A “troubled waters” survival guide for schools

By: | January 8, 2018

In schools across this country, staff and students are experiencing increased levels of anxiety and stress. As a result, many schools are seeing increased levels of bullying, aggression, disruption, and violence in classrooms, hallways, and other school spaces.

If these concerns are not effectively addressed, as this school year continues, there is increased potential for even greater levels of violence and aggression, as well as student self-harm, including suicide. It is imperative to bring our schools into balance.

Unfortunately, our nation’s education system is like a huge ship that is proceeding in one direction–a myopic focus on test scores. In too many states, this ship has been deprived of necessary funds for so long that parts have become destabilized and all of the cabins have become overfilled. Throughout this country, school leaders are striving mightily, against great odds, just to keep this ship afloat. And the waters have become significantly more treacherous and troubled.

In a “normal” school year, there should be a significant focus on proceeding through the required curriculum, with an intent to improve test scores. It must be understood that staff who are stressed cannot effectively teach and students who are stressed cannot effectively learn. Increased pressure on staff to accomplish curriculum and testing goals will have one result only–increased damaging stress.

The highest priority for schools, given these troubled waters, clearly must be on ensuring the safety and emotional well-being of students and staff in an environment that is inclusive and welcoming to all. Only upon making this a balanced priority, can effective learning take place?.

Some school leaders may be trying to respond with increased authoritarian demands and responses. This will make things worse. Research has clearly documented that schools that rely on authoritarian practices have higher levels of bullying and violence.

This article presents what can best be described as a “Troubled Waters Survival Guide” for schools for the remainder of the 2018 school year. The following are research-based strategies that can be implemented without a significant level of cost or planning.

School-wide mindfulness practices

Implementing mindfulness practices to enable students to better self-regulate, especially in stressful situations, is critically important. Many excellent programs and web sites provide guidance. Take the easiest route possible–more, if it is possible. Basics include: Daily mindfulness practice. Mindfulness calming glitter jars on every elementary students’ desk. A “calming corner” in every elementary classroom. At the secondary level, several minutes of mindfulness breathing during the morning announcements and another short mindfulness breathing session right after lunch. A mindfulness calming room that students can easily access.


A common approach that can be used throughout school practices to problem solve is to ask these questions: What is the situation? (If this is a stressful situation, the discussion about the situation may be extensive and require reflective thinking.) What are our objectives? What possible strategies could we implement that use our strengths? For each, what challenges might we face and how could we best meet these challenges? Is each in accord with our values? For each, what might happen? What is our best first choice? What else could we do if this does not work? How will we determine success?

A version of this approach can be used by a teacher or principal seeking to resolve a behavior problem with a student. This approach can also be used by a student who has been treated badly to identify a positive response or for conflict resolution. This approach can be used to intervene in situations where a staff member’s performance has been found lacking.

Student Leadership Team

Establish a Student Leadership Team that is diverse and includes those students who have a well-established reputation for treating others with respect and reaching out to help those who are treated badly. Avoid including “popular” students who have been hurtful to establish social dominance.

Acts of kindness and thoughts of gratitude

The highest priority activities for the Student Leadership Team should be on school wide activities to promote acts of kindness and thoughts of gratitude. Students can be encouraged to reach out to be kind to others during the day. Encouraging students to keep a journal where they note how they reached out to be kind and what they are thankful for is even more powerful. Look on the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation web site or search for “kindness, schools” for lots of creative ideas.

Character strengths 

The VIA Institute on Character identifies 24 character strengths and has surveys for teens and adults. Everyone has a different profile of character strengths. This provides a way to celebrate a different kind of “differences” and building strengths.

Have your students and staff complete the survey and create an art project that sets forth their personal strengths. Identify commonalities and differences and discuss ways in which they use their strengths. Each week, they can use the resources from the VIA site to focus on how to build a different character strength. When engaging in problem solving for any relationship or behavior challenge, encourage students think of strategies that use their strengths.

Positive Staff-Student Relations

It is essential to focus on building more positive staff student relations. Engage your staff in problem solving to do this.

Encourage a significant increase in staff praise of student effort and strategy using growth mindset language. Make praise specific, noting accomplishments. Praise in private or quietly and never in a manner that sets a student up as “better” than others. Offer praise only when a student deserves it, so that the praise has meaning. Pay attention to the students known to be at higher risk and praise their efforts very regularly. Provide written notes offering praise of effort and strategy. Regularly send a notes to parents or guardians, especially of students who are at higher risk. Make expressions of gratitude when student behavior has been helpful.

Rewards based management approaches are helpful from the perspective of the focus on positive behavior and shows some evidence of effectiveness in increasing student compliance with rules when staff are present. However, rewards-based approaches are ineffective in addressing the concerns of students who have greater challenges and lack the skills to manage their behavior in accord with expectations, significantly interfere with the development of intrinsic motivation and performance on more sophisticated tasks, and often have been implemented in a way that publicly shames or excludes students not meeting expectations, which models relational aggression.

Enunciate clear standards for how staff are expected to treat each other and students. Make sure staff know to report to leadership if any other staff member is seen treating a student or other staff member with disrespect. Respond to such situations in a staff improvement manner, with ongoing monitoring. Ensure that every student has at least one school staff member who has made a commitment to be a supporter.

Cultural competence and positive relationship Sskills

Provide instruction to assist students in gaining a greater understanding of differences and that addresses how people can foster better relationships and resolve hurtful situations. Wherever it is applicable in the curriculum, focus on cultural understanding. The Teaching Tolerance web site has excellent resources. Embrace Civility in the Digital Age has released a program called Embrace Civility, which focuses on reinforcing positive social norms held by the majority of the students and teaching effective relationship skills.

Interventions in hurtful situations 

It is imperative to shift away from a disciplinary response in hurtful incidents to a response that hold students accountable. A disciplinary response usurps the role of the targeted student and turns the situation from a harmful offense against that student, which should require remedy, to a violation of a school rule—the consequence of which cannot even be disclosed to the targeted student. Disciplinary consequences teach nothing and often generate anger, which can lead to retaliation.

The restorative practices thinking is excellent. However, the restorative “circles” or “conferences’ approach is not appropriate in situations involving bullying because often there are imbalances of power between the students and the outcome does not provide the ongoing support some students may require.

A comprehensive investigation must identify how frequently hurtful acts are occurring, how many students are involved, and whether retaliation is involved. Challenges experienced by all involved students must be identified and a plan developed to address.

Students who have been hurtful should be required to engage in problem solving to identify how they will remedy the harm to the one they treated in a hurtful manner and to the community, as well as how they plan to stop themselves from engaging in such harmful behavior.

Aspects of the overall school environment that are hostile to any groups of students must be identified and a plan developed by a school leadership team to address these concerns.

Given the troubled waters we have entered, the priorities of this nation’s schools must shift. Our schools must become more balanced, with a commitment to “the whole child.” The highest priority in schools at this point in time must be on ensuring the safety and well-being of students in an environment that is inclusive and welcoming to all.

More information and resources is on the Embrace Civility in the Digital Age site to provide assistance in these challenging times.

Nancy Willard is the director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age