I get this question asked of me often, usually with a high level of skepticism. Many adults believe that bullying is just a “normal” aspect of adolescence.
But I am not willing to accept living in a world where school shootings and teen suicide are considered “normal.” At the time of this writing, one of the top news stories is about a child who just lit himself on fire at school as an apparent suicide attempt. My mind not only thinks about the child who inflicted so much pain on himself, but what about the people within his community?
His family who are left to figure out what went wrong?
His friends who did not realize he was hurting?
The classmates who witnessed this horrific act?
His peers who failed to say something kind and let him know he mattered?
The kids who targeted him and failed to appreciate their influence?
His teachers who were unable to connect with him and recognize the warning signs?
Recently, after leading a group of parents through one of our CivilSchools implementation trainings, I had a parent approach me and say, “I have gone through a number of trainings on bullying, and for the first time, I am leaving with the belief that I can help prevent my child from being bullied like I was”.
I have been reflecting on that conversation for the past couple of weeks because the pain deep within this particular parent resonated with me. It hit me hard when I realized that most parents draw on their own experience to help their children navigate the social dynamics that come along with growing up.
Let’s face it, things are much more complicated than when I was a kid, and our communities are underprepared. The principles that lead a person towards a life full of purpose and connection may be the same, but our children get bombarded with messages that threaten their development and growth at a rate never before seen.
I have four children; I consider myself to be a pretty awesome father, and my wife… well, she is ridiculously talented at this parenting thing. When we invest time each year writing goals for what we want to develop in our children, strong interpersonal skills and self-confidence usually top our list. As deliberate as we are about fostering that in our children, at times, we feel overmatched.
The fact is that what worked for us, may not work for our children. I often hear, “the best way to deal with a bully is to punch them in the face”.
Do we really want to send the message to our children that all problems can be solved with force? No! It is much more convoluted than that.
In a groundbreaking study, researchers at Penn State University discovered that bullying affects both bystanders and targets. Their research concluded that, “bullying can also cause people who witness it to demonstrate physical stress symptoms of increased heart rate and perspiration as well as high levels of self-reported trauma even years after bullying events”.
Being an UPstander
30 Seconds that can change everything
I was not bullied as a child. I was teased and picked on from time to time, but I was never targeted consistently or neglected by my peers. However, I have been deeply affected by bullying.
I was in middle school when a classmate of mine was diagnosed with Leukemia, and for two years, he would be in and out of school due to the disease. One time after a long absence, he returned to school and was showing signs of weakening. I remember seeing joy in his eyes because he was surrounded by a few friends and in a familiar environment rather than in a hospital bed.
Later in the afternoon, during one of our breaks, his hat blew off, revealing his bald head. As he scrambled to pick it up, a different classmate picked it up and started playing keep away and referring to him as Luke, short for Leukemia.
It was like time stopped and things were happening in slow motion, my stomach started to ball up as the discomfort shot through my body. I knew I had to do something. I am sure the other classmates around felt the exact same thing.
You want to know what I did? Nothing. Along with the other students, I just stood there, disgusted with myself. I have been carrying around that guilt for close to 20 years now, and it is painful.
When I share that story with students during assemblies, they all get it. They immediately reflect on that time or two when they failed to cross over that line from being a bystander to become an UPstander. When they inquire as the fact why I do not make amends with my classmate now to relieve my guilt, I share with them that I never had the chance because that was his last day at school…he died a few weeks later.
I know his spirit was broken that day, as do the other classmates and so does the person who was teasing him. Those 30 seconds in middle school have probably influenced my life more than any other experience. I wish I was more prepared to help create the conditions for civility.
That is why it is critical to take a holistic approach that works for every person within a community. If we fail to equip children with the tools and language that allow them to manage and work through their emotions, they will develop an emotional default setting that will impede their development.
We talk a lot about the problem of oversimplifying “bullying” behavior here at CivilSchools. Bullying is connected to the exchange of power; when a child feels powerless within their social environment it can destroy them physically, emotionally, and mentally.
That is why the American Educational Research Council concluded that bullying presents one of the greatest health risks to youth in U.S. society.
The question we need to ask is how do we prevent bullying from occurring?
Leveraging Social Capital
Unfortunately, many bullying prevention programs are punitive and fail to actually engage and empower students. Whether you are trying to eradicate the spread of an infectious disease or build a safe and inclusive learning environment, it comes down to influencing behavior.
Educating teachers and parents about how to recognize and respond to bullying is important, but the highest point of leverage in a school community lies with creating the conditions for civility.
The last thing a child wants to hear is “no, don’t do that.” I have heard that a child hears 30 “no’s” for every “yes”, in my house we have that ratio beat. Children obviously need to understand that they will be held accountable for their actions, but when students who are identified as key influencers by their peers engage in pro-social/UPstander behavior and are given time to practice these skills on campus, overall achievement and retention increases.
Systems Influence Social Norms
Author Michael Gerber explains, “Systems allow ordinary people to achieve extraordinary results predictably. However, without systems, even extraordinary people find it difficult to predictably achieve even ordinary results.”
Failure to create systems that encourage pro-social/UPstander behavior in our school communities puts each child in a position where they have to face every challenge and task from scratch.
The Highest Form of Social Capital
At the end of the day, we were all put here for each other. Our children will have to master the art of collaboration if they are going to have any shot at solving the complex global challenges that await them.
We must teach our students how to invest in the most powerful form of social capital: solidarity. Their ability to give of themselves to the cause for the good of others will be a major point of leverage in their lives. It is an innate human need to want to feel a sense of belonging, it is a huge motivator, and if the proper systems are in place, solidarity can be achieved.
So, do we here at CivilSchools really believe bullying is preventable?
Bullying is absolutely preventable but only when a deliberate system is implemented and adopted by all stakeholders in the community.
Such a system must be built around influencing a vital behavior that is easily recognizable and replicable. Once key influencers develop the skill to consistently execute the desired behavior, change will occur.
Students need a structured system in place that allows them to build a culture that maximizes peer support and enriches social capital through solidarity. Solidarity is easily recognizable on campus through acts of compassion.
Be deliberate and intentional…it is good for the environment.