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In all the talk of AR-15s and bump stocks, and the critical call for significant gun reform, it’s easy to forget about an equally necessary goal: that of making sure we can prevent people, especially younger people, from becoming killers. As we see gun violence becoming an ever-larger part of our society, we need to start rethinking how we teach and care for children, from the youngest ages on. In my work with children over the past decade as a speech-language pathologist and learning specialist, I have seen the importance of reaching children is order to help them succeed in school and in life. In stopping violence taking root in the next generation, we need to look to early education reform.

As research shows, gun violence goes far beyond Parkland. As Alex Gaffney at PricewaterhouseCoopers recently found, an average of 2,300 high school students died by firearms per year in the years 2010 to 2016[1]. Still, we too often consider only the immediate causes and fail to look at the psychological and environmental reasons kids become killers in the first place. We also fail to see the critical role that early childhood education can play in stopping this cycle of death and destruction. Even as we need reforms in access to weapons, particularly the deadliest ones, we also need reforms in the ways we treat and diagnose children from the earliest ages.

As a speech-language pathologist, I have been trained to take a developmental approach: to look at children’s history from in utero to their current ages, taking into account their mothers’ health, their early falls and any incidence of bullying, as well as their academic histories, year by year. I recognize that a child doesn’t simply start having problems all of a sudden—more often than not, those problems have been brewing under the surface for years.

Violence doesn’t have a single cause

Furthermore, a child’s problems often have complex causes, including genetics, environmental stressors, and the demands of the child’s school or family. Whether anxiety or depression or acting out, what we typically see and treat as “behaviors” tend to ebb and flow according to how well the child is supported, how well their needs match up with their teachers and families’ demands, and how much the outside factors in their lives—deaths, remarriages, and so on—have thrown them for a loop.

That’s not to say that we should give children a free pass when they act out—or, in the case of a gunman, lessen the justice that a killer deserves. Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland killer, is an adult, who has taken his gun into his hands, and no complaints of a “difficult childhood” should excuse him. But, in preventing future killings, we need to recognize that our society all too often neglects early education. It’s in the first three years that children’s brains are growing the fastest, and also in those years that they can be most severely affected by neglect, trauma, or chronic stress. On the positive side, it’s also the time when positive, caring relationships can have the greatest impact in terms of turning children’s problems around, and of helping even those with the greatest difficulties thrive.

High-quality early education as the missing piece

Research abounds in the ways such education can be critical in changing children’s life courses, their abilities to get good jobs, and their mental health. However, just as we pay the price for neglecting preventative health, so too do we neglect providing sufficient funding and oversight for young children’s education. What can we do?

  1. Fund early education teachers: In changing the playing field, we need to take a hard look at the disrespect we show early education teachers and their often-pitiful levels of pay. In trying to make early childhood a critical place to support children for their lives, we can’t continue treating their teachers as little more than glorified babysitters.
  2. Provide better training: We need to train early education teachers better, with on-the-ground support that recognizes their real challenges.
  3. Help diagnose children’s difficulties early: If teachers and parents are better equipped to diagnose children early–whether their difficulties are academic or social-emotional, or both–children are much more likely to receive the help they need, when they need it. Timing is critical.              

Alongside calls for changes in current laws, we need to rethink laws and policies that support high-quality education for future generations. Of course, by itself, such an approach won’t end school shootings, but, alongside gun reform and improved mental health services, it’s our best hope.