UPstanders in Action: The HIVE at Woodstock Union High School

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I recently had the incredible opportunity to work with Woodstock Union High School in Woodstock, VT. My visit was organized and championed by a phenomenal young leader, a Woodstock student named Holli Olson. The goal was to empower more people in the community with the tools to be agents of positive change to prevent negative culture/climate and bullying.

These are the kinds of schools I most love to work with, communities where students are the drivers of positive social change. That’s not to say I don’t love it when the teachers or administration or parents are committed to building an inclusive community, but when students are working to improve their community, you really see powerful results.

In addition to a few assemblies that I led at Woodstock, we conducted a UPstander Intervention Training with students. During that training, some of the students were discussing what it would look like to change the social norms at Woodstock so that it were seen as more socially acceptable to be positive and uplifting rather than negative and mean. We discussed the need to get a critical mass of students on board, and we brainstormed what this kind of change could actually look like.

Jamie Utt with students from The Hive at Woodstock

Jamie Utt with students from The Hive at Woodstock

It was during this training that the students came up with the idea for The Hive at Woodstock. Hoping to combat some of the negativity they see on social media, they wanted to combat it directly by creating a positive social media presence. By having a positive, affirming presence both in person and online at the school, the students thought they might be able to actually make headway in building a more inclusive school environment.

Since my visit, I’d been checking in with some of the students about the work they’re doing, and it seems that they’ve been able to maintain some momentum, which is great.

Then this came across my social media the other day:

WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

It’s stories like that of The Hive at Woodstock that keeps us doing what we do at CivilSchools, knowing that we can empower communities with the simple tools they need to have a powerful impact.

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How to Tell If Your Child Is Bullying Others (And What to Do About It)

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When I was in middle school, I was bullied pretty badly, resulting in depression and even serious considerations of suicide.

I carried a lot of hurt and anger, and I didn’t deal with that in the healthiest of ways. It pains me to reflect upon how I transferred my hurt from bullying by mistreating younger kids and by being terrible to a few of my friends.

I was displacing my hurt onto others so that I didn’t have to carry it alone.

But despite the ways I treated some of my peers, I was never labeled a “bully.” That’s because I didn’t fit the “bully” profile: My grades were good; I had no history of discipline issues; I was well-loved by my teachers. Yet I was acting in much the same way as those kids who were labeled “bullies.”

In today’s schools, we see the same. Some students are identified as “bullies” or “problem students.” Yet when we’re honest, many of us at different times in our lives have been mean to someone in the regular and sustained way that would constitute bullying.

In truth, the label of “bully” is in no way useful when actually attempting to address the problem of bullying.

bullyinggirlssmallTo simply label some people “bullies” and some people “victims” with the rest of us as “bystanders,” we never actually deal with the root of why someone is exhibiting bullying behavior. It’s a cop-out.

Bullying is primarily a problem of power, and as such, it tends to have one of two roots: an internalized feeling of superiority in regard to another group or individual or feelings of insecurity and hurt that lead one to lash out at others.

In either case, bullying has a measurable root that we can address. If we’re concerned that our child is being a “bully,” it’s best to start with the question, “Why?”

And in recognizing the roots of bullying behavior, we open the door to actually understanding the nature of bullying, which helps us to understand when our kids may be mistreating others and how to prevent bullying in general.

How to Identify If Your Child Is Demonstrating Bullying Behavior

In designing a comprehensive bullying prevention and intervention program for parents atCivilSchools, we compiled research that identifies seven patterns that could be indicative of bullying behavior in a young person.

(Please note that no single pattern listed below necessarily means your child is demonstrating bullying behavior. These are just a guide for considering whether you should intervene if you’re concerned.)

Sign 1: A Pattern of Abnormally Angry or Aggressive Behavior

Few children or adolescents are angry or aggressive as a status quo, so if you start to see a lot of aggression or anger, it’s coming from somewhere. Plus, if you’re seeing it, there’s a good chance it’s being directed at others in bullying behavior.

Sign 2: A Pattern of Depressed, Sullen, or Sad Behavior

Notably, this is also one of the signs that a student might be experiencing bullying, but when a student falls into a pattern of depression or sadness (as I did when being bullied in middle school), they might choose to pass that burden along to others through mean behavior or bullying.

Sign 3: Regularly Throws a Fit When They Don’t Get Their Way

Any parent knows that children go through a phase of lashing out when things don’t go their way, but if this is persistent, there’s a good chance that they are lashing out at other children to try to control outcomes. Some students fall into a pattern of intimidating other children into going along with their will.

Sign 4: A Vocalized Prejudice Toward Particular Identities or Groups of People

Bullying is a problem of power. When we understand this, we can be on the lookout for language that serves to assert this power by oppressing or hurting other identities.

For instance, if your child talks disparagingly or makes jokes about, say, “the fat kids” or “the nerds” or whatever it might be, there’s a chance they are taking out this expressed disdain through bullying. It seems obvious, but it’s important to intervene whenever we hear this type of language.

Sign 5: Demonstrates a Clear Lack of Empathy

Empathy is a skill that we learn and must develop and maintain. We should not assume that our ability to express empathy is simply innate.

When students regularly demonstrate an inability to put themselves in others’ shoes and consider the impact of their words or actions, that might be a sign that they’re demonstrating bullying behavior.

Sign 6: A Pattern of Discipline Problems

Let me start by saying that this particular sign is fraught because of how our schools dole out “discipline” in tremendously problematic ways. Certain students (such as Black or Latinx students and LGBTQIA+ youth of Color) are more likely to receive harsh discipline for the same infractions as other students (such as White or Cis- and Straight peers respectively). Thus, this consideration ought to be taken with a grain of salt.

However, if you do notice a history of discipline infractions for more than just, say, disrupting class, this is something to investigate further, as it might be a sign that they are demonstrating bullying behavior.

Sign 7: A Preoccupation with Popularity or Social Status

Bullying is rooted in power imbalance within our communities, and popularity is, at its root, a construction of power. Not all people who are “popular” bully others, but a preoccupation with being popular or with achieving higher social status can lend itself to bullying behavior.

All of this begs the question, though: If I suspect that my kid is bullying others, what should I do?

How to Intervene If Your Child Is Bullying Others

A lot of parents who know or suspect that their student is demonstrating bullying behavior feel helpless. They’ve been told that bullying is an endemic problem that will never be solved, and now their kid has been labeled with that terrifying label of “bully.”

Fortunately, there’s a lot that you can do to stop bullying behavior and help your school community create an environment free of bullying.

1. Explain why this particular behavior is unacceptable.

In this conversation, try to be as specific as possible. If your student is bullying others using sexist or ableist language, or targeting another student for their skin color or sexual identity,take the time to explain precisely why this behavior is not acceptable in your family.

Part of this, then, means that you must…

2. Discuss your values with your child.

Explain to them why your family values inclusiveness and diversity. Ask them to name their own values and how they feel like the behavior in question aligns with their values.

It’s important to stress that one of the most important parts of being human is cultivating a set of values and then striving to live up to those values. It can help to talk to them about some of the ways that you fall short of living into your values, as it can provide a model for them to work to be better.

3. Get to the root of the behavior.

As noted above, most bullying behavior stems from a feeling of superiority toward other students and/or a feeling of hurt and insecurity. By trying to understand why your student is acting this way, you can help them work through the feelings or hurts that are leading to them treating others poorly.

In this conversation, you may realize that they’re being bullied or mistreated in another area of their life or that they’ve really internalized some problematic messages about other groups of people that you will want to work on with them.

4. Avoid relying solely on punitive measures.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t offer some sort of punishment or consequence for their behavior, but if we rely solely on punishing away bullying behavior, we won’t ever solve the problem.

Simply put, because of the development of their pre-frontal cortex, young people tend not to make clear connections between a behavior and the punishment or consequence they will receive. Instead, we need to activate consideration of the values you’ve instilled in them over their lives because it will appeal to the more developed parts of the brain that rely on pattern.

Steps You Must Take

Beyond identifying when our child is bullying others and talking to them, there are some simple, concrete steps that we as parents or guardians must take if we want to play our part in ending bullying behavior in our community.

After all, teachers, administrators, and students can only do so much. They need us as parents to take an active role in building more inclusive school environments.

1. Rely on your community.

As you seek to solve this problem, remember that you are not alone. Lots of parents are struggling with this issue, and there are likely a number of people who want to support you and your child in ensuring more inclusive behavior!

Identify people who you can rely on that your student trusts. Is there a teacher that your child really trusts with whom you have a relationship? Is there an aunt or uncle who connects well with your kid? Are there other, mature kids that your child hangs out with who you can engage?

Identify your allies and engage them in helping your child live up to their values. Have that aunt or uncle or teacher reach out to your students and talk to them as well. Activate those youth allies who can help your young person make good decisions. That old saying “It takes a village to raise a child” definitely applies in preventing bullying behavior.

Additionally, most schools want and need parent allies in ending bullying behavior. Reach out to a teacher or administrator or other staff person that you can trust and let them know that you’re aware of some of your child’s behavior. Let them know that you want to work with them to create an inclusive school environment.

2. Have the courage to self-reflect.

One of the toughest issues to overcoming bullying is when parents aren’t willing to do the tough work of self-reflecting about where the behavior might have been learned.

Let’s face it: We don’t always demonstrate well the kind of behavior we want to see in our kids, and bullying behavior is learned. Thus, one of the hardest but most important things we can do is to ask ourselves what we could do to better demonstrate the struggle to live into our values.

Consider whether your language about other people — or even yourself — demonstrates your values. Have we made some off-handed comments about “those people?” How might talking badly about our own bodies impact how our students talk to kids with different body shapes and sizes than themselves?

If we’re going to call upon our children to reflect on their own behavior, we must also be willing to do the same.

Maybe we will come to the conclusion that we are always demonstrating how we want them to treat their peers. More likely, though, we will find ways that we could do a better job of demonstrating the kind of behavior we want to see in our kids.

And that realization can be a powerful one for our own growth and for that of the children we love so dearly.

***

Something that’s easy to forget is that bullying is entirely preventable. Don’t listen to those who tell you, “Bullying has always been around. There’s nothing we can do! Kids will be kids!”

Bullying ends when we work together in community to address the root causes of bullying behavior, and some of the most central stakeholders in that work are the parents of our communities.

By taking ownership for this problem and by being proactive, we can help to ensure that every single student feels fully supported in who they are and that no student has to endure the pain and self-hate that can come from bullying.

We simply must realize the power we have to make this needed change.

Originally published at Everyday Feminism.

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Tackling Identity-Based Bullying: Minnesota’s Safe and Supportive Schools Act

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The Minnesota legislature made history this week by passing a comprehensive bullying prevention and response bill that goes beyond the simple “zero tolerance” measures advanced in most bullying legislation and gets to the roots of identity-based bullying in our school communities.

MN Gov. Mark Dayton signs the Safe and Supportive Schools Act on the Capitol steps in St. Paul (Source)

MN Gov. Mark Dayton signs the Safe and Supportive Schools Act on the Capitol steps in St. Paul (Source)

The Minnesota Safe and Supportive Schools Act is likely the most in-depth and research-based piece of bullying legislation in the country, focusing not only on the identity-based nature of bullying rooted in power but on diversity and inclusion efforts that can transform school climate to ensure bullying doesn’t take another life in Minnesota.

Identity-Based Bullying

One of the most transformative aspects of the new law is its focus on the particular identities that are most likely to be targeted for bullying in American schools.  In doing so, the law prohibits “intimidating, threatening, abusive, or harassing conduct” that might be directed at a student on the basis of (though not limited to):

a person’s actual or perceived race, ethnicity, color, creed, religion, national origin, immigration status, sex, age, marital status, familial status, socioeconomic status, physical appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, academic status, disability, or status with regard to public assistance, age, or any additional characteristic defined in chapter 363A, the Minnesota Human Rights Act” (Bill Text).

It’s exciting for us in the CivilSchools team to see legislation that so closely echoes our own definition of bullying while also echoing the “research on bullying dynamics [which] shows that bullying is often aimed at specific groups” such as “children with disabilities, African American youth, LGBTQ youth” and others (American Education Research Association, 2013).

At CivilSchools, we call this “Identity-Based Bullying,” and our comprehensive program offers schools teachers, students, administrators, and parents tools for designing school-specific interventions to prevent and respond to bullying behavior, no matter the identity being targeted.

A Focus on Culture and Climate

Aside from their inclusive and research-based definition of bullying, we at CivilSchools commend the legislature for taking the strong, preventative stance to include “developmentally appropriate programmatic instruction to help students identify, prevent, and reduce prohibited conduct; value diversity; foster students’ knowledge and skills for solving problems, managing conflict, engaging in civil discourse, and recognizing, responding to, and reporting prohibited conduct; and make effective prevention and intervention programs available to students” (Bill Text).

By advancing diversity and inclusion and conflict management education in schools, the Safe and Supportive Schools Act ensures that the bill does more than focus on “reporting, investigating, and intervening when bullying has occurred” but moves into “prevention efforts [that are] a key focus for school-based anti-bullying and harassment efforts” proven effective by research (AERA, 2013).

Finally, the act seeks to empower all community members to stand up to bullying by requiring districts to “train student bystanders to intervene in and report prohibited conduct incidents to the primary contact person” (Bill Text) while also training teachers and engaging parents.

CivilSchools: A Perfect Fit for Minnesota

In short, we at CivilSchools can’t wait to partner with more schools throughout Minnesota to offer the kind of training for teachers, UPstander Intervention Training for students, and engagement for parents necessary to effectively prevent bullying before it starts.

We are thankful to all of those legislators, community members, and advocacy groups who fought hard to ensure that this bill passed, as it establishes a model for states around the country to push for effective, research-based legislation to protect our young people from bullying.

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#BeNice: A Reminder to Listen to Young People

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We at CivilSchools get to work with some pretty amazing young people on a regular basis.  It’s honestly inspiring to realize how many young people are out there in the world, working daily to improve their communities and our society.

Thus, when I got to work with a school in Washington recently, I was expecting to find some pretty phenomenal young people, but I wasn’t prepared for the force for good named Jake.

During our UPstander Intervention Training, I talked to the students at Jake’s school about the idea of being social normers, of being the change you wish to see in your school so that you can inspire others to do the same.  We talked about how social norming helps to change the air students breath in school to make it more inclusive, which makes the other work of being an UPstander far easier.

While talking to these students, though, I didn’t realize that one of the students to whom I was speaking could easily have been up there offering his wisdom.  After all, not long before I came to his school, Jake had made this video:

One of the most common forms of ageism toward young people in our society today is thinking that as adults, young people have nothing to teach us.  Often adults pretend that we have the whole world figured out and that young folks will one day know as much as we do if they make it to the magical world we call adulthood.

In reality, though, young people are often the ones with the most to teach.  After all, they have not been fully clouded by the cynicism or negativity that sometimes comes with age.  Even more, young people are engaging with the world in ways that those of us even ten years older than them could not have imagined at their age.  Youth are inspiring revolutions in the Arab Spring and transforming their communities through activism and servant leadership in every community around the world.  Plus, with the power of the internet that they know so well, they have the ability to learn from other young people as well as from elders in ways I never would have imagined at sixteen.

What Jake reminded me, not only when I met him or when I first saw this video but in our continuing relationship through social media, is that I have a lot to learn.

And Jake reminded me that sometimes the best teachers are those who are many years younger than me.

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Columbine High School: A Community Defined by Unity

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After spending time leading trainings and an assembly at Columbine High School, our Director of Education Jamie Utt put together this creative video blog about his experience.

In the video blog, Jamie discusses his preconceived notions about what he would find at Columbine.  But what he actually found was NOTHING like what he was expecting…

Bring the powerful CivilSchools program to your community today to take the first step in  a comprehensive approach to building an inclusive community that’s free from bullying.

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The Healing Power of Community

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Considering how very important it is that entire school communities are involved in the efforts to prevent bullying, this article on the healing power of community, originally published at Everyday Feminism, seem like a good fit for our CivilSchools community!

***

Every year, I struggle when the days get shorter, grayer, and colder.

I feel the sadness and inertia creep over me around the middle of November, and I grapple with it well into March or April. Never, though, has it been as intense as it’s been since moving to Minnesota (or Minnesnowta, as I like to call it).

In addition to the simple weight of the season, I’ve also been wrestling with some personal hurt and trauma, as well as the hurt and trauma of some people I love so very much.

As a result, even getting out of bed has been a struggle lately, and I’ve had to build extra structure into my schedule to make sure that I accomplish even the bare minimum of the hefty load on my plate.

So you can imagine my loving partner’s response when I told her that I would be spending the months of January and February in a 45-hour sexual assault survivor’s advocacy training through an amazing organization called the Sexual Violence Center.

“Jamie, is spending between seven and thirteen hours a week in a class that deals solely with sexual violence (not to mention the extra homework) the best thing for you right now?”

And honestly, I couldn’t give her a good answer.

The truth is that I was afraid that all of this talk of trauma and violence would only add to the weight that I’ve been carrying during this difficult time.

Yet, seemingly inexplicably, the class has helped tremendously.

I couldn’t explain why until a recent counseling session when my counselor asked about the class. I told her about my partner’s concern, and in my explanation, the words came to me.

“At first I was worried she was right, that the training program would make some of my other struggles worse. But when I’m sorting through the impact that sexual violence has had on my life and on the lives of those I love, what better place to be than with 25 other people who care deeply and passionately about eradicating sexual violence? It’s brilliant actually!”

A few days later, Daniela, one of the activist trainers from our program, tweeted something with the hashtag #communalcare.

That’s it! That hashtag named it.

As important as self-care can be, for many of us, communal care is equally as vital!

Holding Space

Obviously not all community or communal time is healthy and healing.

If you feel anxious in large groups, going out with friends to a concert (even of a band you really like) may not necessarily be healing or self-care for you. And even communal experiences that we enjoy may not be ones that help us to cope with or heal from the weight or trauma we carry in our lives.

But healing community is about holding space: holding space for love, care, reflection, laughter, crying, feeling what we’re feeling, dancing, screaming, sorting through, moving past, sitting with, or for whatever else we may need.

Healing community is not about putting our problems off on another person, but about holding space for us to set down the weight we’re carrying for a while, and sometimes it’s even about letting others hold and share our weight while we do the same for them.

In the words of one of the wonderful advocates in training from my class, “Everybody has issues, and [in this space], we’re all just healing with each other.”

I can tell you without a shred of doubt that spending time every week for two months talking about sexual violence with people who are not intentional activists and advocates would be quite the opposite of communal care.

But the space held within the advocates training program intentionally focuses on care, healing, and sensitivity, even when we’re talking about those things that make my chest tighten and my breath shorten.

As a result, when I feel that tightness in my chest, I know there are people whose chests are tightening with me, and I know there are people who are also ready and willing to hold space for me to talk through why my breath has shortened.

And more often than not, just knowing that space is being held is all it takes for me to breathe deeply and allow my chest to open, letting light into a dark space.

Communal Care for Introverts

At the same time, though, I recognize that being around other people isn’t always the most healing or recharging thing in the world. Some of us actually need time away from other people in order to find healing or calm. Knowing that is fundamental self-awareness.

Even for some introverts, though, time in community can be important to healing.

I wouldn’t call myself an introvert, but I am far more introverted than others perceive. Too much time around other people (even if it’s just one other person) leaves me feeling drained and craving time alone to work or read or watch Netflix or cuddle my dog.

At the same time, though, I am self-employed, and it’s entirely possible for me to spend entire days or weeks in my apartment, never interacting with other humans except for the hours that my partner is home.

I’ve learned, then, that while too much time around others is draining and far from communal care, too much time alone can also further my feelings of isolation and stagnation.

In turn, I’ve learned that even spending time in the community of a coffee shop, never actually interacting with other people, or in a one-on-one with a friend or my counselor can be healing in the way that it reminds me that I am never really alone.

Even when my work seems bleak or when my personal life feels burdened, community exists all around me.

Getting Stuck: A Metaphor

About a week ago, I was out shoveling snow to clear a parking spot for the car I share with my partner, and frankly, I was pissed.

I was cursing under my breath at the giant pile of snow that has accumulated from shoveling all of the snow that’s fallen since November without ever getting warm enough to melt.

I had a podcast playing in my headphones, but I wasn’t even really listening to it. I was just brooding – over winter and the other things that are weighing me down.

That’s when I heard a little voice shout, “Hey!”

Startled, I turned around, and a little girl said, “Sorry! I tried to get your attention, but you didn’t hear me.”

“It’s okay. What’s up?”

“Our car is stuck,” she said, and she pointed to a mini van a half a block away that was idling in the alley. “Can you help us?”

“Sure thing,” I said, happy to help, but honestly a little annoyed that this would slow down my progress in my shoveling chore.

When I got over there, the girl’s mom looked frustrated. She had hurt her hand while trying to get the car out, and it was clear she had been trying for a while. I immediately got to work, pushing with all my might while she pumped the gas, only spinning the tires down more into the ice and snow.

We tried everything to no avail, so after about fifteen minutes, I called my partner. She said she would hurry over to help. On her way, she told a few other neighbors that we might need some help.

Before I knew it, there were five of us pushing and pulling and shoveling and fighting to get that car unstuck, but it wasn’t budging. My partner went to get our car to see if we could tow it out of there with a Subaru Forester.

Needless to say, that didn’t work at all. But in the time it took for us to hook up the Forester, a neighbor with a snow blower came by and cleared the area around the car of snow, and another neighbor with a 4×4 Jeep came.

We hooked up the van to the jeep, and with everyone pushing from behind and me behind the wheel of the van, the Jeep inched forward. I heard a creak that made me nervous that we would harm the van in towing it out, but before I knew it, the van lurched forward, out of its ruts and into the space cleared for us.

Everyone cheered and high fived!

Just before we all went on our merry way, the guy with the jeep remarked, “This is why I love NordEast (the name of our neighborhood). I’ve lived here for seventeen years, and this is why. Neighbors take care of each other. When everything in the world is crazy, we take care of each other.”

After hearing those words, I went back to my shoveling, turning on Beyoncé and singing through a smile while finishing my work.

***

When everything in the world is tough, we have the power to take care of each other.

Until I started taking this advocacy training, I’d been feeling pretty stuck. I have wonderful supports and loving family and friends, but I needed something different.  I needed a 4×4 of sorts. I needed a different kind of communal care.

And I’ve found it in a group of people who are passionate about doing whatever is within their power to help survivors heal and to eradicate sexual violence from our communities.

There’s tremendous power in that community. It’s the kind of power that heals. It’s communal care.

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6 Ways Parents Can Address Bullying

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comforting-467x267Photo Credit: PBS.

If you’re a parent of a school-aged child, it’s likely that you’ve been affected by bullying.

With approximately 30% of students reporting being bullied and far more being peripherally affected or even traumatized by bullying, it’s a weighing concern on parents’ minds.

I often will meet parents when I’m out at a party or on a long flight who, when they hear that I’m a bullying-prevention educator, immediately begin to impart their terrible story of childhood trauma and abuse or stories about their kids being bullied in school.

And while just about every parent cares passionately and deeply about ending bullying, most are unsure of what they can do to protect their child.

That’s one of the reasons that I partnered with Everyday Feminism a few months ago to facilitate a free webinar on how parents can intervene to end bullying.

Knowing that not every parent has an hour to sit down and watch the recording of our webinar, though, I wanted to offer a quick read for parents who are concerned about bullying.

Understanding Modern Bullying

Before parents can effectively intervene when bullying is taking place, it’s important that we understand a few things about the nature of modern bullying.

First, a comprehensive review of the research on bullying from the American Educational Research Association tells us that “bullying is often aimed at specific groups” and is often a direct result of power imbalances.

In short, bullying is primarily a problem of power, not simply random childhood cruelty.

Though not every instance of bullying is directly related to identity, research indicates that it can be important to talk about bullying through the lens of identity.

Second, the nature of bullying has changed tremendously in the last 15 years.

I often have adults say to me, “Man, I was bullied, and I survived! All this coddling isn’t going to help kids toughen up!”

My response is always, “While I’m really sorry that you were bullied, we also need to understand that bullying today isn’t the same thing as bullying when we were young.”

In my own case, I was bullied pretty terribly in my youth.

It got to the point that I felt pretty desperate and even suicidal at times. And this was in a time when I was able to take breaks from the bullying.

You see, when I got home from school, the bullying stopped. And every summer break, I got a two-month reprieve from the bullying behavior. And I barely survived!

Today, with the wide accessibility of cell phones and the Internet, bullying can be near constant.

One of the last things young people with cell phones do before bed and first things they do when waking up is check their phone. If they’re being bullied through Twitter or text, that’s how they will start their day.

The scary thing about cyber bullying is that it never takes a break.

Knowing these two things about bullying will help tremendously as you look for the ways to best support your child and intervene when they are being targeted for bullying.

1.  Look for Signs of Bullying

Though it may seem obvious, many of the signs of bullying go unnoticed or written off as moodiness or growing pains.

But there are concrete things that you can look for that will help you to identify when you child is being bullied.

No matter your child’s age, ask yourself these questions:

Has your child…

 …stopped doing things that they enjoy?

Students who are being bullied tend to express greater self-consciousness, and as a result, they may suddenly stop doing things they enjoy.

Maybe they’re being mistreated at baseball practice, so they no longer want to play baseball. Maybe they’re being bullied for their interest in Magic the Gathering, so they suddenly stop playing the game that they love.

…expressed a sudden or progressive sad or sullen attitude?

Maybe this is a sign of seasonal affectedness, or maybe this is because the teasing has finally broken through your child’s defenses. Once the poison of bullying gets inside, it often will show up through progressive or sudden sadness.

…expressed a sudden or progressive angry attitude?

Similarly, bullying can also lead to sudden outbursts of anger.

This is important to recognize because it can often end up leading to your child“passing on the hurt” by bullying other people.

For me, I was terrible to my parents and best friends when I was being bullied in middle school.

…expressed sudden or progressive self consciousness about their identity?

Because much bullying is identity-based, it can lead to students feeling more self-conscious about the aspect of their identity that is being targeted.

In the case of heterosexist/homophobic bullying, it can lead targeted kids to express self-consciousness and to project their understandings of heterosexuality in extreme ways.

…been reluctant or afraid to attend school or activities?

Maybe they’re just hitting that time of year when nothing can make them want to go to school, or maybe they’re being mistreated in some way. But sudden reluctance to attend school or activities is a good sign that bullying could be taking place.

 If your answer to any of these questions is yes, talk to your child.

The more open and honest you are with them about your concern, the more likely they will be to talk to you about what’s hurting them.

And even if they don’t end up sharing everything with you right then and there, bringing it up helps them understand that they can come to you for help.

2.  Engage Your Child’s Digital World

If your child is not yet online or using a cell phone, it’s only a matter of time. So it’s important to set a precedent early about how you will engage with their digital world.

Sadly, cyber bullying is on the rise and is becoming one of the key tools in bullying behavior.

You have to decide for yourself how involved you feel comfortable being, butbeing involved is without a question vital to intervening if your child is being bullied or demonstrating bullying behavior.

Ask yourself whether you’d feel comfortable knowing your kids’ passwords and until what age? Have you talked to them about web safety? To what degree are your kids trusted with unsupervised use of cell phones or the Internet?

All of these questions are vitally important.

Do you know all of the different social media apps your kids might be using?

One thing that was surprising to me is that I consider myself pretty “in the know”when it comes to the digital world. Yet when I was doing research for the CivilSchools parent workbook and polled high school students about what apps or platforms they’re using, a number came up that I had never heard of!

Young people are fleeing Facebook for Twitter, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Ask.fm, Tumblr, Lulu, Whisper, and other platforms.

It’s important, then, to have an open and honest dialogue about what kinds of social media they engage with and how they engage, reminding them that if they or anyone they know is being mistreated, they can talk to you or other trusted adults.

3.  Self Reflect

One of the hardest things for parents to realize is that bullying behavior is learned. Therefore, if you’re concerned about eradicating bullying behavior from your community, you need to start in your own home.

In her fantastic reflection on learned bullying behavior, Rachel from Hands Free Mama astutely realized that the biggest bully in her daughter’s life was herself.

One of the best things we can do to prevent bullying is to think about the ways that we might be teaching bullying behavior to our kids.

Do we talk badly about other people or identities? Do we demonstrate that it’s okay to say terrible things to others (perhaps through our road rage or in how we treat service employees)?

4.  Build a Parenting Network

In the midst of our busy lives, parents are becoming increasingly disconnected from other parents in their children’s school community. Yet parent allies are some of the best people to step in and help when you fear your child is being bullied or demonstrating bullying behavior.

 Does your community have a parent advocacy organization? If not, what would it take to start one and get other parents to join?

Having a parent advocacy network doesn’t require a ton of extra time or meetings on the schedule. Parent listservs or Facebook groups make it easy in our busy schedules to reach out to other parents.

Sometimes a simple message like “I’ve been noticing my child’s been more and more angry lately, and I’m wondering if something’s going on at school” can alert other parents who may be having the same problem, and you can start to get to the bottom of it together.

Plus, if you suspect bullying is taking place, a parenting network might help you reach out to the parents of children you suspect are exhibiting bullying behavior.

There’s a chance those parents will be defensive and you’ll have to go through the school, but if there’s even a small chance that alerting an unaware parent might stop the problem, a parenting network can be the thing that saves the life of a bullied young person.

5. Build a Proactive Relationship with Your School

Sadly, if the first time that your kid’s school hears from you is when you come in furious that they’re doing nothing about the bullying your child is experiencing, they’re far more likely to write you off. I wish it weren’t true, but it is.

If you’re worried about bullying, one of the best things you can do is start building a proactive relationship with the school early.

Identify who your allies are in the building, and reach out to them early offering your help and support. That way, when you reach out for help and support with bullying, you’ve got some people in your corner.

Additionally, teaming up with other parents to both show that you support your school and teachers and to draw attention to bullying behavior is important.

Schools are likely to take you more seriously when they realize bullying is a problem that is affecting more than one family.

Finally, when working with your kids’ school, assume best intentions on the part of teachers and staff, but do not hesitate to get forceful to make your voice heard.Your child has a legal and ethical right to feel safe and included in their school environment.

6. Demand a Comprehensive Approach to Bullying

One of the reasons that I originally designed the CivilSchools program is that research tells us that bullying is preventable, but only when the entire community – parents, teachers, students, administrators, and the wider community – is engaged.

Whether it’s a program like CivilSchools or something else, there needs to be mechanisms to engage the entire community if you truly want to build the kind of community where bullying is no longer present and where all students feel safe.

A recent national study indicates that only half of school employees have received training in how to prevent bullying, and more than half of school staff say they need additional training.

Unfortunately, though, with the laser-like focus on reading strategies and math concepts (which are important – don’t get me wrong), schools don’t often prioritize the time and money it takes to actually involve everyone in bullying prevention until there is some sort of tragedy.

But schools tend to listen to parents.

If a bunch of parents from your parent advocacy network start e-mailing the principal, demanding a comprehensive approach to bullying, it will happen.

Bullying By Any Other Name…

Sadly, the term “bullying” has been used as a catchall recently, thus watering down the term and making it far less effective for describing the actual problem at hand.

But one thing we know is that when you describe specific bullying behaviors to students and ask them to identify the ones that are present in their schools, we know that bullying is a problem that ain’t going away simply because we’ve passed some “zero-tolerance” laws (PS: They don’t work!).

Building bullying-free school culture and climate where every student feels safe and inclusive is hard work that requires parent engagement. The more organized and tenacious you are about demanding a safe and inclusive environment in your school, the more schools will have to listen.

The more we demand social-emotional learning that teaches empathy and the more we equip our community members with tools to actually prevent bullying, the greater a change we will see.

But don’t forget: Bullying is preventable if we engage the entire community in building more inclusive school environments.

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Educators: Investing in Student Achievement Means Investing in School Climate

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While I was setting up for a recent bullying prevention presentation at a high school, a counselor expressed disappointment and frustration at some teachers’ reactions to having me come speak to their students.

“They don’t understand why we were spending time on an assembly and training like yours when we need to be focusing on achievement.”  It’s sadly a common refrain that I hear from teachers around the country.

And I get it!  Teachers are under tremendous pressure to improve test scores that measure very specific aspects of the student educational experience.  More and more, teachers livelihoods are one the line as districts tie teacher pay and teacher advancement to student achievement, a practice that is dubious in its research support to say the least.

But this is the environment in which teachers must practice their craft.  People are constantly looking over their shoulders, and teachers are under an incredible amount of pressure to ensure growth in their students’ “achievement,” as measured by districts, state tests, and federal measures.

Thus, I completely understand the laser-like focus on achievement data.

The good news is, though, that some of the lowest-hanging fruit in helping students learn and perform better in school is often the stuff that gets treated as “fluff” or “extraneous.”

Maslow’s On Our Side

In the most simple of psychology, we know that our basic needs must be met before we can care about more complex problems.  As it relates to education, how can a kid focus on the intricacies of balancing equations or diagraming sentences if they are worried for their safety or consumed by their feelings of loneliness within a community that’s supposed to accept and include them?

Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Before students can focus on self actualization and esteem, two of the needs of Maslow’s hierarchy that are met through a rigorous and rewarding education, students have to feel safe and like they belong.

Simply put, one of the best ways to improve student achievement is to start by making sure all students feel safe and fully supported in their school environment.

Now, when it comes to their classroom environment, most teachers do a pretty good job of meeting this basic need.  They make sure that no taunting or teasing takes place during class, and they work hard to support all of their students.  However, school culture and climate extends far beyond the reach of one single classroom.

The Costs of Feeling Unsafe

That’s precisely why we need school-wide efforts to prevent bullying and to build inclusive school culture.

Approximately 30% of students are targeted for bullying behaviors, leading to them feeling unsafe and marginalized within the very community where they ought to feel safest.  Further, research from Penn State indicates that those young people who witness bullying are also unlikely to feel safe in their school environment, and the impacts can even last throughout the rest of their lives.

Thus, at minimum, 30% of our students aren’t having their basic needs of safety met because they’re being targeted for bullying, and when we consider the students who are adversely impacted by simply witnessing bullying, we know that a strong majority of our young people are carrying the weight of fear into school.

In their comprehensive review of the research on bullying behavior and school climate, the American Educational Research Association, one of the leading bodies of educational researchers in the United States, clearly lays out the academic impact of negative, unsafe school culture and climate:

“There is substantial evidence that a positive school climate engages students in learning and promotes academic achievement and success.  A study of 276 high schools found that a school climate characterized by lower rates of bullying and teasing was predictive of higher graduation rates four years later . . . Schools with high levels of bullying and teasing had dropout rates 29% above the state average, compared with schools with a low level of bullying and teasing, which had a dropout rate 28% below average.

The association between school climate and graduation rates was just as strong as the association between student poverty and graduation rates.

Did you catch that last part?  Most any teacher could tell you at least the basic impacts of student poverty on academic achievement and success.  Many of those teachers, though, would scoff at taking “instructional time” away to focus on school culture and climate.  However, the impact on graduation rates of negative school climate is similar to the impact of student poverty!

It’s not complicated: when students don’t feel safe or included, they don’t engage in their learning, and they achieve at lower levels.

The Easiest Way to Improve Student Achievement

As any math teacher worth his or her salt will tell you, improving student achievement through math instruction takes serious work, effort, and time.  It’s really hard work!  The same goes for English, Science, or any other academic area of study.

Should that hard work be done?  Absolutely.  However, we shouldn’t allow negative school culture and climate to erase the effort dedicated educators put into curriculum, instruction, and relationships.

Essentially, the lowest hanging fruit of student achievement is culture and climate.  Compared to moving the metric of math achievement or reading ability, making students feel safe is easy work.  And when students feel safe, it lays a foundation for their achievement in other areas.

Students who feel safe and included are not only able to better demonstrate what they know (because they’re not preoccupied about feeling alone), but they are able to focus more intently on the learning at hand.

And while making students feel safe and included takes real, hard work, it also is completely doable!

Involve the Entire Community

To actually improve school culture and climate and, by extension, student performance and achievement, we have to leave behind the misguided emphasis on punitive measures and zero-tolerance policies (which research tells us don’t work to build more inclusive environments).

Instead, we have to get down into those grass roots!  We have to involve the entire school community!  Again, the AERA notes that multiple studies tell us that “schools where staff, parents, and students create common norms and ways of dealing with bullying can achieve sustainable reductions in victimization.”

The research brief continues to explain that because “bullying is a social phenomenon that goes beyond the bullying-victim interaction,” we have to bring all stakeholders to the table.  We have to offer parents resources so that they know how best to help.  We have to offer teachers training in how to intervene and establish inclusive climates.  We have to focus on the “critical role of bystanders” by giving students tools and curriculum that empower them to be the agents of change.

The point, though, is that building inclusive school communities takes work, but it’s not rocket science.  We just have to be willing to commit as much energy into it as we do into preparing for the onslaught of standardized tests that we face each year.

More than Just Assemblies

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the teachers who are wary of assembly programming are dead right.  As someone who makes part of my living offering assembly programming, you need to know that assemblies are a waste of time and money . . . unless there’s coordinated follow up.

Without effective follow up and programming, school assemblies are nothing more than a “feel good” flash in the pan.  But with a commitment to curriculum and training, assemblies can be incredibly effective at lighting the fire toward building a more inclusive campus.

But we shouldn’t pretend that an assembly is enough.  The work of building an inclusive campus is not going to happen over night.  Heck, it may not even happen over the course of one year.  It may take a full cycle of students through the system before you see the fruits of your labor.

But the research is there.  Investment into preventing bullying and building inclusive school culture and climate is investment in student achievement.

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CivilSchools Parent Dialogue – How to Build Empathy in Your Child to Prevent Bullying

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In this discussion, our Director of Education, Jamie Utt, leads a Q & A session with philanthropist, retired professional athlete, and current University of Arizona Assistant basketball coach, Joseph Blair. Joseph is also a father of three, one of whom has struggled with bullying.

Joseph offers up his own wise advice for parents about the necessity of open communication with your children, and Jamie brings in some of the tried and true teachings from our UPstander Intervention Training to support the discussion.

In this CivilSchools Parent Dialogue, Jamie and Joseph will cover:

1.  Reasons that open, honest communication with your child is vital to bullying prevention
2.  How to build empathy in your child through critical conversation and modeling of empathetic behavior
3.  How to teach your child to be an UPstander to prevent bullying

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Ending Bullying: Being an UPstander

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As I’ve watched the whole Dolphins Bullying fiasco unfold, I can’t help but sit in shocked amazement at how many of the Dolphins players and management are in defense of Richie Incognito’s racist and homophobic bullying of Jonathan Martin.

Jonathan Martin and Richie IncognitoI can’t help but wonder how many voices are silent.

How many team members or coaches were disgusted by Incognito’s behavior but didn’t speak out for fear of drawing the ire on themselves or for seeming to go against the grain?

How many people in the organization want to see a more positive culture in the locker room?

How many of them would have stood up if they simply had the tools before it got to the point of Martin walking away from a lucrative contract because of bullying?

It’s Time for Tools

Half of the battle in addressing bullying is getting people to understand the particular nature of modern bullying, particularly in its connection to power, oppression, and identity.

Bullying has changed profoundly in the Internet era. Yet it has simultaneously stayed the same in how it disproportionately targets the most vulnerable identities in our communities.

Prevention starts with this understanding.

But understanding the problem does not necessarily inspire action.

The problem itself can seem too overwhelming, so profoundly entrenched, that we can get stuck in analysis and never act.

What’s encouraging, though, is that when committed stakeholders from every corner of a community commit themselves to acting to build a more inclusive environment, it is, in fact, possible to prevent bullying behavior.

But we have to empower our communities with tools!

So What Constitutes Bullying?

First, in order to offer people tools, we have to be clear about what we mean when we say “bullying.”

Too often, any mean behavior is called “bullying.” Sure, we definitely need to address hurtful language that someone uses, but is it really bullying?

The definition we use for bullying at CivilSchools breaks it down this way: Bullying means targeting another person for regular, sustained violence, harassment, or neglect because of a particular aspect of that person’s identity.

Identity-Based Bullying

There are three key parts to this definition.

The first relates to the behavior being regular and sustained. If someone is made fun of once, that is a bad thing, but it isn’t bullying behavior. Bullying must target someone over time.

The second describes the behavior: violence, harassment, or neglect. Not all bullying is characterized by physical assault or verbal harassment. Sometimes bullying involves a coordinated isolation of another person to make them feel alone.

Lastly, bullying usually isn’t random. It targets another person for a particular aspect of their identity.

Sometimes people are targeted for more surface-level aspects of identity like interests (music or sports, for example). Other times, bullying targets more deeply-held aspects of our identities like our race, gender identity, body image, physical or cognitive ability, or sexual orientation.

Regardless, it’s important to describe bullying as identity-based because it helps us target our interventions at the root of the bullying behavior.

Being an UPstander

UPstander Definition

Once we’re clear what we mean when we say “bullying,” we can begin to imagine interventions that actually have measurable impacts on the problem.

I’m not sure where I first heard the term UPstander. It may have been Facing History and Ourselves, a fantastic resource for teachers that uses the term, or from the National School Climate Center, but the term is perfect.

It transforms the language of “bystander” into a call to action: Stand UP to bullying behavior!

And pairing this language shift with tools for all stakeholders in our communities can profoundly impact whether or not they join others in concerted action toward building inclusive community.

In my research for the UPstander Intervention Training for CivilSchools, one thing became increadibly obvious to me: We have to offer people lots of entry points at which they can start speaking up for positive culture and speaking out against bullying.

Our approach, then, is to break being an UPstander into three vital roles: Social Norming, Interrupting, and First Responding. Each offers a different type of action and level of commitment in being an UPstander.

To truly transform a community into one where bullying is no longer a vexing problem, there need to be people who are filling all three of the roles.

Social Norming

The idea of participating in Social Norming (or being a Social Normer) builds upon social norming sociological theory.

In short, social norms are flexible, changeable, and bullying exists often, or at least in part, because there is a certain level of social approval of bullying behavior.

When there are not enough empowered people standing up for the kind of positive community they want to see, even if a majority or a critical mass doesn’t support the negative stasis of bullying behavior, then bullying unfortunately gets tacit approval.

Thus, one of the most powerful things we can do as individuals is to get organized with others who want to see a different kind of community and work to change the backdrop against which bullying takes place.

Getting organized, though, requires that we have enough people on board – a critical mass – so that it’s not just you making a stink by yourself.

Social norming, then, calls for us to do the difficult work of changing the social norms that tell people that speaking out against bullying is unacceptable or uncool, that tell people that bullying is normal and will always be around, and that tell people there’s nothing they can do to build positive school culture.

Social norming must take place on two levels: passive and active. Passive norming refers to using clever messaging in things like posters or t-shirts to spread your message.

Active norming, on the other hand, describes the behavior you and others can exhibit to shift the tide of what is and is not acceptable, “normal,” within your community, which leads us to the second way to be an UPstander.

Interrupting

Unfortunately, the passive work of social norming is not enough by itself to make our communities more inclusive of all people.

We need a skillset of tools for interrupting bullying behavior when we see it, whether it’s happening in our schools, our locker rooms, our workplaces, or on the Internet.

While it may seem obvious, what makes interrupting difficult is finding a way to stop bullying behavior without making things worse for the person being bullied.

Additionally, it can be important to interrupt the bullying in a way that doesn’t necessarily make the person doing the bullying defensive so that there’s room to address it with them later.

Sometimes that means calling out the behavior while calling the person demonstrating bullying behavior in to live their values, i.e., “Come on, man.  I know you’re better than that! Leave them alone.

Other times interrupting means simply distracting the person who is doing the bullying so that the target gets a respite. “Hey, did you see the Broncos this week? RIDICULOUS!”

Still other times interrupting means directly addressing the person’s hurtful or problematic language and behavior so that those standing by, wishing they could interrupt, are empowered to know that someone can actually stand up.

Unfortunately, there is no simple handbook for interrupting bullying behavior, and each person has to decide what will work best for them and for the particular relationship we have with the person doing the bullying.

But the empathy it takes to see ourselves in a person being targeted for bullying and to act to intervene is central to any bullying prevention initiative, and when we reach a critical mass of people acting to help one another, we will see powerful transformation in our communities.

But interrupting by itself is also not quite enough to prevent future bullying from occurring.

First Responding

AmbulanceThere are few people that I admire more than our first responders: the people who show up first after an accident, that attend to the trauma people have experienced or witnessed, that put their own lives on the line to help those who have been hurt.

We could all learn something from them, but I don’t just mean in a hypothetical sense. Their work can be directly applied to bullying prevention and response.

When I was in middle school, I was bullied quite badly. It got to the point where I was considering suicide (though I didn’t tell anyone). The few friends I had had to bear the brunt of my depression and frustration, as I turned around and bullied them in turn.

I remember this one day in seventh grade when some kids cornered me on the playground and made fun of my smile (I have an enormous smile – all teeth and gums) before jumping into a deluge of homophobic and sexist slurs.

It left me feeling defeated.

Despite a few friends trying to cheer me up, I felt alone (“They’re my friends! Theyhave to say that,” I thought).

Later that day while standing in line for lunch, I realized that I had accidentally been caught staring at the coolest eighth grade girl in school.  Her name was Audrey, and man was she cool: haircut, fashion, friends – she was perfect (in the mind of a seventh grader)!

Well, after catching me staring, Audrey came over to me and told me she had seen me being made fun of that morning.

“Great,” I thought. “She missed her chance earlier, and she wants to get in on it now.”

“You shouldn’t listen to them,” she said. “You have the most beautiful smile in the world. Forget about them.”

Then she walked away.

That was the one and only conversation I had with her, but it sure did it have an impact.

A complete stranger, one who I knew didn’t have to risk her social status by doing so, reaffirmed me, reminded me that I am okay, that I shouldn’t let the poison of the bullying inside. In doing so, she planted a seed.

It’s not like things turned around over night, but her words along with the words of my friends and family helped me to get through. Over time, with my attention and the careful attention of those who loved me, the seed Audrey planted grew into some modicum of self-confidence.

Audrey was a first responder. She showed up after a scene of trauma and helped someone who was hurt.

Now imagine if we had communities full of Audreys.

The call to be first responders is to follow up with those who are involved in a situation of bullying to help them heal, to remind them that they are loved and okay.

Sometimes first responding is best done by a loved one, and other times it’s best done by a stranger.  But we need more first responders.

And we don’t just need them for those who’ve been targeted by bullying.  We need them for those who have been exhibiting the bullying behavior. Researchers like Barbara Coloroso help us understand that bullying is not as simple as “she’s a bully and a terrible person.”

Much bullying behavior stems from some trauma, insecurity, or hurt that someone experiences elsewhere in their life. Is it any wonder, then, that I was a pretty big bully to my friends?

In addition to reminding those who are being bullied that they are loved and valued, we need to reach out to those doing the bullying to find out what’s going on in their lives that’s making them act so terribly to other people.

After all, we can’t stop the cycle if we don’t address the root causes of why bullying is taking place.

Banding Together, Transforming Community

Whether we’re participating in a social norming effort, actively interrupting bullying behavior, or reaching out to those affected by bullying, we need to recognize that we can’t do this alone.

One thing is clear to me: The vast majority of us don’t want to see bullying tear apart our communities or hurt our young people any more.

But to build the kind of communities where bullying is not a problem requires us all to play a role.

We all have to stand UP to bullying.

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