08/24/2015  |  By Charles Mendez III

The road to resolving conflict peacefully begins with fundamental character development and social emotional competency. Such skills enable and encourage youth to be more present in their lives. Think of it as putting together an intricate jigsaw puzzle.  Each skill may be whole on its own, but joined together the pieces form a larger, more cohesive picture. Puzzle pieces by their very nature are meant to be different yet to bond together. In the same way, when we are confident in our own unique qualities, while respecting the unique qualities of others, we come together peacefully. And school can be an essential place of sanctuary where we can nurture such healthy bonding and development. Teachers can be valuable role models to guide youth as they learn to piece together the puzzles that will reflect their happiest and healthiest selves.

Character education is the means by which youth learn to know what is right and good, to care about what is right and good, and to do what is right and good. There are several key character traits that can contribute to strong social emotional competency. Cooperation, courage, respect, responsibility, and caring are just a few components that help youth build healthy relationships. Youth who can work together, speak their mind with confidence and respect, and take responsibility for their actions and behaviors are able to gain empathy for others and to more effectively resolve conflicts.

Unfortunately, keeping up with current events often means facing the grim reality of youth violence in our society. The American Psychological Association outlines several motives for youth violence, including expression, manipulation and retaliation to name a few. Perhaps most importantly, violence is a learned behavior. Youth exposed to negative role modeling that normalizes violence as a means to resolve conflict are more likely to act on violent impulses if they have not learned constructive means of expression. Youth exposed to the use of violence or aggression to resolve problems in the home or in their communities is more likely to adopt those norms to resolve their own problems. Furthermore, media and news events may perpetuate the normalization of violence as an acceptable means to resolving conflict.

How do we address youth violence and create sanctuary within our schools? Character education and social emotional skill development are natural adjuncts in the establishment of safe and supportive learning environments. Social emotional competencies can be broken down into five core elements: goal setting, decision-making, emotion management, effective communication and relationship skills. These elements build on and are symbiotic with one another, the many sided pieces of the puzzle, the solid angularity of decisiveness, the soft curve of a healthy friendship.

Think of goal-setting as a corner piece of the puzzle from which other social emotional components expand. Youth who set reachable goals make an investment in their own future, creating a value for themselves. With more at stake they become more discerning about their choices, and in turn it helps them develop a stronger moral compass. When youth have their eyes on their goals, they are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as violence or substance use, which would deter them from their chosen path.

Whether it is their peers or the media, youth are exposed to a number of influences that could potentially sway their decisions. Learning to make responsible decisions is a key piece of the puzzle. Several techniques can help students in the decision making process. Stopping to think through the decision at hand is a productive first step. This way, youth can consider all their options before they act. After they have made a decision and acted on it, it is helpful to reflect on the results of the action. Was the outcome positive? If so, they are one stride closer to their goals. If not, they can think of how they can do better next time.

The next step in piecing together the puzzle is for youth to learn healthy ways to express themselves. Youth who are able to identify and manage their emotions are better equipped to calm themselves down before anger or sadness begins to drive aggressive behavior. Likewise, these youth are more capable of and more likely to then communicate what they are feeling with peaceful results. They are also more likely to ask for help and to trust adults. Taking that a step further, youth who are able to identify the emotions of others are better able to prevent conflict by recognizing the circumstances that could result in a violent conflict and manage their own behavior accordingly. This awareness of self and others is a twofold means for youth to practice prosocial bonding and to learn to differentiate between unhealthy and healthy relationship qualities. Learning the difference between aggressive behavior and assertive behavior goes a long way in solidifying positive norms.

If youth are not exposed to healthy role modeling in their homes, they may not know what makes for acceptable behavior. School is a place where they can learn essential social emotional skills, as well as find positive role models in their teachers and their peers. Teachers can do their part by establishing and modelling positive healthy norms in school. They can begin by maintaining an awareness of their position as a role model and guide. Visual displays that outline steps to setting reachable goals and making responsible decisions can provide steady reminders and guidance as the youth develop their skills. Small group activities that simulate real-life scenarios let youth practice the skills to identify and manage emotions, communicate effectively, and problem solve peacefully so they can ultimately assimilate those skills into their own lives. Such activities promote healthy bonding and socialization they can carry with them while they interact with others outside the classroom environment.

Families and communities are also an integral part of character education and social emotional learning. Extending the learning into the home and the community can provide for the development of positive norms and role modeling, reinforcing the skills youth learn, and family involvement in the learning process solidifies those skills. Youth exposed to consistent positive norms and expectations established in each of these environments are much more likely to adopt them as their own.

How can we as citizens do our part to model positive norms for our youth? Everything we say and do sets an example for someone else. The simple gesture of picking up an item your fellow shopper accidentally nudged onto the floor and placing it back on the shelf extends a lasting good will. We can choose to not only take responsibility for ourselves but also to extend that responsibility outward in order to help others. When we know what is right and good, care about what is right and good, and do what is right and good, we have empathy for and connect with our neighbors.

We cannot shelter youth from exposure to violent acts. But youth equipped with strong social emotional skills and the ability to navigate relationships in healthy ways are more likely to apply prosocial solutions in the face of potentially violent situations. With all the pieces of the puzzle in place, youth display a beaming treasure of qualities. As we can model for them, so they can continue to model a path to a more peaceful future.

Charles E Mendez, III is the managing director of the C.E. Mendez Foundation. For more information, visit
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