Want to Stop Bullying? You Can’t Without These 4 Critical Steps.

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Students are tired of bullying awareness programs.

Students are tired of bullying awareness programs.

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”.

The Bystander Effect is a social phenomenon that refers to cases in which cases do not offer any help to a victim when other people are present.

The Bystander Effect is a social phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any help to a victim when other people are present.

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?

The conversations that are the most difficult to have are usually the ones that are needed the most.

The conversations that are the most difficult to have are usually the ones that are needed the most.

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.

This type of behavior in our schools is much more common than people think.

Students’ lack of perspective on issues related to diversity is problematic and can cause conscious and unconscious biases to surface in dangerous ways.

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 recognizablereplicable, 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.

Pro-Social Behaviors are contagious.

Pro-Social Behaviors are contagious.

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).

Social Normer-

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 recognizablereplicable and accessible on campus and on-line.

Interrupter-

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.

First Responders-

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.

We would not run a school without people certified to administer First-Aid/CPR. In the digital age we cannot send our kids to a school where people are not certified to administer Emotional First-Aid

We would not run a school without people certified to administer First-Aid/CPR. In the digital age we cannot send our kids to a school where people are not certified to administer Emotional First-Aid

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.

CivilSchools cofounder, Eric Thompson

CivilSchools cofounder, Eric Thompson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  erin@civilschools.com

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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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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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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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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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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 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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