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 an article 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!

About The Author

Rae Pica has been an education consultant, specializing in the development and education of the whole child and children’s physical activity, since 1980. Rae is one of the foremost child development experts in education. A former adjunct instructor with the University of New Hampshire, she is the founder and director of Moving & Learning (now Rae Pica Keynotes & Consulting) and the author of 19 books, including the text Experiences in Movement and Music (in its 5th edition), the award-winning Great Games for Young Children and Jump into Literacy, and A Running Start: How Play, Physical Activity, and Free Time Create a Successful Child, written for the parents of children birth to age five. Her latest books are What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Improving Education and Children’s Lives and Active Learning Across the Curriculum: Teaching the Way They Learn. In addition, Rae is co-founder of the BAM Radio Network, the world’s largest online education radio network, where she currently hosts Studentcentricity, interviewing other experts in the field of child development and education, play research, the neurosciences and more. Learn more about Rae’s work here.

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