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What the Best Bullying Prevention Schools Aren’t Doing

The nation is reeling from recent bullying-related youth tragedies. States are scrambling to pass and refine comprehensive anti-bullying legislation that specifies a litany of school requirements. In the midst of this, educators may be wondering, “What really is the best way to reduce bullying?”

Dr. Lyn Mikel Brown, professor of education and human development at Colby College in Maine, offered her take on popular bullying prevention practices and the strategies that schools might be missing.

“With current bullying prevention efforts, there’s an emphasis on top-down approaches where adults define problems and solutions for students,” said Brown. “The problem is that these approaches lack attention to youth cultures and youth engagement.”

So what should schools be doing differently?

Brown indicated that the place to begin is teacher preparation programs. Accordingly, the Colby College program emphasizes preparing educators to implement practices that promote social justice and equity in schools. Colby’s teachers-in-training routinely consider how students experience gender, race, social class, sexual orientation and other group memberships.

Once educators are paying attention to these factors, Brown said, they will be ready to examine, along with students, the underlying causes of specific bullying behaviors such as homophobia and sexual harassment.

She encouraged school communities to explore questions such as “From students’ perspectives, who gets attention and resources in the school?” and “Are there perceived injustices among groups of students?”

For example, Brown noted that students tend to engage in “relational aggression” such as rumor-spreading and social exclusion when they do not feel permission to express anger and aggression directly. While viewed as more common among girls, she added, the behavior definitely occurs among boys as well.

If this sounds more complicated than typical bullying prevention programs—which often stress schoolwide rules against bullying and standard protocols for addressing perpetrators, victims and bystanders—it is no accident.

“Complexity should be something we encourage students to work with, rather than run from,” Brown explained. “In reality, we all have the capacity to be perpetrators, victims and bystanders, sometimes all in the same day.”

 She offered the following action steps for schools that are motivated to think “outside the box” of traditional bullying prevention programs:

  • Embrace the fact that there is no single, universal solution to reducing bullying.
  • Gain an understanding of the root causes of bullying behaviors as they are expressed in your school.
  • Enable an adult-youth coalition movement, a grassroots effort whereby adults suspend their assumptions and begin having real conversations with kids.
  • Be careful not to oversimplify bullying situations by labeling students based on the roles (e.g., “perpetrator”) they may have played in a particular incident.
  • Use existing student leadership structures, such as civil rights teams and gay-straight alliances, to help mobilize grassroots efforts. Once students feel they have a voice and genuine influence in the school, bullying behaviors will begin to decrease.

Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D. writes extensively on the relational life of girls and is the co-author, with Carol Gilligan, of Meeting at the Crossroads: Women's Psychology and Girls' Development. Dr. Brown is a founding member of the Harvard Project on Women's Psychology and Girls' Development and co-creator of the nonprofit Hardy Girls Healthy Women.

Related resources

Stan Davis: Ask Bullied Kids What Helps Them
Anti-Bullying Videos Share Powerful Messages
The ABCs of Bullying Prevention


Article by Celine Provini, EducationWorld Editor
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