How to help “At Risk” Kids Succeed in Life.

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Al Pacino delivers a powerful and inspiration speech in this scene from "Any Given Sunday". Image courtesy of Pauseforclarity.com

Al Pacino delivers a powerful and inspiration speech in this scene from “Any Given Sunday”. Image courtesy of Pauseforclarity.com

Recently, I was asked to speak at a leadership event for student athletes. A prominent political figure in our area was scheduled to speak prior to me on the importance of the pursuit of academic excellence.

I was excited to hear this individual drop some knowledge on these kids and inspire them to greatness. I was hoping he would go all Al Pacino from Any Given Sunday and spit out some powerful metaphors and personal stories that would move the needle in all of our lives.

**Mini-lesson** 
High School Students love this clip, have them interpret the meaning in a writing exercise.

Unfortunately, he went all Ben Stein and started dropping statistics about how difficult it was to earn an athletic scholarship for college. He then essentially proceeded to explain to them how to forget about becoming a professional athlete because the odds were stacked against them.

All I could think after hearing him speak was…

“You had ONE job to do!”

Self Doubt Kills Ability

The quickest way to stifle a student’s development is to set limitations on what they believe to be possible. Or as the French artist Edgar Degas articulated, Self doubt kills ability.”

Now before you start referring to me as Captain Optimism (I would probably find that flattering, I could go by Captain O, for short…never mind, that sounds like a SNL skit), I do believe a healthy dose of reality is good for children when placed in the proper context. However, when talking to young people about their hopes and dreams, we must understand the weight our words carry.

I am probably more sensitive to this type of stuff because I was labeled by educational leaders as an “at risk youth” and was told more times than I can remember that I need a “back up plan” if and when I failed to achieve my dreams. I still remember standing in front of my 4th grade class being told by the teacher that “professional athlete” was not a realistic vocation to choose for the upcoming career report because only a gifted few make it that far.

Here I was, a latchkey kid who was struggling in school, my parents were going through an ugly divorce, my older brother had just ran away from home, and I was surrounded by adults who wanted to teach me about “realism.” Being that I walked by drug dealers and sex workers on my way to an empty apartment, only to boil some Top Ramen for myself for dinner, I think I had “realism” figured out.

I served myself a healthy dose of “reality” every night. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The ONLY thing I had in my life was baseball; I did not understand why the adults in my life were not leveraging my enthusiasm for this game which gave me purpose. Instead, they treated it as a negotiation tool. I know they all had my best interests in mind, and I am sure this elected official had noble intentions as well. However, if we are going to have a shot of preparing our young people for the complex global issues that await them, we need to think critically about the language we use.

3 Practical Approaches to Positively Influencing Youth in High Risk Situations. 

See what I did there?

You are not dealing with “high risk” children. It pisses them off when they hear that…good luck earning your way into their circle of trust with that mindset! 

You are serving children dealing with “high risk situations,” often times due to circumstances outside of their control. [Read more...]

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Major Bullying Prevention Myth Debunked & Quick Lesson That Will Build Empathy In Students

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Comic Courtesy of Bob & Tom Thaves

Comic Courtesy of Bob & Tom Thaves

Here is the deal…if your school’s approach to bullying prevention is through the enforcement of a zero tolerance policy, it sucks.

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The concept sounds good, but it is no doubt the path of least resistance. It does nothing to foster a healthy learning environment and build a safe and civil school climate. Punitive approaches to bullying prevention fail the entire community.

Research conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) task force has concluded that schools with zero tolerance policies in place have:

  • Higher Incidents of Bullying
  • Lower Ratings on School Climate Surveys
  • More Suspensions and Expulsions
  • Lower Overall Academic Achievement
  • Higher Drop Out Rates and Failure to Graduate on Time.

This research was published over 5 years ago and there are still school leaders who deploy a “set it and forget it” zero tolerance bullying prevention policy.

So in the infamous words of Biggie Smalls, “And if you don’t know, now you know”.

Image created by Airmagination

Image created by Airmagination

Effective school leaders focus on inspiring pro-social behavior rather than managing misbehavior. Preventing incidents of bullying behavior takes strategic thinking by a leader ready to serve their way to influence rather than to power or coerce their way to it. School’s that experience a large number of bullying incidents have a leadership problem, not a bullying problem.

From Survival Zone to Performance Zone

Now, building a culture of civility is much more complicated, and it requires that all-stake holders regularly engage in behaviors that benefit the entire community.  That is a tall order because you are asking parents, teachers, and students to develop some new habits.

The good news is that they will do it if shown how! After all, keeping children safe is a HUGE motivator. This is your magic point of ALIGNMENT…everybody in the school community, parents, teachers, and students all want to feel safe.

Awareness efforts are not enough. As legendary basketball coach John Wooden articulated, “Don’t mistake activity for achievement”.  

Image Courtesy of Championship Basketball School

Mini-Lesson for Educators

At CivilSchools our curriculum is packed with activities that will foster empathy and perspective taking in all stakeholders. We know when able-minded students, parents, and teachers take time to develop mentalization abilities, (thinking about thinking) that incidents of bullying are significantly reduced.

The Internet loves videos of people standing up to or speaking out to a bully.  We all love a good underdog story. A lot of good can come from these stories.

However, these “speak up” type videos can be problematic because they put the onus on the target, and the reality is that many of the students targeted do not possess the skills or mental capacity required to articulate how they feel or ask for help.  We all know plenty of adults who struggle with asking others for help; why should we expect children to be proficient at it?

Schools that successfully build a safe and bullying-free learning environment do it through the power of community.

Watching this video and celebrating this young man’s courage is a great activity, but it will fall short of leading measurable change that increases student achievement and retention. As professionals and parents committed to preparing our young people for the complexities they face, we must dig deeper and leverage the power of resources like this video to build a healthier community.

Videos like this create great opportunities (vicarious experiences) to get kids and adults to reflect and foster empathy.

Growth does not come through an experience of itself, it comes through the reflection of an experience.

Questions for educators after they watch this video.

  • What are the signs of a child who feels alienated?
  • What type of environment was created during this P.E. class that inspired inconsiderate behavior?
  • How could the teacher have handled the hecklers?
  • Why are this child’s peers failing to engage in UPstander behavior?
  • What skills (that will work for him) can we try and teach this child that will help him better navigate the social complexities he is facing?
  • What could the teacher have said/done at the end that would have strengthened the sense of community?
  • How could the teacher have influenced Jake’s peers to publicly/privately celebrate Jake’s courage?

Written or verbal questions for students after they watch this video.

  • What could have happened to make Jake feel this way?
  • What was good about how Jake handled this?
  • Have you ever felt like people have struggled to see you for you?
  • How do you think Jake felt when he was speaking up?
  • How do you think Jake felt after he spoke up?
  • Why do you think those kids were laughing when Jake was speaking up?
  • Why do you think the other kids ignored Jake?
  • Do you know of any classmates who may feel like Jake? (written response)
  • What would you tell Jake if you met him today?
  • What could the teacher do to help Jake feel more comfortable at school?
  • What could have the other students have done after Jake was finished speaking up to show that he matters?
  • What could you privately tell the boys who were laughing at Jake to let them know that their behavior is not healthy for the community?
  • How could you help Jake make friends?
  • Why do you think Jake has a difficult time making friends?
  • Could this happen in our school?

Make sure to wrap the lesson by connecting the development of these interpersonal skills to their future. Remember, children, like adults, want to know what’s in it for them.

Students will put forth the effort if they believe that it will result in an outcome that is greater than the sacrifice.

During a Parent Teacher Association meeting or a Parent Orientation Meeting this video can be leveraged to discover the expectations of your parents as it relates to bullying prevention. From there, you can start sharing the vision you have for your school community and gaining alignment with the parents your serve.

Building a safe and inclusive community is hardly ever convenient, but effective leaders know how to inconvenience people at a level they can tolerate.

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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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Is Bullying Preventable?

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Is Bullying Preventable?

Is Bullying Preventable?

 

I get this question asked of me often, usually with a high level of skepticism. Many adults believe that bullying is just a “normal” aspect of adolescence.

But I am not willing to accept living in a world where school shootings and teen suicide are considered “normal.”  At the time of this writing, one of the top news stories is about a child who just lit himself on fire at school as an apparent suicide attempt. My mind not only thinks about the child who inflicted so much pain on himself, but what about the people within his community?

What about…

His family who are left to figure out what went wrong?

His friends who did not realize he was hurting?

The classmates who witnessed this horrific act?

His peers who failed to say something kind and let him know he mattered?

The kids who targeted him and failed to appreciate their influence?

His teachers who were unable to connect with him and recognize the warning signs?

Recently, after leading a group of parents through one of our CivilSchools implementation trainings, I had a parent approach me and say, “I have gone through a number of trainings on bullying, and for the first time, I am leaving with the belief that I can help prevent my child from being bullied like I was”.

I have been reflecting on that conversation for the past couple of weeks because the pain deep within this particular parent resonated with me. It hit me hard when I realized that most parents draw on their own experience to help their children navigate the social dynamics that come along with growing up.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Let’s face it, things are much more complicated than when I was a kid, and our communities are underprepared. The principles that lead a person towards a life full of purpose and connection may be the same, but our children get bombarded with messages that threaten their development and growth at a rate never before seen.

I have four children; I consider myself to be a pretty awesome father, and my wife… well, she is ridiculously talented at this parenting thing. When we invest time each year writing goals for what we want to develop in our children, strong interpersonal skills and self-confidence usually top our list. As deliberate as we are about fostering that in our children, at times, we feel overmatched.

The fact is that what worked for us, may not work for our children. I often hear, “the best way to deal with a bully is to punch them in the face”.

Do we really want to send the message to our children that all problems can be solved with force?  No!  It is much more convoluted than that.

In a groundbreaking study, researchers at Penn State University discovered that bullying affects both bystanders and targets.  Their research concluded that, “bullying can also cause people who witness it to demonstrate physical stress symptoms of increased heart rate and perspiration as well as high levels of self-reported trauma even years after bullying events”.

Being an UPstander

30 Seconds that can change everything

 I was not bullied as a child.  I was teased and picked on from time to time, but I was never targeted consistently or neglected by my peers. However, I have been deeply affected by bullying.

I was in middle school when a classmate of mine was diagnosed with Leukemia, and for two years, he would be in and out of school due to the disease. One time after a long absence, he returned to school and was showing signs of weakening. I remember seeing joy in his eyes because he was surrounded by a few friends and in a familiar environment rather than in a hospital bed.

Later in the afternoon, during one of our breaks, his hat blew off, revealing his bald head. As he scrambled to pick it up, a different classmate picked it up and started playing keep away and referring to him as Luke, short for Leukemia.

It was like time stopped and things were happening in slow motion, my stomach started to ball up as the discomfort shot through my body. I knew I had to do something. I am sure the other classmates around felt the exact same thing.

You want to know what I did? Nothing.  Along with the other students, I just stood there, disgusted with myself. I have been carrying around that guilt for close to 20 years now, and it is painful.

Photo courtesy of Biography.com

Photo courtesy of Biography.com

When I share that story with students during assemblies, they all get it. They immediately reflect on that time or two when they failed to cross over that line from being a bystander to become an UPstander. When they inquire as the fact why I do not make amends with my classmate now to relieve my guilt, I share with them that I never had the chance because that was his last day at school…he died a few weeks later.

I know his spirit was broken that day, as do the other classmates and so does the person who was teasing him. Those 30 seconds in middle school have probably influenced my life more than any other experience. I wish I was more prepared to help create the conditions for civility.

That is why it is critical to take a holistic approach that works for every person within a community. If we fail to equip children with the tools and language that allow them to manage and work through their emotions, they will develop an emotional default setting that will impede their development.

We talk a lot about the problem of oversimplifying “bullying” behavior here at CivilSchools.  Bullying is connected to the exchange of power; when a child feels powerless within their social environment it can destroy them physically, emotionally, and mentally.

That is why the American Educational Research Council concluded that bullying presents one of the greatest health risks to youth in U.S. society.

 The question we need to ask is how do we prevent bullying from occurring?

 Leveraging Social Capital 

Unfortunately, many bullying prevention programs are punitive and fail to actually engage and empower students. Whether you are trying to eradicate the spread of an infectious disease or build a safe and inclusive learning environment, it comes down to influencing behavior.

Educating teachers and parents about how to recognize and respond to bullying is important, but the highest point of leverage in a school community lies with creating the conditions for civility.

The last thing a child wants to hear is “no, don’t do that.” I have heard that a child hears 30 “no’s” for every “yes”, in my house we have that ratio beat. Children obviously need to understand that they will be held accountable for their actions, but when students who are identified as key influencers by their peers engage in pro-social/UPstander behavior and are given time to practice these skills on campus, overall achievement and retention increases.

 Systems Influence Social Norms

 Author Michael Gerber explains, “Systems allow ordinary people to achieve extraordinary results predictably. However, without systems, even extraordinary people find it difficult to predictably achieve even ordinary results.”

Failure to create systems that encourage pro-social/UPstander behavior in our school communities puts each child in a position where they have to face every challenge and task from scratch.

The Highest Form of Social Capital

At the end of the day, we were all put here for each other. Our children will have to master the art of collaboration if they are going to have any shot at solving the complex global challenges that await them.

We must teach our students how to invest in the most powerful form of social capital: solidarity. Their ability to give of themselves to the cause for the good of others will be a major point of leverage in their lives. It is an innate human need to want to feel a sense of belonging, it is a huge motivator, and if the proper systems are in place, solidarity can be achieved.

So, do we here at CivilSchools really believe bullying is preventable?

Bullying is absolutely preventable but only when a deliberate system is implemented and adopted by all stakeholders in the community.

Such a system must be built around influencing a vital behavior that is easily recognizable and replicable. Once key influencers develop the skill to consistently execute the desired behavior, change will occur.

Students need a structured system in place that allows them to build a culture that maximizes peer support and enriches social capital through solidarity.  Solidarity is easily recognizable on campus through acts of compassion.

Random acts of compassion

Be deliberate and intentional…it is good for the environment.

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CivilSchools Parent Dialogue-How Engaging in “Taboo” Conversations Can Eradicate a Bullying Culture

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In this discussion, our Director of Education, Jamie Utt, leads a Q & A session with our Director of Leadership Development, Eric Thompson. Eric is also a father of four and has some very specific questions for Jamie.

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

1. How to engage in “Taboo” conversations with our children
2. How to engage in “Taboo” conversations with educators
3. What to do if you believe you child is being bullied by their teacher
4. How empathy for the teacher can build a strong alliance to ensure academic success for your child

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