If we really do want to change the world, we’ve go to start with the young. —Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill
SALT LAKE CITY — Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill stood in front of parents and teachers Thursday and read sobering journal entries from children who have suffered from violence.
Their stories left a hush over the crowd as she reminded them that behind every statistic of violence, there is a human being.
Ballif-Spanvill, professor of psychology and former director of the Women's Research Institute at BYU, spoke about the Peaceabilities program during a one-day seminar last week sponsored by the YWCA of Salt Lake City. The program is designed to promote peace among children, she said.
“If we really do want to change the world, we’ve go to start with the young,” said Ballif-Spanvill, who co-developed the program.
The program consists of a kit that includes a manual with 108 peace-promoting activities, 18 books, a CD of original music and a DVD.
Ballif-Spanvill said the idea for Peaceabilities originated from her research of the interaction between emotions and thinking while teaching at the graduate school at Fordham University.
Her research continued with a focus on violent and peaceful emotions when she became the director of the Women's Research Institute at BYU. With the help of Claudia J. Clayton, associate professor of psychology at BYU, Peaceabilities was published in 2009.
Ballif-Spanvill said the program developed from a resolve for change.
"It evolved out of desire to not only talk about how bad the problem (of violence is) but how to solve it," she said.
Ballif-Spanvill said 15 years of research indicates that children who originally felt vulnerable and unable to resolve conflict saw themselves as more peaceful after participating in Peaceabilities.
"If they start seeing themselves as peaceful people, they will begin being more peaceful," she said. "(They will begin) looking for more peaceful alternatives to use in their various situations in their lives."
For their study, Ballif-Spanvill and Clayton observed 150 children from various ethnic groups in school programs in areas that had high rates of domestic violence, public and private schools, and domestic violence centers, including the YWCA. The children were observed and their peaceful or violent behavior recorded.
Children were measured on a scale with the most peaceful behavior, coded as P6, demonstrating forgiveness, altruism and compassion. The most violent behavior, coded V6, consisted of violence, vengeance and expending others for gain.
Children were also measured in other activities. For example, children were asked to divide five cookies onto a plate for them themselves and two other kids. Ballif-Spanvill said one child took all of the cookies and left, another meticulously broke the cookies into equal parts, and another child gave the other children two cookies and kept one for themselves.
"Children are not going to learn (peace) in the world we live in," she said. "It's going to be a concerted effort to make a difference."
Maggie St. Clair also spoke at the seminar about her experience testing Peaceabilities with her four grandchildren she watches after school.
St. Clair said she knew the set of twins, ages 5 and 7, would enjoy reading the stories but was surprised at what they absorbed.
“What surprised me was how well they got it,” she said. “They understood.”
St. Clair said her grandchildren often referred back to the lessons and were able to pick out the theme of the book before the story was even finished.
Candace Dewaal, a prekindergarten teacher at the Lolie Eccles Early Education Center, said she’s implemented some of the Peaceabilities concepts in her classroom naturally.
Dewaal's class motto is “we’re kind in a safe classroom,” which she said is founded on being peaceful to each other.
She said letting the children make connections from stories to everyday situations helps build their confidence.
“Allowing the children to stand back (and make those connections) is very empowering to them,” Dewaal said.
Anne Burkholder, CEO of the YWCA of Salt Lake City, said the organization plans to implement the Peaceabilities program in its child center this summer.
“If you can read a story to a child who already enjoy stories and have them learn a kernel of information that will help them treat other children well, (it is) a great combination,” Burkholder said.
Richard Green has a son who attends the child center and said he likes that the program is outcome based. Green said he wants his son to learn how to cope with stressful situations and not escalate conflicts.
“It’s nice as a parent to know what they’re doing and have an understanding,” he said. “Then we can support it and reinforce it.”