SEL & Classroom Safety: 3 Lessons from Sandy Hook Every Educator Should Know

Scarlett Lewis, mother of a 6-year-old murder victim of the Sandy Hook shooting, has turned her heartbreak into a passion to prevent school violence. In this show, she shares research-based practical information to promote social-emotional learning and what we should all be doing to help kids become healthy. In addition to making schools safer, the research shows these things also improve learning and help kids become healthier adults.

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Enhanced Transcript

Preventing School Shootings: SEL and 3 Lessons from Sandy Hook

Link to show:
Date: Thursday, January 18, 2018

Vicki: We’re handling so many difficult things in schools today, and Scarlett Lewis @JesseLewisLove is with us today to talk about one of those very difficult issues.

Now Scarlett, tell us a little bit about your son Jesse… and his story… and what you’re doing as a result.

Scarlett: Thanks, Vicki. I’m so happy to be on your show, speaking with educators — who are my heroes, by the way, because they have the most important job in the world, and that’s the ability to transform and even save lives on a daily basis.

So following my personal tragedy, where my 6-year-old son was shot in his first-grade classroom, alongside 19 of his classmates and 6 educators in one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history.

Of course, this was perpetrated by a former student of that school, also a Sandy Hook resident.

Following that personal devastation, I made the decision that I wanted to be part of the solution.

Actually, I was heartened to find that there IS a solution., and it’s called social and emotional learning.

In fact, there was a report that came out following the shooting called the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission Report.

This was a commission of professionals that were given unprecedented access to all of the records, and they were asked to find out how something like this could happen and what could be done to prevent it from happening again.

What Can Be Done to Prevent This?

They came up with three things, in no particular order:

  • Gun Safety
  • More Access to Mental Health, and
  • Social Emotional Learning

In fact, the report says actually that if there had been social emotional learning (in place), the tragedy might not have happened. I had already been saying for two years before the report came out that the tragedy absolutely would not have happened with social emotional learning (in place).

I’ve really made it my life mission to make sure that every child has access to what we know is in the best interest of children for their entire lifetime.

Vicki: Now you’ve actually related social-emotional learning to neuroscience.

Now, there are a lot of folks who label social-emotional learning for all kinds of things, right?

Help us understand what actually works.

You’re also going to tell us about your free program.

Scarlett: Sure. Absolutely!

Our Free Program

What I did was look at what we’re currently teaching in schools, and the programming that is effective (statistically) and the programming that isn’t effective (statistically).

I really took the best of the best. It’s not only social-emotional learning, but it’s emotional intelligence. It’s positive psychology. It’s character education. It’s mindfulness. It’s neuroscience. I took all of the best of the best of them and put it into one program, a comprehensive PreK – 12th grade. And I made it free, so that every child can have access.

It’s based on CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic Social-Emotional Learning five core social-emotional competencies.

It’s based on CASEL

We made it easy to teach and easy to learn. I actually worked with educators to create this program, so it’s written by educators for educators. I think it’s the only program that is.

Vicki: So this is the Choose to Love enrichment program, right?

Scarlett: It’s the Choose Love enrichment program, and it’s available for free on the Jesse Lewis Movement website.

Vicki: OK, so give us an example of an activity or something that should be taught in this category of social-emotional learning that works.

Scarlett: Absolutely. So our program is based on a powerful formula for choosing love in any situation or circumstance. The formula that I use every single day — and I know it works in all situations — is this:

Courage (because everything starts with courage)

+ Gratitude (the great mindshifter*)

+ Forgiveness (the number one way to have healthy relationships**)

+ Compassion in Action ***

*Out of the 60,000-80,000 thoughts that we all have every day, going through our head one at a time, so you can’t have a grateful thought and an angry or depressed thought at once, so it’s the great mindshifter

**Harvard University did a 75-year longitudinal study that showed that the secret to happiness is positive relationships and meaningful connections. Forgiveness is the #1 way to have that.

***Not only identifying a need/suffering in someone, but actively doing something to help ease that pain***

So that formula:
Courage + Gratitude + Forgiveness + Compassion in Action = Choosing Love
(with all of the different elements falling under that formula)

It’s been profoundly impactful, not only for students but for educators as well. The educators get the opportunity to learn right alongside the students. There is no training required. We actually do have training available. I always like to go speak to the staff to launch the program when possible. But in reality, the teacher learns right alongside the student. The best feedback that I’ve received is that the educator gets as much benefit as the student.

Vicki: I love how you say, “We can’t always choose what happens to us, but we can choose how we respond.”

But you live it every day. Isn’t it hard?

Scarlett: I absolutely live that.

Therefore I know that it’s true.

That’s where our freedom and our growth lie.

We can’t always choose what happens to us. Sometimes a chapter in our life has been started for us, right? But we can always choose how we respond.

When we thoughtfully respond, we can always choose love. That means even if your chapter was started for you, you can write the ending.

And that’s where your power lies.

A lot of times, I think — especially with everything that’s going on in our world today, we feel like all this stuff is happening around us and we have no control.

But I’ll tell you what. We have control of how we respond — how we perceive the things that are happening, and how we respond.

That alone is an incredibly empowering concept.

Vicki: You gave me a statistic before we started recording… about just how many school shootings there are now.

How frequent is it here in the United States?

How Frequent are School Shootings?

Scarlett: Well… since Sandy Hook Elementary, which happened 5 years ago, we have had over 220 school-related shootings.

So we have an average of one school-related shooting per week in our country.

And of course we don’t always read about them. Thankfully, they don’t always result in death.

But the fact of the matter is, it seems like it’s becoming our new normal.

And that is absolutely no OK with me.

Our schools must be a safe haven for our children and our educators. Absolutely. It’s the only way that they can learn!

We know how to do that. That’s by implementing a social-emotional learning program.

Social-emotional learning is the #1 way to have a safe learning environment.

Social-emotional learning is the #1 way to have a safe learning environment.

That’s why we offer this program for free. Really, this is so important that it cannot be priced out of the market for children and educators.

Vicki: Well, and educators, we can put in security systems, but we also have to have secure and safe thinking going on in our minds.

This is a difficult, hard thing.

We cannot just teach content and not teach healthy thinking — things like courage, gratitude, forgiveness, and compassion in action.

These are all ways of thinking, ways of approaching the world. They’re things that we need to be discussing in our classrooms.

I hope you’ll follow and take a look at the resources.

Scarlett, I just want you to know that I appreciate you.

I appreciate what you’re doing and the struggle that you have and live every day, and how you’re turning that struggle into good for the world.

The Science Behind the Benefits of Social-Emotional Learning Says…

Scarlett: There’s so much science behind the benefits of social-emotional learning — so children that have access to social-emotional learning not only:

  • get better grades and test scores,
  • have higher graduation rates,
  • have less stress, anxiety and less bullying (because it proactively prevents it before it starts)

But there are long term studies now that have followed kids from kindergarten all the way into adulthood. They have found that those now-adults that had social-emotional learning in school had:

  • less substance abuse
  • less mental health issues of all kinds
  • less violence
  • less incarceration
  • even less divorce rates

It makes sense because we are teaching kids skills, tools, and attitudes that help them get along and have meaningful connections with others.

By the way, these skills and tools aren’t innate. We’re not born with them.

We must be taught them, and if we aren’t we don’t necessarily have them.

These Skills and Tools Are Not Innate. They Must Be Taught.


Transcribed by Kymberli Mulford

Bio as submitted

Scarlett Lewis founded the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement™ after her son was murdered during the Sandy Hook tragedy in December 2012. Scarlett works to promote the Choose Love Enrichment Program™, a free, comprehensive, evidence-based SEL program that empowers educators and their students to choose love for themselves and others. While we can’t always choose what happens to us, we can choose how we respond. This program teaches children how to handle adversity, have courageous conversations, and to respond with love


Twitter: @JesseLewisLove

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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Vicki Davis writes The Cool Cat Teacher Blog for classroom teachers everywhere