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School district takes strides to curb student violence

The new life skills training program which has been implemented in elementary schools is already showing promising results district wide.
Schools all across America are exploring ways to teach basic life skills to children, hoping to break the trend toward violence and destructive behaviors among youth.
   In Crook County, Cecil Sly's Pat Brock along with elementary school counselors Darin Kessi and Brian Kroessin have been busy implementing a new program aimed at violence prevention in the elementary schools.
   Over the past twenty years researchers have compiled statistics to help educators identify telltale signs of violent behavior in youth. The indicators - deficient skills in empathy, impulse control, social problem-solving, anger management, and aggression - have consistently been correlated with adolescent as well as adult destructive behavior.
   The effort to educate youth and curb violent behavior in Prineville's schools actually started a couple of years ago when a group of district employees went to a Violence Prevention Conference in Corvallis. They came away with a variety of ideas for implementing a violence prevention curriculum in the elementary schools.
   Since that time teachers and staff have been looking at available programs, trying to find just the right one for Crook County.
   "We decided we wanted a program that the teachers could use without having to write their own lesson plan," Brock explained. "We wanted something that took maybe 20-30 minutes a week and could be continually practiced."
   After looking at a number of possibilities, the group decided to focus on a program called Second Step written by the nationally acclaimed Committee for Children.
   After receiving a grant to pay for the training of key instructors, and endorsement from the district, a select group went to Seattle where they received four days of hands-on experience with the Second Step curricula along with techniques for training fellow teachers. Upon returning to Crook County, training began for the district teachers. By October of 2000 most of the elementary teachers had undergone the training and were well versed in the program, ready to implement it in their own classrooms.
   With Second Step the idea is to teach the same three skill units at each grade level, namely - empathy, impulse control, and anger management. The content of the lessons varies according to the grade level, and the skills targeted for practice are designed to be appropriate for a particular age group. At all grade levels, it is geared to provide opportunities for modeling, practice, and reinforcement of the new skills.
   Research suggests that school aged children are actually capable of learning skills that help build empathy, which are recognized as fundamental skills for social problem-solving. Second Step lessons teach empathy as a series of "skill steps" which include recognizing personal feelings and identifying the feelings of other people. During a lesson students take on the perspective of another person in discussion and role playing. Students are also coached for practicing courteous conveyance about their own feelings.
   Building upon empathy skills, the impulse control segment of the program emphasizes skills for social problem-solving. Like empathy, impulse control skills can be taught to young children and adolescents in regular classroom environments. According to the authors of this program, two strategies have demonstrated particular promise when used with impulsive and aggressive youths: interpersonal cognitive problem-solving, and behavioral social skills training.
   In the anger management aspect of the program the focus is on a series of problem-solving steps to manage anger combined with behavioral skills training.
   Here, lessons focus on recognizing anger cues and triggers, using positive self-talk and relaxation strategies to prevent escalation of angry feelings, and reflecting on anger-provoking incidents.
   "There is a series of 16 to 20 lessons in each area and they change just a bit every year," Brock said. "So, the first year you teach all the lessons that you can, then the next year whatever the first grade didn't get the previous year, the second grade will pick up. Then in the third year the whole program changes again. So it's a continually renewing program."
   Teachers focus on one lesson a week using a written lesson and props provided in the program packet. "It's a real low-key program and a very realistic program," he said. "For example, today I taught a program on gossip in Mrs. Stacks room - How to deal with gossip and the best way to handle gossip. We used real-life examples and did some role playing in the classroom. That way, everyone gets involved in the process. Generally, lessons are 20 to 30 minutes long which students review throughout the week."
   This program is followed up at the middle school level with a program called Life Skills. The life skills program deals with peer pressure and anger management.
   Although the real payoff for the district will come a little farther down the road as the elementary school students absorb and utilize their new found skills, positive results have already been observed.
   "We've seen results already this year especially in the impulse control part of it, and we're just getting into anger management," Brock said. "Over a series of years, we see it being very viable and helping the kids problem solve and handle their anger."
   "The important thing is that we are looking over a period of years for an accumulative result. It will be interesting once these kindergartners and first graders get to be fourth and fifth graders," Brock said. "If we see a decline in the number of violent acts and an increase in basic humanity and social skills. That's what we're looking for."