Choose Love Conference Offers Teachers and Counselors Tools for Preventing School Violence
Scarlett Lewis, whose young son, Jesse, was murdered in the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in 2012, told a group of about 130 educators recently that the tragedy was “100 percent preventable.”
Lewis was in Northwest Arkansas to offer teachers, counselors and school administrators tools for helping their students become more connected, resilient and empowered, tenets of a program she developed to honor Jesse and help prevent future school violence.
The Jesse Lewis Choose Love program is a social and emotional learning curriculum for students in pre-K through 12th grade. The entire curriculum and corresponding lessons are all free for schools to use. Lewis has also created a version for home and community use, which is also free at jesselewischooselove.org.
The non-profit’s ultimate goal is to create safer, more peaceful and loving schools. The four values fundamental to the program are: courage, gratitude, forgiveness and compassion in action.
The Choose Love Conference was held at the University of Arkansas’ Don Tyson Center for Agricultural Sciences in partnership with the College of Education and Health Professions.
The college’s dean, Dr. Brian Primack, known nationwide for his research into social-emotional learning as it relates to emerging adults, commended Lewis for not only bringing positivity out a personal tragedy, but also for helping equip teachers and students with tools to help make their lives — and the lives of the people around them — better.
Primack, who just took the helm as dean of the College of Education and Health Professions at the U of A last month, said COEHP is among just a few Colleges that combine education and health. He sees the two as intertwined and hopes to take a leadership role in the state and beyond.
“Educational outcomes are going to be better if we integrate wellness and social and emotional learning,” he said.
Primack, who came to Fayetteville from the University of Pittsburgh, shared that the temple where his family had attended services for 15 years — just a block and a half from his home — suffered through a shooting earlier this year.
He said he appreciates how Lewis took the next step in working toward preventing tragedies like these from occurring by creating the Choose Love Movement.
Lewis has traveled worldwide over the past six years sharing the research, science and successes behind the Choose Love Movement.
Although she exudes peacefulness and love, she doesn’t downplay her emotions around losing Jesse. She said she has needed to forgive over and over. The most recent struggle was on June 30, on what would have been Jesse’s 13th birthday.
She has an emotional pause almost every time she sees a 6-year-old boy in the grocery store.
But she believes in her mission, one that Jesse planted the day she went back home to pick out clothes for his funeral. There, on the family blackboard in the kitchen, Jesse had written:
She took the words to heart. And they were not only healing, but inspiring to her.
“I was shocked when I saw them because it’s not what a 6-year-old normally says. But I knew instantly that if the shooter, who was a former student and whose mother had worked at the school, have been able to give and receive nurturing healing love, the tragedy would never of happened,” she said. “I began to spread that message from that day forward.”
Lewis believes that though can’t always choose what happens to us, we can always choose how to respond.
“Children can learn to choose a loving thought over an angry one. When a child realizes that they have the power to positively impact themselves as well as those around them, it is empowering and perpetuates their positive actions and interactions,” she said.
Allison Morgan, director and founder of Zensational Kids, was the first conference speaker. She shared mindfulness techniques for not only students, but the teachers, counselors and administrators in attendance. After all, she noted, students pick up many cues from them. And she noted that 76 percent of teachers have experienced behavioral, psychological or physical symptoms due to their work. She shared a series of “power breaths” to use in stressful situations.
Mindfulness, Morgan explained, will help those who practice is become better able to cope with life’s ups and downs, so they become more resilient.
“These skills are not only essential to living a happy life,” she said, “they are also necessary for helping students become more actively engaged in learning.”
Morgan said that most people have thousands of negative thoughts per day. Once you have an awareness of your thoughts, you can decide which ones stay and which ones need to go.
Speaker Christopher Kukk, director for the Center of Compassion, Creativity and Innovation at Western Connecticut State University, focused on cultivating compassion in the classroom. Kukk is the author of The Compassionate Achiever and co-host of a podcast by the same name.
Representatives from the Hamburg School District shared their successes with the Choose Love program, which rolled out in every school within the last year.
Among projects to show compassion in action included a food drive, singing at a local nursing home, made a music video for a neighboring school that had lost a building in a fire, said Blake Higginbotham, assistant principal of Noble Elementary School.
Steven Weber, Associate Superintendent for Teaching and Learning at Fayetteville Public Schools, also shared that every school in the FPS district is now participating in the program. He said it is helping tremendously in the “VUCA world” that present-day students are growing up in.
“That’s an acronym for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous,” he said, noting that students are particularly in need of a social and emotional learning tools right now.
Weber noted that the counselors in the room no doubt wanted to do more to help students, but their ability as one person is limited. The Choose Love curriculum helps cast a wide social emotional learning net, he said, and can help ease the burden they feel to help a large student body.
“When SEL (social emotional learning) becomes as important as English and math, we’ll have a better student,” he said. “Our students are living in uncertainty and complexity and they will need the skills to navigate life.”
Ruth Trainor, a counselor at Southwest Junior High in Springdale, said she attended the conference for more information about the Choose Love curriculum, which would complement the practice of Conscious Discipline that her school has already implemented.
“We want to expand our knowledge of the social and emotional learning programs and practices that are out there,” she said.
The Choose Love Movement draws on decades of research, including long-term studies spanning over 30-plus years. The website notes, “we know that SEL is the most proactive and preventative mental health initiative available. SEL is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”
The Choose Love website notes that, to date, the Choose Love Enrichment Program has been downloaded in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., and in more than 75 different countries more than 30,000 times by more than 12,600 educators. Estimates show that these educators have collectively reached more than 1.3 million students.
One hundred percent of survey respondents said they have seen an improvement in classroom climate and in students’ overall behavior after the program was implemented in their schools, the website notes.