Bullying Prevention From the Ground Up

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My brother-in-law’s tomatoes drove me crazy! His garden not only produced more tomatoes than mine but they were bigger and tastier.

Our plants came from the same greenhouse — I purchased them for the both of us. Both of our gardens were watered, fertilized and got about the same amount of sun. Why did his garden produce so much better? Here is what I finally figured out: I have had a garden for many years; he has had one for two years, therefore, my soil was depleted and his was enriched.

All the other gardening things I did were necessary, but ultimately what mattered most was the soil! The lesson was clear: To get the best tomatoes, you have to start from the ground up.

TomatoesSource: Seattle Tilth

This lesson can be applied to bullying prevention in our schools: Even the best policies, programs, rules and protocols will fail to reduce or prevent bullying, unless they can take root in a positive, caring school culture and climate.

Perhaps this is why that even with anti-bullying laws in almost every state, greater public awareness of the problem and many available bullying-prevention resources, recent government statistics from 2005-2011 show little change in the rate of bullying reported by students.

Bully prevention, like any change initiative, must always confront the predominant influence of school culture and climate on all that happens in school, or as Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Changing Hearts and Minds

Policies, programs, protocols, etc., can be useful tools for people to use, but they don’t change people — only people can change people. Bullying prevention must also start from the ground up — the ground of changing people’s hearts and minds towards greater respect and caring.

Bullying prevention should not just be about stopping a negative behavior; it should be about how the members of the school community treat each other. Although it is tempting to mandate change by implementing a program to feel like something is being done about the problem of bullying, schools that do so are like the surgeon who said the operation was a success but whose patient died. Compliance is a poor, ineffective substitute for a community’s commitment to creating the type culture and climate needed for learning — one that is incompatible will all types of bullying.

Realizing that the issue is school culture and climate and then wanting to change it are important first steps, but actually doing so is another matter altogether. Changing a school’s culture and climate is a daunting endeavor.

Here are a few key reasons:

The people who are in a culture/climate don’t see it. It is not culture/climate; it is just the way school is.

If I didn’t have my brother-in-laws tomatoes as comparison, I probably wouldn’t know anything was wrong with my soil/tomatoes. A teacher once told me that he didn’t realize that “bullying” was the norm at his previous school until he came to a different school where he experienced greater respect and caring for members of the school community. If people can’t see their culture, they will not be able to change it. Unfortunately, people can become easily habituated to ways of interacting that are often not respectful. These behaviors, too often directed towards students, can be too easily justified and rationalized by adults in positions of authority.

People can easily interpret any suggestion of changing their school as criticism of their current efforts. 

Directly telling educators that their school culture/climate needs to change is probably the best way of insuring that it won’t. Regardless of how they might appear, all educators think they are doing a good job and suggesting the opposite will only make them more defensive and less open to any recommendation for changing.

There’s often an “elephant that is in the principal’s office.” 

A school principal who is authoritarian and routinely uses his/her power as a way of getting things done, will have zero creditability with staff and students for any bullying-prevention initiative. Chances are that many teachers and students imitate the leader’s way of getting things done. A school can become full of bystanders too frightened to say anything or raise any questions with such a principal. Fear freezes people into place and prevents meaningful change.

Change to what? 

Most bullying-prevention efforts emphasize what shouldn’t happen:“Don’t bully others.” The implicit message is that the schools themselves don’t have to change; they just have to make sure that bullying doesn’t happen. Adults often don’t see bullying prevention as applying to them. Students can interpret this message as implying that they are the problem and not the solution. In fact, most students, who don’t bully and don’t approve of it, are turned off by this negative message (telling to not to something they don’t already do). It deters them from working with adults as partners in making their school a better place.

Change how? 

Schools tend to follow the legal/criminal justice model for addressing unwanted behaviors. Educators often think that traditional school discipline can be applied to bullying. Bullying however can be subtle and many students who bully learn to do it under the radar of adult supervision. Traditional rewards and consequences have little if any impact on bullying behavior in schools. When it comes to bullying, deterrence is a myth. If students believe they won’t be caught (the great majority of the time they won’t), they don’t worry about consequences. If students impulsively bully students in retaliation for being bullied, they aren’t thinking beyond the moment anyway.

Although starting from the ground up is a challenge, it is worth the investment. Bullying prevention holds the opportunity doing something beyond just solving a problem; it can be the portal for igniting the community’s moral purpose for improving the learning environment for all students and staff.

Here are some ways to approach bullying prevention from the ground up:

Tell a different story. 

Bullying prevention needs to be re-framed. Too often it is seen as another problem on a long “to do” list. Having a positive and supporting school culture and climate is at the core of every school’s educational mission. Every member of the school community has a positive role to play in that mission. Rather than simply telling people what NOT to do, bullying prevention “reframed” can invite and inspire all members of the school community to work together to create the type of school that they want and need.

Stand on principles.

Schools should invest the time to determine, articulate and communicate guiding principles for how all members of the school community should speak and act. Guiding principles don’t necessarily have to preclude having rules; they can explain the reasons for having the rules. Examples of some guiding principles could be:

  • There is never an excuse for treating anyone with disrespect.
  • Make all students look valuable in the eyes of their peers.
  • Establish trusting relationships with all members of the school community.

When all members of the school community are included in the process of determining these guiding principles, the school community is strengthened and prepared to plan the next steps in the process.

Translate principles into specific words and actions. 

Very often people want to change but are unsure of what to say or do differently. This lack of clarity can make it easier for people to keep doing what they are used to doing. When a guiding principle is “translated” in specific words and actions that people can try, it makes the first steps toward changing behavior little easier. For example, staff can build trusting relationships with students by greeting each student by name as they walk into classrooms. People are more likely to change behavior when they see its connection to a higher purpose.

Get adult behavior aligned with principles. 

The best way for staff to influence student behavior is to model the change they want to see. As students get older they are more likely to resist or resent adult attempts to control them. This doesn’t mean they don’t want adult guidance, support and understanding. When school staff consistently act consistent with guiding principles, students will be more likely to communicate a problem or a concern.

All students can lead. 

The more students are involved in the process of shaping the school culture and climate, the more they will feel a sense of ownership for their school. This sense of ownership and community provided the best motivation for bystanders to act in a caring and responsible way if they see another student being hurt in anyway. Empowered bystanders are the key factor in decreasing the amount and frequency of bullying in any school.

Learn about changing. 

Sometimes the greatest obstacle to change is not believing change is possible. When people learn about the change process together, they discover ways to change without perceiving the change as a criticism of their current state. Members of the school community can read together and discuss articles and/or research on how people change. When the people who need to change have some choice in how they can change, they are more likely to change.

Becoming a more caring and respectful school community is the means and the ends towards preventing and reducing bullying in schools. All schools can start from where they are and build on their strengths. Once the school community knows what their real goal is and takes those first steps toward it, change is not just possible, it is inevitable, because they will have solid ground to walk on.

——

Jim DillonJim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including twenty as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written two books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden) and No Place for Bullying (Corwin). He writes a blog at www.jim-dillon.com.

This post was originally published at SmartBlogs and has been republished with the author’s permission.

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5 Actions You Can Take Now To Prevent Your Child From Being Bullied

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This is the recording of the webinar “5 Actions You Can Take Now To Prevent Your Child From Being Bullied”, hosted by Everyday Feminism and presented by Jamie Utt, Founder and Director of Education of CivilSchools, on  10/17/13.

This webinar covers:

  • How today’s bullying isn’t just “kids being kids” and why it can be so much more destructive to your child’s sense of self and well-being now than ever
  • How to identify when your child might be a bullying victim and how to best support them
  • What you can do to help your child feel safe and included in their school
  • How cyber bullying can be the most destructive form of modern bullying and how to intervene
  • How to collaborate with your kid’s school to end bullying, even if they initially are resistant
  • What resources are available to help your kid’s school transform its culture around bullying

 

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A Problem of Power: Ending Bullying in Schools

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People cannot stop talking about bullying.

There are endless stories on repeat throughout the major media, and in the past few years, every state in the country has passed laws or policies that are aimed at tackling bullying.

Virtually every school in the country has a “Respect Week” or programming during October, National Bullying Prevention Month.

And these conversations are important. They come from a deep and serious concern for our young people who are hurting.

But they are also grossly ill-conceived.

Part of the trouble with tackling bullying is that there is no “one size fits all” approach, and there never can be one. And so long as we treat bullying as if it’s some general problem that requires general solutions like “respect campaigns,” we ensure that the problem of bullying will persist in our communities.

After all, at its root, bullying behavior is about power.

Far too often, young people tear each other down and target one another for sustained violence, harassment, or neglect in order to feel more powerful, particularly when the person exhibiting bullying behavior is feeling powerless.

Amanda Levitt of Fat Body Politics describes it perfectly:

If we actually started calling bullying what it is and address it as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, fat phobia, and classism, it would actually give children a better way to deal with the very same power dynamics they will face as adults, while also giving adults more responsibility to challenge the intolerance that is rooted within our society overall.

Identity-Based Bullying

In essence, it’s time we change how we talk about bullying.

In my own work, I use the term Identity-Based Bullying to get at the root of the bullying problem.

Though there are, of course, exceptions, the majority of bullying in American schools cannot simply be explained away with “kids will be kids” or as “adolescent cruelty.”

 It is reflective of the very same problems of power, oppression, and privilege that we see in wider society, only it’s played out in language and behavior that students can better understand.

After all, the patterns we see in bullying behavior reflect many of the issues of oppression and marginalization we see in wider society.

In Gender, Bullying, and Harassment, Elizabeth J. Meyer lays out the impacts of sexual harassment and body policing that young girls experience in school as one method of bullying.

The incredible researchers at GLSEN make it clear that LGBTQ+ students on the whole feel unsafe in school and are harassed and assaulted at alarming rates.

In their chapter “Fat Youth as Common Targets for Bullying” in The Fat Studies Reader, Jacqueline Weinstock and Michelle Kreibiel explain not only how common weight-based bullying actually is, but also how socially accepted it is within school climates.

In one school, students may be targeted for their race, in another for their physical or cognitive ability. In a third, they may be targeted for their religious expression or native language. Still in another, the bullying might relate to gender expression in more subtle ways, with boys who are less athletic teased for their interests and girls who choose not to shave their legs tormented for their bodily expression.

The point, though, is that tackling bullying simply with “respect” and “kindness,” while well-intentioned, simply misses the mark.

Punitive Measures Don’t Work

The most common outcome of the recent wave of anti-bullying legislation, though, has not been funding for trainings or curriculum that teaches students how to intervene when bullying is taking place around them or that gives teachers tools for building more inclusive classroom environments.

More than anything else, these laws hand down harsher consequences to punish bullies.

What these approaches fail to address, though, is that bullying cannot be solved with punitive consequences.

First and foremost, punitive measures, though sometimes warranted, do nothing to prevent further bullying if for no other reason than pre-frontal lobe development in young brains.

If the part of the brain that helps us reason “If I take X action, Y will be my consequence” isn’t fully functioning, then consequence-oriented policy isn’t going to solve the problem of bullying.

Beyond simple biology, though, there are socio-emotional arguments to discourage “zero tolerance” punitive approaches to bullying.

Most students who exhibit bullying behavior are struggling and have been bullied themselves. In fact, among middle school students, the majority of students have participated in bullying behavior at some time.

Norris M. Haynes, Christine Emmons, and Michael Ben-Avie of the Yale University’s Child Study Center even note that excessive punitive measures end up telling students who actually need more support that they are not wanted or welcome in the school community.

This is all to say that if we want to end the problem of bullying, we have to think differently about what solutions look like.

In short, we have to transform the culture and climate of our schools.

Building Cultures of Civility and Inclusion

If we want to end the problem of bullying, we have to do two things: appeal to the rest of the adolescent brain, the part that relies on culture and habit; and address the specific nature of the bullying in our school environments by championing inclusion.

Educational researcher Sheri Bauman of the University of Arizona uses the term climates of civility to describe the challenge we face in tackling bullying.

If we want to end the problem, we cannot simply pass some laws and wash our hands. We have to do the tough work of changing culture and climate.

Fortunately, there are a few simple things that students, educators, and families can do to build cultures of civility and inclusion that prevent bullying.

1. Recognize That Every School Is Diverse

The first step to tackling the problem of bullying is acknowledging the diversity that exists in our schools.

So often, the conversation about diversity is boiled down to simply race and class (with maybe some gender or sexual orientation discussed marginally).

While these are vitally important aspects of student identity, they are simply part of the portrait of diversity in our communities.

Sometimes I will have schools in, say, rural South Dakota say to me, “We’re not diverse, so we’re not sure how the conversation about identity-based bullying applies to us.”

It leaves me baffled.

Not diverse?

What about student ability? Citizenship experience? Weight and body image? Student interest? Religion? Gender expression? Sexual orientation? Race? Class and wealth?

The other side of the coin of comprehending bullying behavior is understanding the diversity that exists in each and every school.

To paraphrase Gary Howard, “Diversity is not a choice. It’s a demographic reality.”

2. Treat Bullying as a Problem of Power

To tackle bullying is to tackle the specific nature of bullying in any given school community.

To do that requires that we understand who is being targeted and what the bullying looks like.

More often than not, this is an exercise in understanding power.

Students without social power are those far more likely to be targeted by others for bullying behavior, whether that’s the social power of the school yard (i.e.: geeks vs. jocks) or the wider social power of identity privilege, power, and oppression.

When we understand who is being targeted, why they are more likely to be targeted in our specific community, and what this bullying looks like, we can begin to solve the problem.

3. Empathize

Empathy is vitally important.

We need to teach our young people how to empathize with others and how to stick up for one another, but we also need to model it.

Supporting those who have been targeted by bullying behavior is obvious (though sometimes it goes undone).

Far less popular, though, is empathy for those who’ve exhibited the bullying behavior.

This is not to say that students shouldn’t face consequences for their actions, but if we don’t get to the bottom of why students are bullying, we won’t solve the problem.

And more often than not, it’s because a student is hurting.

4. Engage the Whole Community

Far too often, schools treat bullying as something “in-house.”

Parent engagement is an afterthought, and the “support staff” of custodial workers, office workers, or security staff is all but ignored.

Training students to be UPstanders instead of bystanders is rare, and teachers aren’t often given the time to design school-wide interventions to tackle the problem.

Shifting culture and climate, though, means bringing everyone on board.

Offer families constructive ways to participate in the conversation. Take the time to train students and discuss bullying prevention in advisory. Offer all staff members opportunities to design and implement proactive and preventive solutions.

Because as the old saying goes, “It takes a village.”

5. Be Proactive, Not Reactive

So long as our approaches to bullying remain reactive, we will never mitigate the problem. We have to create the kinds of environments where students don’t bully.

Doing so responds to the part of the student brain from which they are more likely working, the part that relies on environmental cues and habits, in building critical mass for change.

Nearly every aspect of student experience and achievement can be tied back to inclusiveness.

When students feel safe and included in school, they show up for class. When students feel fully supported in their identity, they engage socially. When students are taught from an early age what it looks like to build inclusive environments, they are more likely to stand up for their peers. When students feel safe and included in school, they achieve at higher levels.

Simply put, we cannot punish bullying into oblivion.

We can, however, create environments where we value respect, empathy, care, and (at a minimum) civility.  And when those things are valued, bullying simply isn’t tolerated.

Ain’t No Easy Answers

When I’m approached by a principal, counselor, student, or parent to offer bullying prevention training or consulting, the client generally falls into one of two categories.

Half want easy answers. They want a simple, ten-step solution to the problem.

I can’t help these folks much.

But the other half?

They understand that bullying is complex and nuanced.

They understand that we cannot just lump people into categories of “bully, bystander, and victim.”

They understand that punitive measures don’t work.

These are the folks who understand the work it takes to shift culture and climate and are committed to that painstaking transformation.

These are the folks who are most likely to realize powerful change in their community.

And this is the group that I hope you fall in.

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Building a Safe School Climate

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Whenever I talk to students about the concept of identity-based bullying, they immediately get it. They understand the need to proactively address bullying in schools, and they recognize the need for intentional efforts in building a culture and climate of inclusiveness.

When I talk to most administrators and many teachers, though, there’s a disconnect, a skepticism. And I don’t blame them. For those tasked with educating our young people, there are about 25 chainsaws they are expected to juggle flawlessly: state standards, graduation rates, student behavior, state-mandated tests, district-mandated tests, college entrance rates, support for extra-curriculars, parent engagement, and on and on…

Above all, I hear the word “achievement.” And in many ways, I should. To quote a famous Bush-ism, we must ask, “Is our children learning?” We must ensure that students are prepared for the world after high school, and as such, we need a laser-like focus on standards and achievement.

But to focus on achievement doesn’t simply have to mean that we focus on tests, standards, and innovative reading, writing, and math instruction. We need to ensure that students have an environment where they are safe to learn so that our academic work is not in vain.

In their article “School Climate as a Factor in Student Adjustment and Achievement,” published in the Journal of Education and Psychological Consultation, Yale University’s Child Study Center researchers Norris M. Haynes, Christine Emmons, and Michael Ben-Avie define school climate as “the quality and consistence of interpersonal interactions within the school community that influence children’s cognitive, social, and psychological development.” School climate is essentially the sum total of interactions “among staff, between staff and students, among students, and between home and school.”

Their research notes that often schools misinterpret the effects of poor school adjustment and alienation on the part of students. Instead of recognizing that more needs to be done to make sure that every student has a safe space on campus, we as educators often blame external factors, such as cognitive ability, troubled home life, lack of positive role models, etc.

Of late, bullying is getting a lot of attention, so much so that 49 states have passed anti-bullying legislation that, among other things, hands down harsher consequences for those who exhibit bullying behaviors. What these approaches fail to address, though, is that bullying is not a general problem that can be solved with punitive consequences. Haynes, Emmons, and Ben-Avie even note that excessive punitive measures send the opposite message, telling students who actually need more support that they are not wanted or welcome in the school community.

Instead, we need to treat bullying is an issue of student inclusion, with specific student identities being targeted in each school community for very specific reasons. Research indicates that bullying behavior reflects the societal attitudes and behaviors toward specific groups of people. In turn, when our society tells its young people that certain people are “less than,” they pass that message on to their peers. Sometimes students are targeted for more surface-level identity markers (interest in particular activities or style of dress), but more often, students are being targeted for core aspects of their identity: their race, religion, (real or perceived) sexual orientation, wealth/class, physical or cognitive ability, weight/body image, or (real or perceived) citizenship status. This is why I use the term “identity-based bullying.” It describes why the bullying behavior is happening.

The beauty of holistic, comprehensive measures to improve school culture and climate is that it helps both the targets and perpetrators of bullying behavior. Those most likely to exhibit bullying behavior are students who are hurting, students who are troubled, students who feel lost. Thus, efforts to ensure that every students feel safe and included in their school environment (as called for by Haynes, Emmons, and Ben-Avie and by Sarah Gronna and Selvin Chin-Chance in “Effects of School Safety and School Characteristics on Grade 8 Achievement: A Multilevel Analysis” have the power to help both the bullied and those doing the bullying to find an inclusive space, thus aiding those who’ve experienced bullying to cope and helping others not to exhibit bullying behavior.

What’s clear, though, is that this cannot be the work of individual teachers, students, or parents. This must be a comprehensive effort that brings every stakeholder to the table: teachers, administrators, school staff, parents, and students.

So the question to educators who want to see their students achieve at the peak of their potential, then, is this: What are you doing to advocate for a culture of civility in your school community?

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Using “Critical Mass” to End Bullying

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Jamie Utt, Founder and Director of Education at CivilSchools, explains how the theory of critical mass can be applied to ending the problem of bullying in our schools.

Student UPstanders who are fighting to end bullying shouldn’t worry about getting a majority of the school population to their side in order to realize change. Instead, they should focus on getting a CRITICAL MASS on their side. Doing so has the incredible power of transforming school communities quickly.

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