neglected decades ago and continues to be neglected in many schools all across this country. We need to be training all educators to inculcate emotional literacy in their students; that is, the ability to read and communicate with one another, which in turn enhances empathy for one another. Daniel Goleman echoes this in his book, Emotional Intelligence:

Educators, long disturbed by school children’s lagging scores in math and reading, are realizing there is a different and more alarming deficiency: emotional illiteracy.  And while laudable efforts are being made to raise academic standards, this new and troubling deficiency is not being addressed in the standard school curriculum.

This can’t be a special assembly held twice a year. It needs to be part of a daily curriculum; that students are led through an exploration of their inner lives, written and orally, and are helped to respect and understand that of their classmates. We owe that to the precious children who lost their futures, to the families whose lives have been shattered by this senseless event, and to the young witnesses who will struggle to find meaning in this for the rest of their days.

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Learning From Ourselves

The Find Your Voice method has long been employing the integrated studies of acting and playwriting, as a way of transforming lives. One of the benefits of leading people through the telling and sharing of their stories in dialogue form, is that — as Buddhist psychologist Jack Kornfield says,

‘We are loyal to our stories…they become our identities’.

Creating dramatic characters who must reckon with one another — in response to feedback, and in accordance with the principles of good playmaking, (no all- good or all-bad characters, both must have valid wants, and communication is essential), invites them to consider different ways of approaching and resolving conflicts, in the guise of other identities.

And, through the study of acting, participants also experience ‘acting on’ a strong want, and ‘behaving as’ someone else, while their own bodies absorb (and remember!) this empowering experience. As Beck and Ellis, the founders of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy say, “when behavior changes, all else follows”. Through these twin studies, and as our participant’s newly balanced voices are heard, they begin to value themselves, and their lived experience, in more respectful ways. When the audience at the final sharings say, “I was moved by what you wrote”, or “that was my story, too”, they come to further honor the power of their own authenticity…their core selves.

When we write, we learn things that are hidden from our ordinary awareness because writing — especially when safely guided — is itself an act of reflection. Everything we need to know about ourselves, can be learned from ourselves, and in relation to listening others we can share these universal truths to everyone’s benefit.