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Improve Your School's Climate By Making a Positive Difference

This article is part of a series in which Nancy Willard debunks some common misconceptions about bullying and explores a new approach to tackling the issue.

Like many, I was stunned by the results of the recent election. As I indicated in my prior article, Mr. Trump is holding up a mirror to our society. A portion of our society has always held the racist and sexist biases that Mr. Trump holds. Now these biases are out in the open—where they can better be analyzed and hopefully remedied.

We also must gain a greater understanding of the concerns of those who voted for a candidate who embraces such a lack of civility and disparages those who are “different.” It is quite apparent that many of these individuals feel as though they have been “bullied” by a political and corporate exercise of power that has left them excluded and with no hope. More informed recent insight leads to an understanding that the underlying concerns that appear to be resulting in expressions of bias are more grounded in this socio-economic despair. So, it will be important to keep an open-mind.

In my earlier article, I introduced insight that is critically important to understand what is happening. This was in reference to the two different profiles of those who engage in hurtful behavior directed at others. One very major concern is that the information most educators have been provided with is mistaken. Unfortunately, one source is the federal bullying prevention site. The following is text from a professional development program that is currently on the website:

"Children and youth who bully others are more likely than their peers to:

  • Exhibit delinquent behaviors (such as fighting, stealing, vandalism)
  • Dislike school and drop out of school
  • Drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes
  • Bring weapons to school
  • Think about and attempt suicide"

Marginalized students who have experienced trauma and are routinely excluded are one type of student who is hurtful. But these students are not the primary source of bullying in schools. As Drs. Faris and Felmlee have explained:

“Clearly it is the strong who do the attacking: recent scholarship has debunked the traditional view of aggressive youth as socially marginal and psychologically troubled. Indeed, aggressors often possess strong social skills and harass their peers, not to reenact their own troubled home lives, but to gain status.”[1]

These socially motivated hurtful students function in an entirely different manner and for different purposes.[2] They are being hurtful as a way to establish or maintain their social status, dominance, and power. Politicians of both parties, together with the rich and powerful individuals and corporations that influence them, are the underlying source of the problems in our country. If you look closely, the concern of this kind of bullying by the powerful is what is underlying much of the contention in this election and in the world.

The forces that are currently “in play” in schools at this time feature both kinds of bullying behavior but may manifest in different ways—likely based on “color” of a different sort. In schools in “blue” communities, it is likely that the most socially dominant students are accepting of minorities and are being hurtful to those they perceive have supported Mr. Trump. In schools in “red” communities, it is likely that the most socially dominant students are following Mr. Trump’s lead and are being disrespectful of minorities. In “purple” communities, there may be a more equivalent battle between rival perspectives. In all communities, it can be anticipated that any students who feel marginalized—including minorities and low income whites—are feeling disparaged. This may be leading them to withdraw in fear—or may be leading to retaliation. Educators must pay close attention to which students in any group are striving to act as “peacemakers.” These are the students who should be placed in leadership roles.

Bullying and school climate professionals who are on the cutting edge in this area recognize the need for schools to shift from the mistaken perspective that adult-control, rules, and punishment approaches will be effective. When school staff use authoritarian practices to address student misbehavior, this results in an increase in bullying and other forms of aggression.[3] Punishment and use of authoritative power over students reinforces the idea that those who have power are able to dominate others and cause them to suffer.[4] In other words, the punishment by authority approach models bullying behavior!

Additionally, recognize that at the heart of the challenges in our country is the perspective that our elected officials from both parties have sold us out to the power elite. Now is not the time to try to reinforce “authority.” This approach will fail. Now is the time to reinforce “community.”

My recommendations are as follows:

  • At this time especially, place your primary focus on ensuring a positive school climate. If you try to maintain a myopic focus on academics, this is going to backfire. Improving your school climate will increase your students’ academic performance.
  • Fully engage your students in an expression of the values and standards by which your school community will treat each other. Do not dictate these values. Identify the student “peacemakers” in your school and put them in charge. Engage all of the students in a process to identify their own values for how they want to be treated and will treat each other. (For guidance, visit my web site.) Seek to establish your school as a safe “oasis” within the turmoil that can be anticipated to last for some time.
  • Increase efforts to educate students in the area of social emotional learning with a specific focus on improving personal relationships and handling hurtful situations. (Please look at my free Be a Leader! Embrace Civility resources.)
  • Increase your activities to help both staff and students gain greater cultural competence.
  • Ensure zero tolerance to any staff comments that reflect bias. In a recent study by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, many students reported they had heard biased comments from teachers and other staff members.[5]
  • Ensure your staff members know how to effectively respond to the hurtful incidents they witness in a manner that is focused on restoring relationships, not punishing students.
  • Respond to hurtful incidents using a restorative, not punitive, approach. Staff should not demonstrate bullying behavior in an effort to reduce bullying. Help students who have been hurtful accept personal responsibility and make amends to remedy the harm.
  • Find ways for your students to work together to be of service to others by implementing projects where your students can work side-by-side to make things better for others in their community.
  • Because Washington, D.C. is likely to be in turmoil for some time to come, engage your students in activities directed at understanding and providing youth voice to the issues and legislation that are relevant to their future being considered by local and state elected officials or public agencies.

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.

[1] Faris, R. & Felmlee, D. (2014). Casualties of social combat: School networks of peer victimization and their consequences. American Sociological Review 2014, 79(2), 228–257.

[2] Rodkin, P. C. & Karimpour, R. (2008). What's a hidden bully? In S. Hymel, S. Swearer, & P. Gillette (Eds.), Bullying at youth organization and online. Retrieved from

[3] Cornell, D. & Huang, F. (2016). Authoritative school climate and high school student risk behavior: A cross-sectional multi-level analysis of student self-reports. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. doi: 10.1007/s10964-016-0424-3; Konstantina, K. & Pilos-Dimitris S. (2010). School characteristics as predictors of bullying among Greek middle school students. International Journal of Violence and School, 11, 93-113.

[4] Yoneyama, S. & Naito, A. (2003). Problems with the paradigm: The school as a factor in understanding bullying (with special reference to Japan). British Journal of Sociology of Education, 24, 315-330.

[5] Greytak, E.A., Kosciw, J.G., Villenas, C., & Giga, N.M. (2016). From teasing to torment: School climate revisited, a survey of U.S. secondary school students and teachers. New York, NY: GLSEN.