‘Peace Building’: California Non-profit Teaches Teens to Avoid Violence

‘Peace Building’: California Non-profit Teaches Teens to Avoid Violence
Erin Flynn Jay September 27, 2016

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AHA! helps teens learn “peace-building” techniques to help end violence in schools.

Founded in 1999 shortly after the Columbine school tragedy, AHA! (short for Attitude, Harmony and Achievement) is a volunteer-driven nonprofit that provides compassion training to teenagers in Santa Barbara, California.

“Research is conclusive that compassion training and social-emotional learning programs assist children in feeling safer — to learn, to connect, to achieve,” said AHA! co-founder Jennifer Freed, PhD, a family and child behavioral expert. Freed says compassion training and social-emotional learning programs emphasize managing emotions, empathy, teamwork, responsibility, problem-solving, initiative and grit.

AHA!’s flagship initiative is called Peace Builders, which was launched in 2013 to build community, increase acceptance, and nurture understanding between teen peers. Participants are students who want to develop life skills and confidence. Many are at-risk youth, including victims of physical and sexual abuse.

The program’s strategy “is to connect students to each other in face-to-face sharing of their concerns, their strengths, and their differences,” Freed said. “Students learn to feel closer to one another and safer to learn alongside each other.” Freed said the Santa Barbara high schools participating in AHA! have seen a 70 percent reduction in suspensions and an 11-point rise in cumulative standardized tests.

Helping students develop life skills and confidence

“Teachers express gratitude to us for helping them create a cohesive classroom and for helping students develop more empathy and self-management,” said Freed. “The main difference between AHA! and other robust programs is our adherence to a one-staff-per-six-to-eight teens ratio, and our emphasis on collaborative and joy-based learning.” AHA! promotes intergenerational learning between staff and students, prioritizing the unique and creative ways people express themselves.

Freed said AHA! is working on deepening its roots within every public secondary school in Santa Barbara, and then transferring their comprehensive model to other districts. “We have consulted with other districts nationally and want to use our expertise to coach other districts in how to incorporate our best practices into what they are already offering,” she said.

Peace-building tips to help prevent violence

Freed said these tips can help teachers implement peace-building techniques to discourage violence at school:

  • Be a “giving detective.” Help students learn to identify the small and big ways people help each other out. Make sure to acknowledge their efforts with small and precise appreciation. No one ever complains about being reasonably recognized.
  • Halt negative gossip. If a student starts negative gossip, interrupt gently by saying “It feels so much better to talk positively about people, so let’s find something else to talk about.”
  • Write down what you are grateful for. Assign students to take time each day to quietly remind themselves of what they are grateful for, and to write it down. This brings peace in their hearts.

These tips and more are available in Freed’s book “PeaceQ,” which will be published in November.

Social/emotional learning instructors are key

AHA! tries to find people who see its work as a calling and have solid personal skills coming into the job. The organization also conducts weekly training and quarterly retreats to strengthen people’s abilities. “Our staff is constantly being trained and working on continuous improvement of their skills,” said Freed. “Over half our staff has a master’s degree in psychology or education.”

Freed admitted that it is challenging to find the right staff with the mindset that is most conducive to work with teens. That is why AHA! is constantly recruiting,  interviewing, and investing in its staff.

Erin Flynn Jay is a writer, editor, and publicist, working mainly with authors and small businesses since 2001. Erin’s interests also reach into the educational space, where her affinity for innovation spurs articles about early childhood education and learning strategies. She is based in Philadelphia.

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