On Unity Day, a new guide to fight bullying

As a child growing up with cerebral palsy, I remember what it was like to be bullied. Classmates pointed and stared at my awkward gate. Children and parents, whether out of fear or misunderstanding, said deeply hurtful things to me. It’s hard—being different.

I persevered for one reason: because of my friends—a core support system of classmates, coaches and teachers who were empathetic to the challenges I faced, who got to know me for me, and not for the surface physical differences between us.

October is National Bullying Awareness Month—and that’s good. Because we, as educators and community leaders, are in desperate need of some introspection on the topic. Across the country, students are struggling to overcome the sting and hurt of mental and physical abuse.

Our schools are supposed to be sanctuaries, safe havens where children are empowered to learn and grow and achieve uncommon success in spite of personal struggle. But when statistics tell us that nearly one in four children has been bullied in school or that 64 percent of schoolchildren who are bullied do not report the incident to a parent or educator out of fear, we know our schools are in need of a serious course correction.

Time to make change

That work starts with teaching students and parents and teachers to be kind to one another. As Rob Ellis, founder and chief executive of the national advocacy group Stomp Out Bullying poignantly reminds us, “If children are not taught empathy, then bullying will continue to be pervasive in our schools.”

To help in the fight against bullying, we recently released The School Leader’s Definitive Guide to Bullying Prevention.

In this brief guide, you’ll learn:

  • How school districts in states such as New York and South Carolina are amplifying student voice and feedback to beat back bullying in their local communities.
  • Signs to watch for when students feel threatened or are at risk of being bullied.
  • Practical solutions to help you systematically eradicate the plague of physical and verbal abuse in your schools.

It’s no coincidence that we chose to release the guide on Unity Day 2016. On this day, schools across the country stand together (in orange) to conquer bullying with kindness and inclusion. We hope this guide helps in that fight.

Let’s band to together to stop bullying this day—and every day. Are you with me?

Get The School Leader’s Definitive Guide to Bullying Prevention.

The link between school climate and bullying

NOTE: You can also find this article on our new and improved blog, TrustED. You’ll get the same great content and more in an all-new, easy-to-navigate format. TrustED: News and solutions school leaders can actually use.

Every school leader knows how detrimental bullying is to the learning environment.

Emotive conversations on social media and in our classrooms are clear evidence that awareness campaigns, such as National Bullying Prevention Month (happening now), are vital to efforts to make schools safer and stronger.

When a student is harassed or belittled, be it in school or online, that abuse not only affects their personal outlook, it also often impacts the climate of the entire school or school district.

Often a poor school environment becomes a breeding ground for bullying and other safety and discipline challenges.

The key to making schools safer, starts with empowering students to embrace a strong sense of personal identity, posits Becki Cohn-Vargas, director of the anti-bullying group Not In Our Schools, in Edutopia.

Cohn-Vargas recommends creating an identity safe environment for students—basically, a place where all students feel welcomed and empowered to engage in learning and social activities in schools, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.

It sounds like common sense. But the reality in a lot of schools is that students do not feel empowered, whether out of fear or some other reason.

Several school districts have great systems for dealing with bullying incidents once they’ve happened. The difference is that an identity-safe approach helps prevent incidents from even starting, writes Cohn-Vargas:

If bullying is handled only at the disciplinary level, underlying biases and attitudes about the kids who are perceived as different persist. Getting to a deeper level that truly leads to change goes beyond a bullying assembly, specific lessons, or disciplinary practices in response to bullying. It requires looking at the whole school environment.

So how do you transform your school into one that fosters inclusion and empowers personal identity?

Cohn-Vargas outlines four tips to transform your school climate to prevent bullying before it starts:

Make identity safety part of your curriculum
Encouraging inclusion should be an integral part of your educational philosophy.

“Foster identity safety in an environment of respect, empathy, and kindness by modeling it all day long through classroom and school-wide learning activities,” writes Cohn-Vargas.

This goes well beyond the occasional student assembly or guidance meeting. Schools need to engage students every day through revamped lesson plans, and collaborative decision-making. Faculty need to be specially trained and encouraged to foster that engagement.

Talk about the issues that divide students
No one likes a controversy, and tackling the hairy issue of student identity does not always make for an easy conversation. But real talk is the only way to root out the underlying issues that allow bullying and other forms of abuse to fester.

When students understand the experiences and struggles of their classmates, they’re much more likely to show empathy, says Cohn-Vargas.

Go beyond simple discipline
There will always be bullies in schools.

Your goal should be to discourage abusive behavior, to root it out, and teach against it.

What support do you provide students after they’ve been bullied? What kind of interventions besides punishment do you offer to bullies? Do you engage these students  in discussions about bad behavior and choices in school? Do you have any program to help students report and advocate against bullying or abusive behavior in school or online?

If you answered no to any of these questions, it’s time to rethink your approach.

Empower student voice
A positive school culture is a tough match for most bullies.

Giving students a platform to express themselves and their concerns encourages them to take ownership of their educations, inspires them to engage in school-related discussions, and equips them to stand up to bullying when it happens to them or to their friends.

How do you encourage students to express their identity and engage in school decision-making? Tell us in the comments.

Looking for ways to assess your school climate and make sure it’s working for everyone?  Don’t miss tomorrow’s webinar Making Feedback Matter: How School Climate Affects School Quality. Space is limited, so sign up now!