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!

Rethinking school anti-bullying campaigns

Did you notice a sea of blue shirts roaming your hallways this morning?

Today is Blue Shirt Day® World Day of Bullying Prevention™, STOMP Out Bullying’s international day for recognizing, addressing, and preventing bullying.

Maybe you organized full-fledged Blue Shirt Day rallies or contests in your schools. Maybe you initiated candid discussions about why bullying occurs in your school.

Whatever your approach, today is a time to reflect on an issue plaguing nearly one in three American school children. It’s also a time to develop solutions.

If you’re looking for ideas, a recent study from researchers at Princeton, Yale, and Rutgers sheds new light on the anatomy of bullying, as a recent Ed Week article outlines.

The main takeaway? Peer pressure helps prevent the phenomenon as much as it causes it.

Identifying the influencers
In a survey of more than 24,000 middle schoolers, researchers found that the most influential students were not necessarily the traditional “popular” kids.

“Adult-identified leaders are often very different from student-identified leaders,” Hana Shepherd, an assistant sociology professor at Rutgers University, told Ed Week. “Adults look at traditionally defined ‘popular’ kids, the ‘good’ kids, while kids who are leaders of smaller groups might not be on the social radar of adults, but often are [influential] too.”

The research also attributed bullying to a culture of retribution and harassment among the majority of students in a school, rather than just isolated instances by stereotypical “bad apples.”

But researchers warn that this reframing of bullying—and the social roles of students—may render traditional anti-bullying tactics ineffective.

Spreading the roots
Researchers used the survey results to map the social networks of the students in each school, identifying students who had influence across several peer groups.

Half of these so-called “seed” students were then invited to discuss the causes of bullying and ways to prevent it.

The Roots program, as the researchers named it, allows influential students to engage one another in an open, honest dialogue—not about bullying specifically, but about ways to reduce general conflict or “drama” in their schools.

Students then worked on their own creative projects to influence their peers. Those projects included creating positive, anti-bullying GIFs and developing reward systems for students who reduced conflict in their classrooms.

“We treated students as politicians, campaigning for a better school,” researcher Elizabeth L. Paluck told Ed Week. “The theory was that their public behaviors and statements could change norms.”

And the effort appears to have worked.

In schools with the Roots program, disciplinary incidents fell by nearly 20 percent. In schools where at least one-fifth of influential students participated in the program, reports of discipline issues decreased by 60 percent.

Re-thinking your approach
The results of the Roots program suggest that traditional anti-bullying programs may be outdated in this time of shifting social norms and communication methods.

If you’re planning a new program to combat harassment, consider digging deeper into your school’s social networks to identify the real student influencers. And make sure you keep student engagement at the heart of everything you do.

Today isn’t only Blue Shirt Day®, it’s also the kickoff to anti-bullying month nationwide. Throughout October, we’ll continue to touch on important bullying issues facing schools.

And keep an eye out for our guide for school leaders on bullying prevention.

Anderson Cooper, Bullying and Sunday Dinners

Anderson Cooper has a new Oprah-esque afternoon talk show, and this week bullying was one of the show’s topics. Not surprising, because bullying has received more attention from educators, politicians and the media in recent years than ever before.

Anderson (I call him by his first name because, like Oprah, that’s the title of his show) interviewed two girls — one 10, the other 14 — about being bullied and the effect that it has had on them. Both were clearly shaken just remembering their experiences, and they told horror stories about being constantly cornered, threatened and assaulted by other students.  The older girl lives in a community in Massachusetts not far from Phoebe Prince — who tragically took her own life to escape the ridicule of her classmates — and had to be removed from school and hospitalized in order to escape a similar fate.

Dr. Dorothy Espelage, a professor at Indiana’s College of Education, who has studied bullying for more than two decades, was also a guest on the show. An audience member, who happened to be a public school teacher, stood to ask a question:

As teachers, what can we reasonably do? My largest class has 27 students and I have hallway duty mandated by administration. As my students file into the classroom, I am required to stand in the hallway as a safety precaution for other students passing through the halls. Given this and all of my other duties and obligations, what can I reasonably be expected to do in order to prevent or stop bullying?

Dr. Espelage gave a simple, straightforward answer:

Build relationships with your students.

Is it really that simple? Have we reached the point as a society where experts have to remind us to build relationships with children? With each other? I’m willing to accept that the answer to all of those questions is probably yes.  The difficult part is living it every day.

So where do we start? Another simple answer: Start small. Anderson himself is beginning a campaign to bring back family dinners. Can you imagine? A campaign for family dinners. But maybe that’s where we lost ourselves.

We all need to focus more on relationship-building. After all, relationships are the foundation of our personal and professional lives. But no relationships are formed overnight. Building trust and rapport — whether it’s with friends, family, colleagues or communities — takes time and constant effort. But if we begin to make relationships a priority, like family dinners, hopefully we will better understand each other, thereby building a stronger community of trust in our districts and in our homes.