Teachable moments on school bullying

Schools must collaborate with students to spread civility
By: | September 18, 2017

The summer break was far from idyllic, marked by demonstrations, marches and even deadly violence across the country. For school leaders, fostering a positive school climate for returning students must be a high priority.

In these troubling times, schools must place the highest priority on becoming an oasis of kindness and respect for all of our nation’s young people.

A huge problem in fostering a positive school climate is the failed efforts over the last decade to “prevent bullying.” What schools are trying to do to prevent bullying appears to have had almost no positive impact.

Misperceptions about bullying

As was set forth in a recent National Research Council report on bullying, there is an inaccurate understanding of the nature of bullying behavior. The common wisdom is that bullies are at-risk students who have other challenges. While these students do engage in aggression, they are not the main actors.

The primary source of hurtful behavior, especially at the secondary level, is a set of socially skilled, popular students who are hurtful as they try to establish social dominance.

These students denigrate those who they consider “deviant.” They also engage in battles with those they perceive as rivals for dominance, status and romantic partners. They are compliant with staff, who often consider these students “leaders.”

Changing this behavior requires an empowering, positive-social-norms approach that emphasizes being kind and respectful as the path to a position of school leadership.

The second huge problem are state anti-bullying statutes that dictate a “rules and punishment” approach. But research demonstrates the ineffectiveness of this philosophy. Schools that function in an authoritarian, rules-based manner often have higher levels of bullying and other violence.

A majority of students don’t report hurtful incidents because they don’t think it will help or they fear things will get worse—and evidence supports this. On top of these concerns is the fact that schools are under pressure to reduce suspension rates and must file annual reports of disciplinary code violations.

What appears to be happening, however, is that principals are declining to designate incidents as “bullying” under the strict statutory definition. As a result, students who seek assistance are left feeling even more helpless and hopeless. And yes, this appears to be contributing to increased chronic absences and youth suicide.

Positive steps

It is essential that schools switch from bullying prevention to ensuring positive climate by follow these tips:

• Focus on the positive objective of embracing civility, rather than preventing bullying. Launch a “Kindness Campaign” to encourage respect.

• Collaborate with students to promote the positive social norms displayed by the majority of school population.

• Recruit students who have a natural drive for leadership and who are kind and respectful to drive civility campaigns. Ensure your leadership team includes students from minority populations.

• Empower students who have been bullied by building their self-confidence and social skills. Trust that these students can gain the strength, insight and skills to make positive change.

• Be prepared to offer more intensive interventions and support to chronically targeted and marginalized students who behave hurtfully.

• Ensure staff members know how to respond when they witness a hurtful situation or if one is reported to them.

More serious, ongoing hurtful situations require a full investigation, use of restorative approaches, intensive support for any involved student, and follow-up to ensure effectiveness. It is also essential to assess and correct any aspects of the school climate that may be supporting continuing hurtful behavior.

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