Based in Santa Barbara, Dr. Jennifer Freed specializes in treating youth ages 12 to 24 as a psychotherapist. She is also the co-founder of AHA!, which recently received recognition as one of the top eight after-school programs in social and emotional learning in the country by the Susan Crown Exchange. Serving 2,500 youth in the Santa Barbara area, AHA!’s mission is to improve attitude, cultivate social harmony and close the achievement gap for youth.
Below is a Q&A of her thoughts following the recent killings in Isla Vista.
Q: What do you think can be done to help prevent future violence by angry young people?
A: Our children need a social and emotional education. The "soft skills" of learning how to read social cues, manage difficult emotions, delay gratification and reframe disappointments into learning opportunities need to be taught to our youth. Skills such as reflective listening and self-soothing should not be "electives” — they are fundamental to personal happiness and society’s well-being. I believe these skills should be taught in addition to academics in a school setting.
Q: How does social emotional learning help angry youth?
A: The only true prophylactic to youth violence is social and emotional education, facilitated by committed and charismatic adults who are emotionally mature. This education needs to take place in a diverse, collaborative and engaged classroom and/or after school setting, where each youth feels cared about, accepted, heard, understood, and learns how to manage difficult emotions and resolve conflicts peacefully within the context of community.
Q: Does social emotional learning need to be taught to everyone, or just those adolescents who are troubled or angry?
A: Social and emotional learning helps not just the hurting or angry youth but also helps others develop the necessary skill of working with difficult people and uncomfortable emotions, and also teaches youth who have the gifts of privilege to embrace others with more challenging circumstances and to learn how to repair harms instead of cutting off or getting rid of the “undesirables.”
Q: Isn’t attending therapy enough for a young adult who has anger issues?
A: Therapy is a necessary and helpful adjunct for youth who suffer from mental illness, but it does not replace or relieve the need for a social context of peer acceptance and belonging.
Q: How do you know social emotional learning works?
A: My partner, Rendy Freedman, and I started our program AHA! in 1999 right after the Columbine High School shootings because we knew we could do better for our community’s youth.
After 15 years serving over 10,000 youth, we have seen remarkable results, including 70 percent reduction in disciplinary actions in schools and hundreds of youth who credit our program with saving their lives and most notably reporting that they no longer wanted to hurt others.
Q: Is there a quick fix to the problem of angry and disconnected youth?
A: I have heard rants as "evil" as Elliot Rodger’s rant countless times — most especially from young men, and heard young women turn all that hate against themselves with razor blades and suicide attempts. I have seen these same broken young people become whole again through emotional and social education. Did they transform quickly? No. In each case, it took years of committed after-school education or in-school programs, and in most cases therapy, too.
There is no "magic bullet" for eradicating youth violence in a culture that sensationalizes sex and violence daily on screens; however, we have found that a consistent and concerted effort to educate the hearts of our youth in actual contact with each other (not virtual), provides the necessary foundation for emotional wounds to heal and to help youth find their way out of the often agonizing perils of adolescence into a meaningful life as an adult.
Q: How can I sign up for a program that teaches social emotional learning?
A: The best resource for finding out about programs that deliver excellent social and emotional learning is CASEL.org. CASEL is a national organization whose mission is to help make social emotional learning an integral part of education from preschool through high school.
To find out more about AHA!’s programs, including its national teacher and youth facilitator trainings, click here.