School Shootings: What Does Early Childhood Have to Do with Them?

I realize this isn’t the kind of thing I typically write about – and it would certainly seem to have nothing to do with early childhood – but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about school shootings. I’ve found myself asking: What is it that incites such rage in these young people that they see killing as the only resort?

Immediately following all of these incidents, everybody talks about the need for better attention to mental health, in addition to gun control. I couldn’t agree more that that’s essential. But if you’re like me, you’re probably thinking about mental health as it relates to people old enough to purchase or acquire guns. People who have been bullied or ignored for so long that something finally snaps in them.

Upon reflection, however, I’ve realized we can probably assume that the kind of anger, frustration, and helplessness – the mental health issues – evident in school shooters doesn’t just suddenly crop up. It builds! And based on what I know to be happening in the education and lives of today’s young children, I’m firmly convinced that it often does begin in early childhood.

Let’s think about it. According to a 2013 report, depression affects approximately 4% of preschoolers in the United States today, with the number diagnosed increasing by 23% every year. And here’s a depressing graphic from 2013:

Why are so many preschoolers depressed and on psychiatric drugs? Yes, there are those whose conditions are inherited from parents. But I also read and hear enough stories from parents and early childhood professionals to know that we as a society are making an awful lot of little ones awfully unhappy. And why shouldn’t they be unhappy?

  • We are taking away their play – something that Nancy Carlsson-Paige calls a biological imperative – a statement with which experts around the globe agree.
  • We are demanding that they accomplish things for which they are in no way developmentally equipped. Ready or not, we want them to read by the end of kindergarten. Ready or not, we expect them to play like Beckham before they’re barely passed the wobbling stage. As mentioned in this post, we insist that they sit still and be able to properly grasp a pencil at age three, or to memorize the meaning of a word like hypothesis, when it has absolutely no relevance in their lives – because they have to get “ready for being four.”
  • We give them no downtime at all, which I’ve argued previously is detrimental to their mental health. How are they supposed to enjoy their lives when they’re constantly being told how to live them? When their every moment is scheduled for them? When downtime is essential for everybody’s mental health?
  • We treat them as though they exist only from the neck up, and that only their brains matter, when the research – and good common sense – validates the mind/body connection.
  • We stifle the natural creativity with which they’re born (not to mention their love of learning) with worksheets, standardized tests and curriculums, and an insistence upon rote – as opposed to active, authentic – learning. With our insistence upon conformity!
  • We pit them against one another with our focus on competition and winning.
  • We stick them in front of screens, where they lead sedentary lives filled with “virtual” relationships, as opposed to the ones they should be forming with real people. When the research clearly shows that social/emotional development is essential in early childhood.
  • We take away their security and sense of control by making them afraid of everything!

I’ve written about all of these issues — and more! — and reviewing them is pretty upsetting. So, imagine how the children feel, having to live with all of them. Imagine the frustration and helplessness building as their freedoms are taken from them, including the freedom to just be children. As they are given so little choice. As they become more and more disconnected from the real world and the people in it.

Some will snap. Not all of them, certainly, and not even the majority. But those who do will have, in one way or another, lost their lives. Lost the promise and the potential with which they were born. And they will have cost the lives of numerous others.

So, yes, unfortunately, this is a blog about both school shootings and early childhood. I fear that until we stop treating young children like small adults – until we start allowing them to experience childhood as it was meant to be experienced – we will see this kind of rage over and over and over again.

I apologize if I’ve depressed you too. This is by far the heaviest piece I’ve ever written. But we have to do more than wring our hands and weep copious tears when we hear of school shootings. Each of us has to keep fighting the good fight. Parents only want the best for their children, but they don’t always know what that is. Policymakers don’t always know — or seem to care — about the research concerning what’s best for children. That’s why each of us has to do our part to educate both groups. Each of us has to do whatever we can to create change!


  • Debbie Kroksh says:

    You’re so right! We need to keep fighting for children’s rights to be kids again!!

  • Katy Smith says:

    Thank you, Rae for this important piece. I appreciate your work always, and especially when you say the hard things. You are a voice of reason and an advocacy voice for children.

  • Christine says:

    The one thing this article doesn’t touch on, which I feel is critical, is the responsibility of early childhood education to facilitate and foster the social emotional development of children. The ability to identify and express emotions, to resolve conflicts peacefully with a focus on self regulation and impulse control, not to mention self esteem and the ability to build strong peer relationships, is critical. The other component is our ability to partner with parents whose children may have needs that require evaluations to identify special needs and require outside support group therapists such as OTs, play therapy, trauma therapy, etc. Our responsibilities are huge and play a critical role in a child’s development.

    • Rae says:

      Christine, I absolutely agree that social/emotional development is critical — far more critical than “academics” — and believe that a number of my points (for example, downtime and not pitting children against one another) address this domain. And you’re right; the responsibilities of an early childhood professional are huge. I hope someday soon society will come to realize just how vital you all are!

  • This is exactly the reason we use a strength-based approach at Growing Sound-where we create songs for positive social & emotional learning. We recognize and encourage what’s right in each child instead of fixing what’s wrong. We help children discover the goodness in their lives and in themselves. Even our “Before The Bullying” Initiative focuses on Acceptance, Friendship, Teamwork, Empathy and Responsibility. Just as children are inoculated in their early years against later illness, so too does the development of early social and emotional skills provide a “vaccine” against later behavioral problems, such as bullying.

  • Diane Pratcher says:

    I just wish school officials read this . Its very sad but enlighting!

    • Rae says:

      Diane, I wish school officials would read this too. I realize I’ve become quite the cynic, but it’s been my experience that they just don’t want to hear anything that takes them out of their comfort zone or changes the status quo — even when that status quo stinks. 🙁

  • Chanie says:

    This is in an incredible post and thank you so much for sharing
    The down time is the piece thst stood out the most
    We are constantly shuttling are kids from one place to the next
    It’s ok for them to be bored sometimes!! And figure out how to entertain themselves

    • Rae says:

      Thank you, Chanie. I couldn’t agree with you more! I can’t begin to imagine a life without downtime — as an adult! How on earth are children, who are inherently joyful and playful, supposed to live without it?

  • Sadie says:

    Are we considering socio economic status here? I agree with the sentiments of this article, I just don’t agree that the pressures explore here are really causing kids to snap. Raise happy children- yes. Let children play- yes. But if we looked into the backgrounds of these troubled youths, I doubt their anger sprang from the expectation of holding a pencil at age three, and so on.

    • Rae says:

      Hi Sadie. I’m not sure what you’re suggesting. Is it that only kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are committing these crimes? I haven’t dug into the specifics of the shooters’ family situations, but I’m pretty sure the boys from Columbine were from middle-class families. Perhaps upper middle class.

      I stand by my contention that these pressures build. If lack of play, etc., can cause both depression and suicide (look at the work of Drs. Peter Gray and Stuart Brown), then surely the resulting negative feelings can be turned outward, as well as inward.

      Unfortunately, I hear and read enough stories — from parents and teachers — to know that a great many of our children are miserable. 🙁

  • Rae great article a couple months ago I also wrote an article reminding parents of the value of Play in young children Your article touches on a darker issue but yes it must be said. Would you mind if I share your a article with my readers with a link back to you.

    • Rae says:

      Marcella, I just found your comment in the spam file. I would be glad to have you share my article with a link back. Thank you!

  • John S Green says:

    This needs to be said over and over again—thank you for addressing a difficult subject. You know this, as do most of your followers and mine, but we need to continue to spread the message that early childhood experience—birth to six— is the foundation for an adult life of pain or prosperity. It’s more complicated than that, but it’s true. And by prosperity, I don’t mean monetarily, I refer to the love of learning. Of course, human beings learn to love learning by playing. Giving children the respect to play—which for them is being a scientist, explorer, inventor, and observer—will instill this life-time spark to be a positive part of society. That’s all we can ask for.

    • Rae says:

      I thank you for your support, John — and for being a parent who gets it! I want to ask: why do you get it? Why, when other parents are being guided by misinformation, do you understand what childhood should really look like? Hoping there’s something in your response that can help us guide other parents!

      • John S Green says:

        Excellent question: Why do I get it?
        Perhaps my number one life-time goal is to be able to put into words a guide for first-time parents so they can ‘get it’ early on, and thereby—raise their children into global citizens.
        My simple answer is that I always felt a deep desire to give my child 100% respect. And that meant to talk to them on an equal level. I have kept that promise to my daughter and to every child I have had the privilege to mentor. With out fail, I have respected the child, and therefore, we have formed a strong bond of mutual respect. When the adult treats the child as an equal—good things quickly happen. It also makes parenting much easier. I have always kept my childhood spirit, so I use an unusual amount of humor in all my interactions—with or without children—this, I have found, helps to gain trust quickly. Also, respect means to be completely honest, so I always am true to the young ones I interact with—truth in every regard also makes parenting much easier—there’s a trend here. I could go on, but those are my initial thoughts.

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