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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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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Bullying, the Empathy Gap, & the Diffusion of Responsibility

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(Photo: Catherine Ledner)

(Photo: Catherine Ledner)

By Eric Thompson

We humans tend to behave strangely when we are in large groups; the social pressure to act “normal” can be incapacitating.

We have all heard a story about somebody in need of assistance surrounded by a group of people who then fails to receive the help they need. This phenomenon is called The Bystander Effect, and it refers numerous studies that have concluded that the greater amount of people present, the less likely people are to help a person in distress.

Researchers explain this behavior as being a result of the Diffusion of Responsibility. Basically, the burden of responsibility to intervene is diminished because it is shared by all of the spectators.


Prezi created by Sabrina Etcheverry

One of the other reasons psychologists explain why people fail to intervene in these situations is because people fear disrupting the social norm. When a person sees other observers fail to take action it sends a signal that an intervention may not be appropriate or needed.

Now mix in the social pressure that comes with being an adolescent, the lack of judgement thanks to an under-developed frontal lobe, and a constant stream of marketing messages that celebrate those close to power and exploit those furthest away from it, and it is clear why bullying is so pervasive in our schools.

That is why implementing an UPstander Intervention Training Program is crucial to creating a safe and inclusive learning environment.

If we are going to prevent bullying from occurring and build a culture of civility in our schools, we must empower our students and provide them with the critical tools necessary to do it themselves.

Entire school communities must be properly trained in how to recognize, interrupt, and respond to social situations that threaten the collective brilliance of their community.

© Copyright 2010 CorbisCorporation

One of our highest points of leverage in our society is the ability to develop empathic concern in our young people.

Developing a culture that promotes empathic concern is a deliberate process. The social psychologist Daniel Batson explained empathic concern in his book, The Altruism Question, “as other-oriented emotions elicited by and congruent with the perceived welfare of someone in need.”

Basically, understanding how a person feels is not enough to influence a bystander to become an UPstander, they must also care about the person’s well-being to take action and offer assistance. Schools and organizations able to create an other-oriented climate lay the foundation for community members to move from survival mode to performance mode.

When this happens, it is easy to recognize because stake holders connect rather than communicate, educators teach students how to think rather than what to think, and individuals are celebrated rather than indoctrinated.  The energy is palpable.

nimitz9

Building a culture that shifts focus from me to we, is like steering an aircraft carrier, it takes a lot of energy and is a methodical process. However, cultivating a culture of respect and civility requires students to appreciate their ability to influence the social norm and inspire UPstander behavior within their community.

Closing the empathy gap is not only essential to building safer, more inclusive learning environments, but it is also a prerequisite for success within our global economy.

Leaders who possess a healthy balance of self-awareness, empathic concern, and systems awareness are designed and developed, not discovered.  Moreover, these qualities are the conduit for innovation. Shaping curriculum and seizing opportunities to develop these executive functions in our young people builds healthy, socially-conscious communities that thrive.

Do not get stifled by the Diffusion of Responsibility phenomenon.  Take some deliberate steps so that your school community can make some strides towards narrowing the empathy gap.

Here is a simple and quick assessment that measure a person’s empathic concern. Take a look at the questions and see what current tasks you may be able to integrate to foster other-oriented focus.

If your school community is hurting because of a bullying culture, it sounds as if there are students and families who could use your help. If you think that you lack the necessary skills to facilitate change, let me assure you that if you’ve read all the way through this article, you may not be an expert, but you are equipped with specific knowledge that can serve your community.

Energy flows where attention goes.

Now here is a little motivation for you:

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Bullying Prevention From the Ground Up

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

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

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

TomatoesSource: Seattle Tilth

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

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

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

Changing Hearts and Minds

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

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

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

Here are a few key reasons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change to what? 

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

Change how? 

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

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

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

Tell a different story. 

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

Stand on principles.

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

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

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

Translate principles into specific words and actions. 

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

Get adult behavior aligned with principles. 

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

All students can lead. 

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

Learn about changing. 

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

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

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

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

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