UK classrooms take lessons from Sandy Hook school shooting

UK classrooms take lessons from Sandy Hook school shooting

On the morning of 14 December 2012, six-year-old Jesse Lewis stepped out of his house on his way to school, pausing to etch the words “I love you” in the frost on his mother’s car. He walked down the driveway to where his father was waiting, got in the car, drove off, and never returned.

Jesse was one of 26 victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school shootingsin Newtown, Connecticut. Twenty of the dead were aged six and seven; their killer, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, was a former pupil at the school who turned the gun on himself after bringing horror and heartbreak to all those affected.

Three days after the shooting, Jesse’s mother, Scarlett Lewis, discovered three words her youngest son had written on the kitchen blackboard. “Nurturing. Healing. Love.” She had no idea why or when he had written them, or what he intended by them, but she took it as a message, which has directed her ever since.

“I knew immediately,” she says. “If Jesse’s killer had been able to give and receive nurturing, healing love, the tragedy would never have happened. I had to dedicate my life to being part of the solution.”

Her solution is a school-based educational programme, which Lewis has devised with input from educationalists, designed to bring the best of social and emotional learning (SEL) to pupils of all ages, from pre-kindergarten to the final year of secondary school.

It’s called the Jesse Lewis Choose Love movement and its aim is to equip children to “choose love” in any given situation. It focuses on four character values – courage, gratitude, forgiveness, and compassion in action – and seeks to give children the tools and skills they need to manage their emotions, to be confident and resilient in the face of adversity, to make positive and pro-social choices, and to have healthy relationships.

The value of social and emotional learning is well understood. According to the Education Endowment Foundation, a charity that provides evidence-based resources designed to improve teaching practice and boost learning in English schools, there has been extensive international research, much of which indicates that SEL interventions have an identifiable and valuable impact on attitudes to learning and relationships in school, and can even raise attainment.

There are concerns, however, that because of the pressures on schools to climb league tables, together with financial constraints, SEL is not always the priority Lewis believes it should be. “We are not born with these skills or attitudes. We have to learn them. If we don’t learn them at home or in class, we might grow up without them,” she says.

Scarlett Lewis with microphone and audience
Scarlett Lewis publicising the Jesse Lewis Choose Love movement, which aims to equip children to ‘choose love’ in any situation. Photograph: Megan Spicer

“I have tremendous compassion for him,” Lewis says of her son’s killer. “Anyone who could do something so heinous must be in a tremendous amount of pain. He was neglected by the education system, his father had left, he had needs that were known that were not addressed, he was bullied in school … I understand his rage.”

Her response is the Choose Love programme. It is free and has been downloaded in all 50 US states and in more than 60 countries around the world, including 40 UK schools, reaching about 1.4 million students. “I believe the demand for our programme shows there’s a lack of this kind of education,” says Lewis. Next week she will spread her message further when she speaks at Bett, the education technology show taking place in London.

Liz Meeten, a teacher at Kingsbury Episcopi primary school in Stembridge, Somerset, says she was “blown away” by a podcast about Lewis’s programme and has put it to work in her school.

“Even though our school community is very sheltered and not affected by this level of violence and negativity, the themes of bravery, gratitude, forgiveness and compassion resonated with our values,” she says.

“The children are now mini- neuroscientists, able to discuss how their brain works and how this affects the behaviour choices that they are making.” They also know how to take “brave breaths” when feeling stressed. “A few children with special educational needs have found it particularly useful to provide them with strategies to deal with overwhelming feelings.”

Meanwhile, Lewis won’t be drawn on questions about the need for better gun control in the US. “I try to stay neutral on that topic. Do I think there need to be changes? Absolutely, but my movement is based in education. Everyone can be part of the movement to choose love. I wanted it to be a place where everyone feels comfortable.”

She believes SEL is the best way to cultivate safe schools. “Although we can’t always choose what happens to us, we can always choose how to respond,” she writes on the Choose Love website. “Children can learn to choose a loving thought over an angry one. When a child realises 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 lives with the loss of her younger son every day, and her sense of purpose is inspired by his bravery. When Lanza entered his classroom that dreadful morning, his gun momentarily jammed or ran out of bullets. Jesse yelled at his classmates to run. They did and survived; he stayed with his teacher and died.

“Jesse is considered a hero on that day,” said Lewis. “He saved nine of his classmates’ lives. We found that out very soon after. It’s that example of courage that leads and guides me. If my six-year-old son could be so courageous, I certainly can get up every day and have my own courage and do the right thing, to be part of the solution and support his message of nurturing, healing love, which is what I do every day.”