By Will Foley, CEI Intern We are never traumatized alone. We are wounded together. Together too, we heal. Relying on one another for support and love, we help each other through the darkest times. Those who inflict harm can become the same people that restore us. People and communities torn asunder by violence can heal together with the support of intentional practices brought to schools. Peace education is one such way that we can bring people together for collective healing.
Conflict and harm are both interpersonal. Healing can, and maybe should be, interpersonal too. Peace education has been defined differently by various scholars. One definition may be the most comprehensive: “Peace education is the process of acquiring the values and knowledge and developing the attitudes, skills and behaviour to live in harmony with oneself, with others, and with the natural environment,” (Bergof Foundation, n.d.). Peace education seeks to empower all people to live in a natural state of nonviolence. It further seeks to reduce violence where it happens, including the direct violence we may see in our schools as well as the systematic violence against our students, both of which can cause trauma. It may be “where John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and Paulo Freire meet” (Bajaj, 2008a).
The Neuroscience of Peace and Trauma
Creating peace reduces violence. Young people are particularly vulnerable to the toxic stress that accompanies violence in schools and communities. With this violence, our bodies produce stress hormones that stimulate the fight or flight response. High levels of cortisol that are produced from stressful events also impact memory and the ability to learn. Over an extended duration, high levels of cortisol often have lasting consequences for the developing brain, resulting in increased anxiety, difficulty focusing, hyper-vigilance and the loss of trust in the world.
While serious and sometimes difficult to treat, this trauma is not necessarily permanent. The act of forgiving, or forging peace between two people, for example, can be profound. Patients with PTSD have demonstrated changes in brain chemistry when forgiving the person who may have harmed them. In one study, some symptoms of PTSD were alleviated after a course of therapy that involved forgiveness (Farrow & Woodruff, 2005).
Being able to forgive can reduce cortisol, the stress hormone. Empathizing and forgiving a person who has done us harm can bring relief to the mind of the victim by releasing the burden on the victim, or, bringing about a sense of closure and allowing us to move beyond our pain. This in turn reduces cortisol levels (Ricciardi et al, 2013). There are many ways this can be facilitated. Restorative practices such as re-integration not only bring a classroom community together, but also may serve as a form of cognitive behavior therapy.
With many definitions come many methods for teaching peace. It is always participatory and learner-centered. Students model the behavior they see. If students are taught by a gentle, guiding figure, they are more likely to replicate this in their own lives. This approach also involves learner agency, because choice is fundamental to the fidelity of the exercises. Norms, dialogues, and other activities should all empower learners.
One possible misconception is that peace education needs to occur as a response to violence. While we are suggesting it as a method for responding to trauma, peace education can also further a return to a normal state of human affairs: nonviolence.
Some schools already engage in peace education practices but may not have access to the many resources that address peace, restoration, and conflict resolution. Some resources are designed to transform conflict and promote forgiveness; some celebrate peace, while others promote the life-long ability to broker peace. For example,
Teach Peace Now offers a compendium of resources for creating a culture of peace in the classroom or community, including ways to celebrate World Peace Day, poetry, and a lesson on the Nobel Prize.
Restorative Schools is one of the many organizations that brings curricula and lessons around restorative justice, rather than punitive discipline-based practices, that can help to create a culture of healing in your school.
Peace Works, a project of the Peace Education Foundation, offers multilingual lesson plans for grades K-12.
Second Step is a nationally utilized program in the United States that builds empathy and conflict resolution for K-8 classrooms.
Teachers have the power to create peace. If we want to increase peace in the world, we can first promote it among our students. Unless we educate them and help them heal, their cycles of conflict and harm will only continue. “That since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed” (UNESCO, 1947).
References Baja, M. (2008a). Historic emergencies of peace education. (pp. 14). In M. Bajaj (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Peace Education. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing. Baja, M. (2008b). Critical peace education. (pp. 15-24). In M. Bajaj (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Peace Education. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing. Berghof Foundation. (n.d.). Educating for Peace. Berghof Foundation Glossary. Danesh, H.B. (2008). Unity based peace education (pp. 147-156). In M. Bajaj (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Peace Education. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing. Farrow, T & Woodruff, P. (2005, Jun 21). Handbook of Forgiveness. New York, NY: Routledge. Ricciardi, E., Rota, G., Sani, K., Gentilli, C., Gaglianese, A., Guzalli, M., & Pietrini, P. (2013). How the brain heals emotional wounds: The functional neuroanatomy of forgiveness. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. (1947). The Constitution. London, UK.