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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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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