Creating an Anti-Bullying Environment: What Your School May be Missing
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The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 3 of Bullied Teacher, Bullied Student: How to Recognize the Bullying Culture in Your School and What to Do About It, by Les Parsons (Pembroke Publishers, 2005; distributed in the U.S. by Stenhouse Publishers). The book retails for $18 and is available on the Stenhouse Web site.
This excerpt addresses the limitations of common school bullying prevention approaches, and how improving school-level engagement and buy-in can increase the effectiveness of prevention efforts. See Creating an Anti-Bullying Environment: Understanding Adult Bullying for an additional excerpt from Bullied Teacher, Bullied Student.
What's Wrong With the Typical Approach?
Schools seem to favor one of three types of anti-bullying programs. The most common and least successful approach is a zero-tolerance program that implements an established and escalating series of sanctions or consequences if rules are broken. The consequences range from detentions to suspensions. School boards like this approach for several reasons: it fits the crime-and-punishment pattern with which the community is familiar; it can be written down and implemented in the same way in every school; in cases in which bullying in a school has an extreme or tragic outcome, the school and board can point to a concrete program as a legal defense against negligence.
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Another widely used approach revolves around some form of problem solving. The students involved in a bullying episode are led through a process designed to promote understanding and empathy for all concerned. This type of intervention highlights why everyone acted as they did and encourages students to develop prosocial options for future behavior. This approach recognizes the dynamic of bully–target–bystander and attempts to address motivations and behavior in a relatively non-judgmental manner. Putting this theory into practice can be problematic. Developing empathy in bullies, especially when they are older students, is a chancy proposition, and convincing bystanders to intervene is equally perplexing. Since bullying hinges on a power imbalance, putting a target face-to-face with a bully simply reintroduces that power imbalance in a different context. Too often, schools with an existing conflict-resolution program involving peer mediation simply fold bullying situations into the same program. When the conflict involves a power imbalance, peer facilitators lack the insight, experience, and authority to equitably resolve bullying.
The third approach tends to merge the other two approaches, diverting less severe cases into a problem-solving mode and addressing more serious cases with sanctions. The critical flaw of these types of approaches to anti-bullying lies not in the programs themselves, but in the fact that they are grafted onto whatever else is going on in the school. Anti-bullying programs that are implemented from outside the school curriculum are doomed to follow all the other innovations that flare for a moment in a school’s consciousness and then die away from lack of attention. Anti-bullying has to grow from the inside out, as part of the foundation on which the curriculum is built. It has to be inherent in the fundamental principles that define all relationships in any school. And it has to apply to students and adults equally.
Creating an Anti-Bullying Environment from the Inside Out
The following questions ask you to reflect on the current state of your school’s anti-bullying environment. With the values embedded in these questions firmly in place in your school, any firm commitment to anti-bullying will produce dramatic results. If these values are inconsistently represented in your school, no official anti-bullying policy will succeed for long. If you can’t answer in the affirmative to these questions, your school needs a major moral overhaul.
Does your school staff insist on an environment completely free of sexist, racial, cultural, ability-related, and homophobic stereotyping?
The gym teacher who tells a student he’s “playing like a little girl,” the teacher who turns a deaf ear as students call each other “faggot,” and the principal who insists that bullying just isn’t a problem in a higher socio-economic setting are all aiding and abetting bullying. The only way to maintain a school culture resistant to bullying is to insist on equity for everyone. In this environment, all adults are keenly aware that they serve as models for their students, displaying, for example, a genuine courtesy toward others and a respect for individual differences. Teachers who berate and humiliate students shouldn’t be surprised when some students follow their lead and berate and humiliate other students. Private spaces don’t exist in a school. The principal or teacher telling sexist or homophobic jokes in the office or lunchroom is undermining a school’s consensus on equity, breaching school and board policy, and poisoning the environment.
Do all teachers display a respectful attitude toward all students and a genuine regard for their learning?
All students have the right to be respected and to learn: the two are intertwined. The most important variable in the learning process is an individual’s sense of self-worth. Bullying not only destroys the self-esteem of targets but also casts a cloud of uncertainty and insecurity over the entire learning environment. The damage that student bullies do to the learning environment is significant; the damage that adult bullies do is catastrophic. Regardless of disability, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnocultural origin, faith, or socio-economic status, all students must be empowered to learn through positive reinforcement, the understanding and acceptance of individual differences, and the encouragement of trial and error. Mistakes especially must be welcomed and affirmed as an authentic component of the learning process.
Do all teachers in the school use cooperative learning strategies?
Frustration with learning, poor self-esteem, and inadequate social skills all often contribute to student-student bullying behaviors. Cooperative learning strategies, which stress peer collaboration, have been shown to contribute to higher academic achievement, to increase self-esteem, to improve social skills, and to facilitate language development. They can be used effectively with all age groups and in any subject area. As well as contributing to a wide range of intellectual goals, these small-group instructional techniques involve process skills that help teachers counter bias, discrimination, and bigotry of all kinds. When students have opportunities to collaboratively make decisions and solve problems related to the classroom learning experience, they are more apt to accept responsibility for the social interactions swirling around them. When learning becomes a group problem-solving process, solving racist behavior or homophobic harassment, for example, naturally becomes everyone’s responsibility.
Are teachers meaningfully involved in the decision-making and problem-solving processes on a schoolwide basis?
Anti-bullying policies can be imposed from outside the school or created on the inside. Mandated policies, official directives, and perfunctory in-servicing will only turn anti-bullying into another stalled curricular initiative. A commitment to anti-bullying emerges and endures when teachers are convinced that they have a stake in how a school operates. Ownership for an anti-bullying policy begins to take hold when teachers believe that what happens in other classrooms, in the hallways, in the lunchroom, and especially in the main office is everybody’s business. Principals can empower a staff by employing cooperative learning strategies themselves. In the course of employing cooperative learning strategies with staff to solve real problems, school leaders also value, demonstrate, and encourage the use of these methods throughout the school. Influencing the variables of interpersonal dynamics within a school can have a dramatic impact on a school’s bullying culture.
The Best Bullying Prevention Schools Aren’t Doing
Stan Davis: Ask Bullied Kids What Helps Them
Lesson Plan Booster: How Can Students Help a Bullied Peer?
EducationWorld's Bullying Resource Page
Do you agree that examining adult behavior is a critical first step in school bullying prevention? Join the discussion!
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