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Commentary: 5 Years After Sandy Hook, There’s a Powerful Movement Building

Scarlett Lewis, mother of Jesse Lewis, who was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.Scarlett Lewis, mother of Jesse Lewis, who was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Scarlett Lewis, mother of Jesse Lewis, who was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.Photograph by Roger Sieber

Five years ago, Scarlett Lewis’ 6-year-old son Jesse McCord Lewis was fatally shot in his first grade classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He was killed by an angry former student, alongside 19 of his classmates and six educators in one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history. The world gasped at the horror.

Many thought change was certain to follow. After all, if the brutal murder of 20 children wasn’t enough to change our nation, many thought, nothing could.

In the case of Sandy Hook Elementary, it was natural for people to place the blame on Adam Lanza, the shooter, and his mother, who armed him. But if it were really all their fault, then it would never have happened before, and would never happen again. There have been over 330 mass shootings in the United States this year to-date. In the face of all this, our politics has left us to conclude that we’re not going to reduce the number of guns or increase funding for mental health services either.

Are we going to allow this to be our new normal? If there’s one question that seems to be central in the country today, it’s this: Does anything give us hope for the future? The politics of bullying has led to increasing divisiveness, inequalities only seem to grow worse, and a never-ending stream of numbing violence has led many to despair. Are we losing hope for solutions, hope for each other, hope in ourselves?

Not so fast. In schools around the nation, a response is building.

Teachers, parents, school leaders, and young people themselves are addressing the growing anxiety, frustration, and disengagement in families and communities by developing new ways to teach and practice social and emotional skills, values, and ideals. These strategies include strengthening social relationships, promoting help-seeking for those at risk or in danger, teaching skills like grit that have held our country together, and inspiring a sense of purpose among our youth. Schools are not waiting for a response from the rest of the country. They’re leading the way.

This new field of “social and emotional learning” is growing every day in part because, in national polls and surveys, teachers, parents, and school leaders overwhelming want more of it. Here’s how it works: School districts adopt new curricula that teach young people how to manage challenges in a healthy way and build strong relationships and values. Teachers learn new practices that reduce behavior problems and promote deeper engagement with rigorous academic material. Principals and superintendents adopt policies that support educating both head and heart at the same time—with sensitivity to local conditions, equity, and quality.

Given all this, we reached an easy conclusion about what to do to honor Jesse’s young life and reduce the chances that others would be lost to violence: Join the social and emotional learning revolution and create a social and emotional learning program (SEL) curriculum dedicated to Jesse’s memory and vision. Today, the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement offers a free, Pre-K through 12th grade comprehensive social and emotional learning program that is now in 48 states and 30 countries. Evaluations of the program are encouraging, just as results from other evidence-based SEL programs are encouraging, too. Research shows what common sense already knows: Kids learn better when they feel safe, seen, inspired, and challenged, and have purpose and belonging. Schools and districts that have a strong commitment to evidence-based social and emotional development are showing gains in behavior, academic achievement, and graduation too. And perhaps most importantly, young people themselves are being taught to be agents of change—and they’re responding: They’re leading efforts in their schools to reduce violence, promote inclusion, and inspire commitment to positive change.

There are long-term research results too that show dramatic positive outcomes later in life. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health measured the social skills of 800 kindergarteners over 20 years. The study found that those with better social skills were more likely to succeed as adults. Kindergarteners with higher social skill scores were twice as likely to obtain a college degree, and 46% more likely to have a full-time job by the age of 25. Conversely, those with lower social skill scores in kindergarten had a 67% higher chance of having been arrested in early adulthood, a 52% higher rate of binge drinking, and an 82% higher chance of being in or on a waiting list for public housing. Clearly social and emotional learning provides value that benefits us when we become adults.

We will never get ahead of the violence, mental health, and substance abuse issues unless we implement proactive and preventative solutions. The Child Mind Institute reports that 49.5% of our U.S. youth will have had a diagnosable mental illness by the time they’re 18. Bullying has increased, despite state-mandated, anti-bullying programs. We have more suicides than murders each year and drug overdoses killed more people last year than ever before. We seem to be chasing these issues by focusing on the symptoms, always one step behind.

It may be true that our politics is broken. It may also be true that our national unity is at risk. It may even be true that our love of neighbor, faith in the country, and hope for the future are all at risk.

But it is not true that we are powerless to respond and even less true that no one is trying. We don’t need a national leader or national mandate to act. We need look no further than schools in our own neighborhoods where young people and adults are coming together to be frontline innovators of inspiration, teaching, working, and healing their way to a more hopeful future. That’s the kind of local revolution of hope that our children need, our families want, and our country deserves.

Scarlett Lewis is the founder and chief movement officer of the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement. Tim Shriver is the board chair of CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning), which provides research and policy support for social and emotional learning in schools.