Kids Shooting Kids

by Don A. Blackerby, Ph.D. and John Bartlett, BA

Ever since November 1997 I have been fascinated by the troubled youth of our land. During the month of November, I taught a 2-day workshop on my book “Rediscover the Joy of Learning” to teachers and counselors of the Utah Corrections Department. These teachers and counselors were responsible for the adolescents who had been incarcerated in the Utah Prisons. Later on in May 1998, I spoke at the statewide Troubled Youth Conference for the State of Utah – and my fascination grew even more. As I listened to the key-note speaker tell his story of growing up on the streets and his affiliation with gangs and how he turned his life around, I was struck by the insights that came from listening to his story through the logical levels. (See discussion of logical levels below.) I also was struck by the similar patterns I had noticed in some of the students with whom I had worked. As school shootings increased around the country, I became even more curious as to what I could do.

I was primarily fascinated by the process of HOW these adolescents got to where they were. How was it that they dropped through the cracks of our social system? Were there any patterns that would reveal fundamental problems in our social systems that could be corrected? Could I, using Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) modeling processes, find these patterns? I went back to my office in Oklahoma City and started my own kind of research. As I worked with individual students who were “at risk”, I started noting some patterns that I thought might contribute to these students’ plight. I wrote an article that was published in the October, 1998 issue of Anchor Point, an international NLP journal. The title of the article was “Help for Troubled Youth – Finding the Missing Piece to the Puzzle.” Then I wrote a sequel to the article “The Faulty Foundation of our Schools” that was published in the February, 1999 issue of the Journal of the United Kingdom Association of NLP. These articles are also posted in the article section on my web site

I decided to widen my database of students and started working within local “Alternative Schools” which serve struggling students who are having a hard time making it in the normal school setting. I interviewed the students and teachers to see if I could find any patterns in their experience that would explain why the students had “dropped through the cracks” of our educational system. And did I find patterns! And, the patterns were consistent almost to a student! And, the patterns revealed some potential solutions in how we need to relate to students.

The major patterns that were present in all the “troubled students” that I have interviewed were:

a. Trauma
– There was trauma in all the students. For the more severe “at risk” students, there were multiple traumas. Some of it occurred in early years in the home or with the family. Some of it occurred in relationships with peers. And, much of it occurred in school as the result of not being able to succeed in the academic assignments. With many students it occurred in all three. Some of the time, the trauma was a perception of the student, instead of an obvious physical or mental trauma. Or, in other words, it was traumatic because of the meaning the student assigned to the event.

b. Inappropriate feedback – There was some type of inappropriate feedback, a type of inappropriate communication that the students received from teachers, parents and peers when their behaviors were not consistent with expectations. For example, a student might make a bad grade on a test and the parent might get mad and curse him or punish him. If the feedback were perceived to be abusive or blaming or judgmental, the students would fight back or withdraw. This would attract more of the same kind of feedback and the fighting or withdrawal would escalate. The perceived unfairness of the feedback, along with the escalation, causes anger that grows into rage if not reversed.

c. Inappropriate meaning – The kind of meaning the student attaches to the feedback usually dictates their response. Many students “take it personally” by taking it to the Identity level (as in the example above, the student might think he is “dumb” or “stupid” or “learning disabled”). Many times the feedback is perceived to be abusive and personal. Other times, the feedback is well intentioned and designed to help them but the student assumes that something is wrong with them. This places it at the Identity level.

d. Escalation – In all “troubled” or “at risk” students, escalation of on-going disagreements or arguments had occurred. Instead of the feedback being a “one time” event which could generate a correction, these students and their family, peers or teachers escalated the feedback to an ongoing battle. So, in the example above, if the student did poorly on another test, the parent might get even more angry and the student would react angrily to the anger. The parent then starts to react to the student’s anger. Many times the original reason for the battle was buried under the escalating battle over issues of control or of winning or of who was right or of independence. The growing rage over the perceived unfairness and a lack of anger management strategies fuels the escalation even more.

e. Alienation – Since the student feels attacked at the Identity level, they feel different than the other students who seem to be doing all right (the ones that the system deems okay). They feel separated and alienated. This increases the emotional impact and they become even more traumatized. As the escalation continues, they look for ways to recapture a sense of worthiness and belonging.

f. Search for identity and belonging
– Desperate to find an identity and to feel like they belong, they look around for others with whom to identify. They find others in their school and community who are going through the same type of experience and band together. They could be attracted to each other by a common interest in a type of music, a philosophical or political position, a style of dress, hair, body adornment, recreational drugs, etc. Such forces as TV, or movies, or music groups often influence their search. This sense of identity and belonging has a strong influence on the way they live their life.

g. Group rebellion – The group now can become the one who is doing the rebellion or striking back at parents, teachers or the kids who used to torment them. To not only have an identity and a group to which they can belong, but also to have a common purpose is pretty heady stuff. This group level activity insulates them from the personal responsibility of their actions. This can lead to the many violent behaviors that occur, including the gang drive-by shootings and the growing number of kids who are shooting other kids.

These patterns do not occur in a linear fashion. Many of them occur simultaneously over a long period of time. The unique role that school plays is that it is one of the major ongoing environments within which the above patterns are bred and develop. Going to school is one of the major activities of growing up. How they do in school, both academically and socially, IS one of the major concerns of youth. It is THE primary focus of concern for most youth.

As the above patterns continue to escalate to extremes, and the alienation becomes more severe, the kids group together with common feelings of being treated unjustly and unfairly. The rage becomes justified within the group. Revenge would be a common way to seek relief. When we factor in the violence of the movies and TV and computer games where these students spend a lot of time (I wrote about this in the article “Help for Troubled Youth”), shooting people who have mis-treated them previously could seem like the cool thing to do. This is particularly true when they join a like-minded group and they sit around discussing their common plight. The alienation grows and so does the demonizing of those from whom they feel alienated.

Most of the proposed solutions that are in the news are not at the appropriate logical level. To quickly review the logical levels:


Spiritual/Greater System – Attempts to communicate or change at this level affect our experience of being a part of a much vaster system. Answers the question of WHO ELSE DOES THIS SERVE? Or, WHAT IS MY GREATER VISION?

We all live in systems. These systems serve larger systems, etc. If our lives serve something bigger than our self, it gives purpose and meaning to our lives.

Identity – Attempts to communicate or change at this level affect self-image and overall purpose. Answers the question of WHO AM I? and/or WHAT IS MY PURPOSE?

Changes at the Identity level are harder to make. When others judge who we are, we tend to get defensive and protect ourselves. When students assign feedback to this level (even if the feedback is well intentioned) and make it negative, real damage occurs to the self-esteem of the student.

Beliefs and Values
– Attempts to communicate or change at this level affect the motivation and permission by affecting the reasons that we do it. Answers the question of WHY DO I DO IT?

Real and strong motivation is elicited if the academic task at hand is connected to the student’s values or criteria. Unfortunately, many students, parents and teachers do not know how to elicit these criteria and utilize them.

Capabilities – Attempts to communicate or change at this level affect behavioral actions through a mental map, skill or strategy. Answers the question of HOW DO I DO IT?

For most students, this is a missing level since the schools do not officially teach them how to learn in the classroom – they leave it to the student to figure it out. The mental learning strategies that students use are often inefficient and ineffective. This missing level is the source of much of the academic trauma for students.

Behavior – Attempts to communicate or change at this level affect specific actions taken within the environment. Answers the question of WHAT DO I DO?

Students will attempt to solve problems at this level by changing the way they study or the amount of time they will study or by changing what they do to study.

– Attempts to communicate or change at this level affect the external constraints a person has to live within and react to. Answers the questions of WHERE and/or WHEN and/or WITH WHOM DO I DO IT?

Many parents or students will attempt to solve problems in school at this level by changing schools, or teachers or studying with friends or alone or changing the location of where they do their studying.

Most of the proposed solutions like tougher laws on guns, curfews, dress codes and the like are at the Environment and Behavior Levels. If you analyze the major patterns listed previously, most of the causes for the anti-social behaviors are at the highest Logical Levels. Feeling alienated from society or God (or some other higher power) is at the top logical level of Spiritual/Greater System as well as an Identity issue. Joining a group of like-minded individuals is the students’ attempt at solving their problem at the top two Levels – so they will have an identity and belong. Unfortunately, that does not stop the alienation, it only perpetuates it and the rage. Albert Einstein once said “You cannot solve a problem at the level at which it was created – you have to go to a higher level.” I think that is so true in this situation also.

The interesting part of this to me is how the “Rediscover the Joy of Learning” certification training graduates are SO qualified to help deal with this problem. They learn how to teach students how to learn and how to think about school in a positive manner. They learn how to give feedback in a way that builds self-esteem. They learn how to change limiting beliefs when students assign the wrong meaning to certain events. They learn how trauma affects students’ lives and how to work through the trauma with the student. They learn how to deal with issues at ALL LOGICAL LEVELS – including Identity issues. They learn how to deal with anger and rage and how to clear the student’s body of the emotion.

I recently had a mother call me. She had a 7-year-old boy who had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity (ADHD). He was out of control with anger and rage and would physically attack his fellow students and even the teachers. He had been expelled 3 times in the two previous weeks prior to his mother bringing him to see me. To quote her e-mail to me “Donny (not his real name) had an outburst at school. He scratched a little boy all over his face, arms, and back! He got kicked out of the after school program and is not allowed to go on any school trips unless an adult accompanies him. He is “on edge all day” at school, according to his teachers. This means he is having difficulty sharing with others, paying attention, and staying focused. He says these bad thoughts just start coming into his head and he can’t stop them! He says he runs from the teachers because he thinks they are going to hurt him.”

I worked with Donny primarily on his anger and the trauma he had experienced while being abused on numerous occasions as a small boy. After several weeks back home, I received the following e-mail from the mother “Thank you soooo much for the pictures! It was great, Donny immediately remembered what he was doing and saying in the pictures! He has now had 2 WEEKS of GREAT, GREAT DAYS at school, his teacher says it is incredible the changes she is seeing. She feels certain that what you did with Donny has made a definite difference.”

John Bartlett, one of the graduates of a recent “Rediscover the Joy of Learning,” went to work as a counselor at the Colorado Youth Challenge Corps in Ft. Carson, Colorado – a boot camp type environment for “at risk” youth. If they don’t make it there, some go to prison. After reading the draft of this article, he responded with the following comments:

“Based on my experience of working for nearly one year with over 200, “at risk kids,” in the Colorado Youth ChalleNGe Corp (CYCC or ChalleNGe) at Ft. Carson, CO. I find the major patterns of the students you describe in “Kids Shooting Kids” fit our youth almost exactly.

The original assessment of the youth confirms the patterns and the continuous contact validates it even more. The following examples may lend some credibility to your research:

These youth seldom have one trauma that adversely affects their life and school. They have multiple traumas to deal with from all forms of human abuse at all levels. A full 95% of the youth at ChalleNGe have suffered some kind of trauma.

One young woman, a great athlete, was the victim of six rapes before she was 17 years of age. Two were from counselors, a male and one female. A coach put down her athletic accomplishments because she seemed too cocky and boastful. (Inappropriate Feedback) She responded to her traumas by running away, drugs and alcohol. (Escalation)

One young man, a Native American that I worked with, was victimized by a grade school teacher. She would take the paper from him that he had been working on, mark the mistakes and then announce to the class how poor the work was. She would tell the class that this was the best that Indians or Blacks could do. (Inappropriate Feedback) As he progressed on through school, he withdrew more and more and did even more poorly. To him it validated the teacher’s words–I’m an Indian I can’t do well. . (Identity issue and Inappropriate Meaning)

A young man with blue hair, a different haircut, chains and dressed in black ran away from home when approached on changing a little after the Columbine High School incident. (Inappropriate Meaning) He was totally unwilling to communicate about any of the issues. His clothes, hair, actions, music etc. were who he believed himself to be. (Search for Identity and Belonging)

We believe that a full 50% of the youth here at CYCC have been or are now affiliated with gangs at one level or another. (Search for Identity and Belonging and Group Rebellion) An additional 45% are involved with some group (e.g., skaters, Goths, bikers, etc).

Overworked, overloaded, exasperated teachers may slip up and say an inappropriate comment and/or not take enough time with a student and the student locks on to that one incident above and beyond any other thing that the teacher did or said for the entire year. (Inappropriate Meaning) One man, angry about his inability to read or spell, blamed his teachers and school. His attendance was so bad that he was dropped from Elementary School. He started smoking pot at age eight. He and his mother had the same probation officer.

Some of the processes and techniques I learned at the “Rediscover the Joy of Learning” helped me considerably with these youth. Some of the techniques were so simple but yet for these kids, they made a real difference. The Spelling Strategy, the Math Facts Triangle, The Vocabulary Strategy, the Reading Comprehension Strategy, the ADD Dance, The 6 step Belief Change, and the use of the Logical Levels are among many of the strategies which worked very well.

One young man, a graduate of the program, told me “The reason to do good in school is that the kids that do good in school get all the good friends. When I didn’t do good in school my life was a mess and I couldn’t do anything about it. (Alienation and Search for Identity and Belonging) The four-step thing (ADD Dance) did it for me. The Spelling Strategy got me to believe I could still learn.”

One young man turned around when we identified his learning style as audio and gave him a cassette tape player and tape. He claimed the 6-step belief change did him the most good on really believing he could change. He did it four times for good measure on shifting the belief to “I can learn.” He was the class honor graduate, winning two out of five positive merit awards. When asked, “What was the greatest thing you learned at ChalleNGe?” He replyed with conviction, “When I changed my life, I understood how much I really loved my family.” (Search for Identity and Belonging)

Spelling was fun for the kids. The ChalleNGe spelling word was “Super cala fraga listic expy ala dos has.” Speed races of spelling the word forward and backwards without making a mistake or stopping; produced speeds of 17.5 seconds as the top record. It was common to overhear spelling bee races in the halls and in the lunch line.

After the Columbine High School shootings, I had the occasion to see 95 of the youth in two days in small group sessions. It was mentioned by six different kids, “Before I came to this program, I could have been a shooter. I understand why the shooters did what they did. I know how to get weapons and I know how to make pipe bombs!”

In my contact with the youth, I found less than 3% of the kids could not be helped with the material that I learned in the “Rediscover the Joy of Learning” course. Most of the kids really turn on to learning after they are shown how to learn and believe that they can learn. The other disruptive behaviors disappear fairly quickly.

I let some of the youth read one of the drafts of this article. Of the youth that read it, there was an overwhelming 100% agreement that the Patterns were right on the money.”

(An interesting note – just days after the Columbine High School shooting tragedy, the Colorado State Legislature voted to shut down the Colorado Youth ChalleNGe Corp program effective July 30, 1999.)

If we could teach parents and teachers appropriate feedback strategies to implement on the spot, then we could head off these powerful escalating feelings of being separated and alienated. We could also teach parents and teachers how to help students find the more empowering meanings to assign to certain events. We could even teach the students how to find different and more empowering meanings for the events that occur in their everyday life. Then their self-esteem would be elevated and boosted rather than torn down. In fact, wouldn’t it be nice if we taught the students how to do this for their classmates.

I am up to the task of setting this out as a vision and a mission. Help is certainly needed in this facet of our lives. The world is crying for a solution. If you are of the same mind set and if you would like to get involved with a vision such as this, come join me. Let me know how and what you can do. If you do not know yet, call me or contact me in another way and let’s discuss how you can make a difference in the world! I personally think EVERYBODY wants and can make a difference in the world. Don’t you? In my opinion, transforming children’s lives makes a big difference in helping to make the world a better place. Come join me?.

About the Authors

Don A. Blackerby, Ph.D. is founder of SUCCESS SKILLS, Inc in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA. He is a former math teacher and college dean and founded SUCCESS SKILLS in 1981 in order to focus on using Neuro-Linguistic Progrmming (NLP) to help struggling students in school. In 1996, he wrote a book “Rediscover the Joy of Learning” in which he describes his NLP based strategies and processes on how he helps struggling students including those with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). He may be contacted in various ways. His NEW address and phone numbers are SUCCESS SKILLS, PO Box 42631, Oklahoma City, OK 73123 City, USA. His phone number is 405-773-8820. His new fax is 405-773-5427. E-mail don at nlpok dot com He also has a new web site:

John Bartlett, BA is a certified NLP Practitioner, former teacher and community college instructor and public agency training specialist. John graduated from the 14 day “Rediscover the Joy of Learning” certification training in August 1998, and has joined Don in his vision to help America’s youth. He works privately with “at risk kids” and kids who suffer with ADD. John Bartlett can be reached by phone at (719) 526-1881 or (719) 265-4641. E-mail john at aol dot com