Every time I am in front of a gymnasium full of high school kids to speak about bullying prevention, I start with the following question: “How many of y’all were bummed when you heard this assembly was about bullying?”
Pretty much every hand goes up in the air. There’s nothing quite like facing 2,000 students who have just let you know that they have no interest in what you’re going to talk about. But after close to a decade in public speaking for students, I know exactly what I’m walking into when I deliver my presentation on The Bystander Effect.
Then I ask: “Real talk…how many of y’all believe after we’re done here today that nothing will change and it will be back to The Hunger Games by next week?”
This time many, of the hands are held high by students with pain in their eyes silently pleading, “Give me something that will make things easier”.
Imagine being a student targeted by bullying behavior. Imagine that the only solutions offered by trusted adults are suggestions to “be nice to others” and to “speak up” about your situation.
Unfortunately, many schools end up deploying these types of superficial approaches when trying to combat bullying behavior. The question is, what are educators and parents to do to create more meaningful conversations and actionable plans around issues of bullying?
Starting The Conversation
In our Student UPstander Intervention Trainings, students write down what behaviors they have witnessed on campus and/or online that they would consider to be bullying. Participants also identify groups of students who may be targeted. I have worked with thousands of students across the country on this exercise and consistent patterns always emerge. These patterns demonstrate that bullying is not as simple as children being cruel.
Students’ ethnic, gender, racial, ability, body size, and other personal identities are often targeted. Incidents may be complicated by racism, sexism, classism, and hate. While too few adults possess the skills to openly discuss these kinds of hard to broach subjects, we often expect students to navigate these issues as best they can without providing them the critical tools necessary to promote civility.
The solution is an evidenced-based strategy that, if implemented properly, will positively influence beliefs and behaviors to change the culture of a school. A healthy school culture, where every student feels valued and connected, is the only way to truly prevent bullying behavior.
1. Get Clear On Pro-Social Behavior
It is critical that students understand what behaviors promote healthy relationships. Kids want to be shown a pathway to healthy relationships. As educators and parents, we want to guide students to become adults capable of developing authentic human connections and trust.
During UPstander training, students write down indicators of pro-social behavior. What are the action steps to healthy relationships?
This exercise always proves more challenging than identifying bullying behaviors. Students most often write down broad qualities such as:kindness, integrity, honesty, empathy, etc.
The language we have equipped them with is not specific enough to influence action. We must be crystal clear on high leverage behaviors that create civility.
What does being kind look like to a high school student?
What does it look like to be a person who speaks up?
What are the behaviors of a person who has integrity?
These behaviors can be as simple and specific as holding the door for others, expressing gratitude, celebrating others’ successes, or resolving conflicts without emotion.
We must get specific and help them identify behaviors that are easily recognizable, replicable, and accessible.
This helps students to build a positive mental model. Civility and incivility are both contagious forces that either push communities towards or away from their collective brilliance.
2. Empowering Students
Many high school students don’t realize how critical they are as individuals to the social landscape of their school. Students wield incredible influence.
We need to be deliberate about empowering our students to use their influence for the good of their community and to remind them that greatness is not achieved alone.
One way to do this is through the power of choice. A group of Columbia University psychologists wrote in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences in 2010, “The need for control is a biological imperative.” When people believe they are in control, research shows that they work harder, are more resilient and push themselves more.
Rather than tell students what not to do, we provide them with the tools to confidently choose civility and respect over incivility and bullying. Students, like the rest of us, cherish autonomy and the freedom of choice.
Once students understand what bullying looks like and are clear on the high leverage pro-social behaviors that move communities away from it, they are ready to identify what social role they can best step into to build a culture of civility in their community.
3. Building a Framework for Engagement
The final piece of our CivilSchools Student UPstander Intervention Training is where transformation happens. Research indicates that one of the most effective means of addressing bullying behavior is to engage bystanders to act as UPstanders when unhealthy behavior surfaces.
That can only happen when students possess the skills necessary to act with confidence and competence. Not every student is the same and each individual has personal strengths.
The CivilSchools methodology allows students to self assign how they personally are going to deploy pro-social behaviors to inspire acts of civility.
Students choose where they best fit from the following UPstander Roles (they can choose to fill single of multiple roles).
The theory of Socio-dynamics states that only around 1/3 of a community determines what is considered to be socially acceptable behavior. Social Normers use pro-social behaviors to strategically inspire others to engage in healthy behavior.
This is a low risk social influence tactic where most kids can easily step into. These students may decide to smile more than their peers, acknowledge other people, be good listeners, hold doors for others, etc. These students make a conscious effort to model healthy behavior on campus and within the digital world with goal of influencing pro-social behavior in their peers.
Objective=Inspire acts of civility and respect through pro-social behaviors that are recognizable, replicable and accessible on campus and on-line.
These students tend to have a little more social capital and are better at conflict resolution than most of their peers. They tend to be able to control their emotions and are creative thinkers. They are able to take the perspective of and recognize emotions in others.
These UPstanders recognize potentially unhealthy social situations and interrupt the behavior in the moment. They may strategically redirect the attention of a group or find away to deescalate the situation.
Objective-On the spot intervention or distraction of attention to stop or redirect behavior that could be unhealthy.
These students are dialed in to the emotional well being of others and possess a high level of empathic concern. They understand that we are all connected and that the health of their school ecosystem is best when all stake-holders feel safe and valued.
These students deliver positive feedback loops on-line and in person to those involved in unhealthy behavior. They not only deliver emotional first aide to those targeted but they can also provide reflective feedback to offer perspective to those engaging in bullying behavior.
These students remind their peers of the big picture and speak to people in a manner that appeals to their altruistic side. They understand the difference between empathy and sympathy and can stay out of judgement when responding to a situation.
Objective-Remind people involved/effected by unhealthy behavior that they matter and are valued by their community.
4. A Bias Towards Action
If we want students to cross over the chasm from being a bystander to acting as an UPstander, we must teach students how to take control of social situations and experience the fulfillment that comes with looking out for the well-being of others.
Students do not show up at school as natural born Upstanders, yet they all show up with the virtues to act as one.
Being able to positively influence social situations and inspire acts of civility is learned and is the product of a community effort.
So, PAHLEASSSSEEEEEE, next time you hear an educator suggest a bullying prevention assembly. Or hear an adult advise a student to simply “Be kind and Speak Up!” Enthusiastically send them this article.
Times are too complicated to let our students navigate these issues the same way most of us did. There are proven systems that work. CivilSchools offers one of those systems… this is not a cure all and there are plenty of other pieces to our CivilSchools program, however, this is a relatively quick and effective approach to building safer and healthier learning environments.
At the conclusion of every Student UPstander Intervention Training, we have students approach us, expressing that for the first time they have hope. They have hope because they were given the tools to prevent and respond to bullying behavior.
Not to sound cliche, but think of the kids and put this information into the hands of the people committed to serving them. If you need some guidance or would like to work with our team, please email me.
Eric is available to help facilitate change in your school community. To book Eric as a speaker, please contact Director of Business Management and Outreach, Erin Frisby at firstname.lastname@example.org