Can “Empathetic Teaching” Prevent Kids Becoming Shooters?

by Robert B. Brooks, Ph.D. & B. Glenn Wilkerson, D.Min.

While their actions are monstrous, teenage school shooters themselves are not monsters.  In almost all instances, shooters are youngsters who suffer from a severe emotional illness, that is, deep-seated feelings of being unwanted and unloved. Shooters usually come from a dysfunctional (or non-existent) home of origin, and they are typically shunned and rejected at school. Many of them have been bullied. Tormented by feelings of resentment and revenge, shooters vent their rage by “making the world pay” for their soul-shattering feelings of emotional isolation. As one teenage killer was quoted as saying in Newsweek, “I’d rather be wanted for murder than not wanted at all.”

In addition to emotional illness, there are, of course, other factors that contribute to school shootings. There’s no question that sensible gun legislation would play a major role in the prevention of gun-related homicides; however, the passage of such laws will probably have to wait until enough teens and young Millennials reach the age where they can impose their will upon holders of political office. 

Another factor is mental illness. Although the terms “mental health” and “emotional health” are often used interchangeably, the two are different. Emotional health deals specifically with social and emotional skills while mental health is related to organic and neurological health. Many experts in the mental health field consider the perceived role of mental illness in mass shootings to be greatly over-stated. In a Columbia University study of 235 mass killers, only 52, or about 22 percent, showed signs of being mentally ill (Michael Stone, 2015).

The one common thread that runs through the biographies of virtually all young shooters is a profound emotional illness, typically with origins in their childhood homes. While the vast majority of kids from abusive or neglectful home backgrounds do not become shooters, virtually all teen killers do come from such homes. While we may have little, if any, influence over what occurs in a young person’s home, we can take steps to address the problem through our schools.  Utilizing a technique called “empathetic teaching,” teachers, coaches, and counselors can provide students with the unconditional love that allows them to feel valued and wanted.

A definition is in order. Unconditional love is not a soft, sentimental emotion. It involves an intentional decision to discipline misbehavior and at the same time show care for the student. In educational circles, its application is called “empathetic teaching.”

A significant study on empathetic teaching was recently completed by a Sam Houston State University research team at Aldine ISD in Houston, Texas. Titled the “Aldine ISD Middle School Dropout Prevention Project,” this study involved 11 schools and 20,852 students over a six-year period. Its purpose was to test the impact of “empathetic teaching” on student behavior as the district implemented the research-based ARK (Adults Relating to Kids) Program developed by the Houston non-profit ARKGroup. The project revealed a 49% reduction in 9th grade out-of-school suspensions for students exposed to ARK-trained teachers during their entire middle school experience compared to those students who had not.

The Aldine study offers strong evidence that caring teacher-student relationships are a key factor in influencing positive student behavior. This behavioral research supports the following hypothesis: Kids who feel wanted and loved don’t shoot up schools.

While not the only solution to the plague of school violence that threatens the safety of our children, programs promoting caring teacher-student relationships do address a root cause of the problem. Funding should be provided to help schools that desire to employ on-going training in empathetic teaching.

The implementation of research-based programs that help teachers create nurturing classroom environments and caring relationships with students should receive wide, bipartisan support. We urge our political leaders to move forward with legislation embracing this simple, common-sense approach to saving the lives of our children.

Robert B Brooks, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist on the part-time faculty of Harvard Medical School and co-author of Raising Resilient Children.

Dr. B. Glenn Wilkerson,D. Min., founder and president of the ARKGroup, is author of the ARK (Adults Relating to Kids) Program—including ARK for Teachers, a six-volume series on empathetic teaching.

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