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Embrace Civility Initiative

This article is part of a series in which Nancy Willard explores a new approach to tackling the issue of bullying.

Our society is facing significant challenges related to lack of civility. Recent happenings in the political arena are heightening the already serious concerns. Schools across this country are striving to deal with the harmful impact—called by some the “Trump Effect.” The reality is that the current challenges related to civility are more profound. And neither political party can claim the “high road” in efforts to foster positive relations and embracing civility.

I would like to suggest a strategy for how schools can quickly mobilize students to be in the forefront of their school and community in efforts to embrace civility. This approach does not need to reference the current election challenges—which likely would be unwise in some communities.

The underlying positive insight that this approach is based on the fact that the vast majority of your students disapprove of those being hurtful and admire those who are kind and respectful and step in to help when they witness hurtful situations. Also, every indication is that the younger generation has had the opportunity to have interacted with a wider range of types of individuals—which has led to greater acceptance of differences. Note the data on acceptance of same sex marriages by millennials.

In this current climate, it is imperative schools seek to foster the creation of an environment where hurtful behavior is incompatible with the accepted social norms!

My suggestion is that schools immediately engage their students in an Embrace Civility Initiative. Feel free to rename this. The essence is important. The name can be locally developed. Have students create their own logo for the campaign. Let your students “own” this initiative.

The Embrace Civility Initiative includes three key research-based, positive action steps:

Embrace Civility Commitment

Engage all students and staff in a collaborative effort to enunciate the norms and values of the school community around how members of the school community will treat each other. Specifics on a facilitated approach to accomplish this are provided on my site. This process should also result in the establishment of a Student Leadership Team. Encourage, but do not require, that students, staff, and parents sign onto this Embrace Civility Initiative.

Notes of Appreciation

Create business card-sized cards with the logo and the words “I appreciate . . .” Leave sufficient space for someone to write a short statement. Make these cards freely available. Encourage students and staff to complete a card and give it to someone who they appreciate—both at school and in the community. Students could take these cards home and encourage their parents to use them at their workplace and in the community.

Acts of Kindness X 3

Encourage students and staff to specifically and intentionally reach out to be kind to someone who appears to be having a difficulty, is frequently excluded, or someone outside of their social group—at least three times a day. (Research has shown that if students reach out to be kind in this manner, this results in an increase in peer acceptance.)

Additionally, every day in class—either advisory, home room, or the first class of the day—take the time to go around the class to ask each student to describe either a Note of Appreciation or Act of Kindness they accomplished in the last 24 hours and why this was important to them.

As an extension of these activities, students could be encouraged to keep a log of their embracing civility actions. Record each Note of Appreciation and describe why they appreciated what this person did and how the person responded. Record each Act of Kindness and describe why they reached out, how the person responded, and how this made them feel.

From here, encourage the Student Leadership Team to be creative. How can they make this campaign grow? Some ideas:

  • A monthly Saturday Day of Kindness where groups of students reach out to help an individual, family, or organization in the community.
  • Student presentations to the city council or social service organizations in the community about the Embrace Civility Campaign to invite their participation. Students who are members of faith communities could make their own presentations to their faith communities.
  • Weekly Embrace Civility Mix-It-Up Lunches at school.
  • Creation of a music video that presents the school’s Embrace Civility Campaign.
  • Engaging students in a contest to create Embrace Civility artwork that can be turned into posters, bookmarks, and screen savers.

It is my belief that if schools can effectively mobilize their students to embrace civility, not only will their school climate improve, these young people can become a shining light for the rest of their community.

Nancy Willard, M.S., J.D., is the Director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age. Embrace Civility in the Digital Age has just released two new programs. Be a Leader! Embrace Civility is a free instructional program for students that empowers students to foster positive relations by increasing their insight and skills in the identified five critical areas. Empower Students to Embrace Civility is an online professional development program for educators that provides research insight into bullying prevention, strategies to empower students, and approaches to increase staff effectiveness in intervening in hurtful situations that are witnessed or reported.