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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Ending Bullying: Being an UPstander

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Time for Tools

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

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

Prevention starts with this understanding.

But understanding the problem does not necessarily inspire action.

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

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

But we have to empower our communities with tools!

So What Constitutes Bullying?

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

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

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

Identity-Based Bullying

There are three key parts to this definition.

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

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

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

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

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

Being an UPstander

UPstander Definition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Norming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interrupting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Responding

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

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

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

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

It left me feeling defeated.

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

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

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

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

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

Then she walked away.

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

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

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

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

Now imagine if we had communities full of Audreys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Banding Together, Transforming Community

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

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

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

We all have to stand UP to bullying.

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