Bullying: A Big Complicated Problem with Many Simple Solutions

If each one of us untangled one string at a time...

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Teacher Training and Bullying Prevention

Good teachers humble me and I love schools. Every once and a while, I think about going back to school to get a degree in education. Why haven't I followed through yet? Whenever I spend time just visiting a classroom, I go home and take a nap. I'm exhausted. I don't know how teachers do it.

Luckily there are other brave and passionate souls out there preparing to make teaching their career. Recently, I was interviewed by education major Nicholas Macula, a second year student at St. John's University on Staten Island for a group project on bullying. The presentations were an assignment given by professor Dr. Sandra Abrams for a required education course titled Human Relations in Inclusive Settings. That's an unusual course title so I had to ask Dr. Abrams what it meant:

Students in the School of Education at St. John’s University are required to enroll in Human Relations in Inclusive Settings in order to become well equipped with interpersonal communication and self-reflective tools that will enhance their teaching and learning experiences. As noted in the academic bulletin, this course involves collaborative and individual projects that help students not only understand the importance of parent and community involvement, but also develop an “appreciation of the values and cultures of English language learners.” The work students complete for this class helps them acquire strategies for improved communication and classroom practice, preparing students for dynamic, real-world scenarios.

When asked if I could write about this, St. John's graciously said yes under the condition that I include the following statement:
“The views expressed on the pages of this blog/web site DO NOT reflect, in any way, the opinions of St. John’s University, its administrators, faculty and staff.”

That being said, I do have to add that St. John's should be very proud of what I saw and heard -- a professor inspiring her students to think and students who were doing just that.

They shared great information regarding the definition of bullying, cyber bullying and exploring solutions but for this post, I’d like to share a few outstanding points that may be of interest to parents, especially since parent/school relationships are key.

First and foremost, it's important for parents to know that these types of courses exist for teachers in training. Whether dealing with bullying issues is part of the exact job description of a teacher or not, it can be a part of the classroom experience. Being aware of it makes a teacher more prepared.

Above and beyond academics, the role of the teacher can be very challenging.

As part of the assignment, one of the groups conducted an informal survey on campus and online. Only 14% of students surveyed who responded yes when asked if they had been bullied in primary and/or secondary school, told a teacher.

This is a statistic that now holds much more significance for the St. John's students as they prepare to be that teacher, especially given that most advice we give children is to "tell a trusted adult, such as a teacher or parent."

When Dr. Abrams asked her students why they thought 86% of those surveyed did not confide in a teacher, the general consensus was, based on their own recent memories of being in school, they didn't feel the teacher would do anything about it or the teacher's involvement may even cause more problems.

Aha! That's why courses like Human Relations in Inclusive Settings are so necessary. Within a few years, most of the St. John's students will hopefully have jobs in elementary, middle or high schools, but they're not waiting until then to start thinking about the teacher's role.

Dana, a senior who has already had some classroom teaching experience, suggested that there should be required workshops that include both teachers and counselors that discuss bullying specifically, just as there are other professional development workshops.

One thing became clear to me. Teachers are trained to teach and not to be social workers. But I love Dana's suggestion because in order to help teachers teach, we have to support them in handling difficult situations that impact the success of individual students and the class as a whole. Teachers need to feel prepared, even if it means learning what not to say or when to work with a counselor. Counselors are often not prepared themselves.

How do we help fix that disconnect? Putting teachers AND counselors in a room together and giving them both the same information and letting them share their knowledge sounds good to me. This will help build an infrastructure in the school to help pave the way for real help for kids who need it.

I'd like to thank Dr. Abrams and her students for caring. The future students of these future teachers will thank them, too.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

What's Your Excuse for Not Having a Bullying Prevention Plan?

Tangled Ball would like to clear up a few misconceptions for all elementary schools who are reluctant to step in when it comes to bullying prevention. (Prevention being the key word here -- meaning taking measures so something doesn't happen.)

This is what it isn't:

• It's not admitting that you have a problem.

• It's not taking away from "teaching" time.

• It doesn't have to hurt your budget.

• It doesn't have to be a "downer."

First, bullying happens at EVERY school and starts young. That is in no way blaming the school. Schools are full of people -- small and big -- who come with their own personalities and their own learned behavior. Bullying happens. No guilt necessary, unless, of course, you don't recognize this basic fact and step up to help dial it down.

There are countless of creative ways to introduce bullying prevention messages in core curriculum. If you want some suggestions, just email me at: thetangledball@gmail.com!

• There are great free resources out there for schools and parents.

• It can be empowering and fun and positive. As a matter of fact, when you start prevention campaigns as early as Pre-K and upwards through elementary, it better be somewhat fun or it won't stick.

So to all those great principals out there who put their own ego aside and say,
Heck, yea, this is a problem and I'm not going to sit by and pretend it doesn't happen. I'm going to at least try to send the message in school that everyone counts.

A toast to you! You're awesome and the kids in your care are lucky. (I have to give a shout out to Mrs. Theresa Signorile at Our Lady Queen of Peace on Staten Island. She's a great example of stepping up for her students. The smiling happy kids in the picture above are part of the OLQP Leadership Campaign. The Be the One project includes the entire school and it's focus is to create a partnership between upper and lower grades to teach respect. Respect is the anti-bully.)

If you're a parent reading this, assist your school by doing a little research and helping the administration and teachers organize and implement a bullying prevention plan. Schools can always use an assist.

PTO Today is a one of the good resources out there supporting the parent/school relationship. It's a win-win.

And if you're a parent or principal and you're reading this and rolling your eyeballs and saying, "This is delusional. None of these things are going to solve the problem." You're half right. The problem will probably never be solved per se, but it may improve, and if a handful of kids don't end up carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders because you made an effort, is it still worth it? I'll let you answer that yourself.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Kids, Bullying, and the Holidays

This is a challenging holiday season for me and my family. It's been a season of loss. No matter what, loss makes you sad and there's no room for sad during the Christmas season.

When things are going well, the holidays make everything that much brighter. But when that's not the case, the holidays somehow make your lows feel lower.

Then I started thinking about how kids feel when they're being ridiculed or ostracized or physically pushed around. Are the holidays a needed diversion or are they hard? Isolating? Lonely?

When kids are happily buying gifts or making cards for their friends, do bullied children feel worse? When kids are getting together to go to the mall or go ice skating or caroling -- or whatever the traditions are for whatever religion you are -- or whatever region you live in -- do kids on the outside looking in, feel despondent?

I love the holidays but this holiday has made me more aware of kids who don't have the skills yet to understand that it's not their fault.

The point of this post is simply to say that during the holidays, perhaps we could give the gift of awareness, eye contact, interest, time, or just a kind word. Every child deserves the warmth of friendship.

It's too embarrassing for kids to admit that they're not happy during the holidays. Perhaps we can help lift that burden. Even if we can't fix their problem completely, we can remind them that there's still a reason to smile. Can compassion be wrapped? No, thank goodness. It's a gift that doesn't need tape and nice neat corners...but it does need an open heart and maybe a little glue.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Teaching Empathy and Bullying Prevention

My last post talked about the elementary school "One for All" Leadership campaign. It's simple goal is to have older kids mentor younger children. It's not the whole answer by a long shot but it's one of the answers in creating a more positive school climate. Although the older grades are asked to teach the younger ones lessons in friendship and respect, the overriding lesson is compassion.

You can't talk about compassion. You have to demonstrate it. As the "buddies" get to know each other, they learn to listen to each other. Why is this so important? Because some types of bullying make kids feel invisible. No one should suffer with the feeling that they're not important enough to be seen.

Why do we need to teach young kids empathy?
According to an article in Time Magazine's August issue, How Not to Raise a Bully: The Early Roots of Empathy:

Increasingly, neuroscientists, psychologists and educators believe that bullying and other kinds of violence can indeed be reduced by encouraging empathy at an early age. Over the past decade, research in empathy — the ability to put ourselves in another person's shoes — has suggested that it is key, if not the key, to all human social interaction and morality.

Someone commented on the post that a leadership campaign is "good in theory" but there are "mean teachers and mean kids out there." I agree with three quarters of that comment. Meanness is the enemy and that's why this fight is worth it. If part of the answer is making sure that there is someone in the building that "sees" each child, it's worth a shot. Building compassion takes a lot of effort. It doesn't happen overnight but the benefits get passed along for generations. It's also fun and we could all use a little of that every day.

The most surprising part of seeing these partnerships in action? In the process of helping to build self confidence in the younger kids, sometimes it's the older kids that benefit the most. When a first grader looks up to them as an eighth grader, it doesn't matter if they're the most popular in the class or if they were just ignored at lunch. All that goes away at the moment when a 6 year-old thinks you're the coolest thing on earth.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Every School Has a Bullying Issue. So now what?

Let me put it this way, it is highly unusual when a school doesn't have a bullying issue. The national statistic is about 30% of kids in schools say they've been bullied. After I conducted a survey in a local school (with 4th-8th graders, actually) it was, surprisingly, 30%. I say surprisingly because this is a well run school with "nice" kids.

What I thought was cool, is that the principal didn't hide from that number. She is a confident administrator who didn't get defensive. She said, "Well, then let's do something about it." My hero!

The challenge was two-fold. It's not just the "what," it's the "how" on a limited budget.

What are the goals?

• to focus on early prevention

• to engage all students in the building

• to make it positive and to empowering

• to engage teachers

• to engage parents

• to make it sustainable

• to build a foundation for growth

• to promote friendship and respect

• to provide multiple opportunities to repeat positive messages

• to make it fun and effective

Was it possible to accomplish some of these goals...with very little money?

Impossible!...until One came along.

The book is ageless and beautiful. It's message of standing up for one another resonates with children of all ages and adults. With One as the foundation, we built a One for All Leadership Campaign where the upper grades mentor the younger children by reading and working on activities with their "buddies."

Although Ms. Otoshi is extremely busy and lives across the country, she kindly designed a t-shirt for the partners to wear when they get together to talk about what it's like to Be the One. They're a team.

I highly recommend this approach. It's about prevention for the little ones and it's a teachable moment (literally) for the older students, who are quickly becoming fantastic mentors.

It's sustainable because there are other books, too, that are great tools. Kathryn has even come out with a sequel called Zero.

Obviously, it's not the whole answer. Training for the administration, teachers and parents is key and still has to happen...but it's a start. And starting somewhere is much better than standing still. One string at a time.

By the way, money for training and programs should not be the stumbling block. Organizations like National School Climate Center and Pacer have FREE training tools. But If states are passing bullying prevention laws that require training -- New Jersey being one -- hopefully, money will be attached. Parochial and private schools need training money, too. I'm just saying...

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Taking Action in Bullying Prevention

More people are getting involved in the bullying issue. Thanks to Ellen DeGeneres, even celebrities are stepping up to tell us how they really feel about the whole culture of mean. Listen. Whatever works. Bullying is such a messed up and difficult problem to tackle that I personally applaud anyone who tries to untangle one string at a time.

It's always compelling to see "stars" speak from the heart and it's really helpful for awareness. Go Ellen, Madonna, Jaden, Greyson, Tracy Morgan...

It's even better if we're prepared for solutions. Multiple solutions.

The National School Climate Center provides free bully prevention resources, classroom activities, and supports to schools and students-in-need through their national BullyBust campaign. I asked the center's co-founder, Dr. Jonathon Cohen, the following question:

Is it possible to actually improve school climate?

Yes! Educators, parents and students can learn and work together in ways that actually make schools significantly safer, more supportive, engaging and helpfully challenging. And, when they do so, academic achieving increases, student dropout rates and teacher retention rates increases. However, improving school climate is – necessarily – a multi-year effort that needs to be a central goal for the whole school community.

As we have recently detailed in ‘School climate reform: Mobilizing and supporting the whole village to support student learning and positive youth development (Cohen, J.[2010] in Principal Leadership, September) there are five important lessons that we have learned that support effective and sustained school climate improvement efforts:

Lesson #1: Principal as leader: School climate improvement efforts need to be fully supported and led by the principal.

Lesson #2: How to measure school climate? School climate data provides the “anchor” as well as direction for school climate improvement efforts and the actualization of the school climate standards. It is important that school use a school climate survey, like the Comprehensive School Climate Inventory (http://www.schoolclimate.org/programs/csci.php) that is valid and reliable; recognize student, parent/guardians and school personnel “voice”; and assess all of the major areas of school climate (safety, relationships, teaching and learning and the environment).

Lesson #3: On the value of school climate improvement road maps: The vast majority of principals recognize that school climate matters. However, we discovered that many principals are not sure how to best support effective school climate improvement efforts that build on past successes and challenges. School climate improvement ‘road maps’ that included specific tasks and challenges that shape each of the five stages of the school climate improvement process provide an essential foundation for change.

Lesson #4: Creating school policies that support safe, engaging, healthy and helpfully challenging schools: Educational research should shape policy, which in turn dictates practice. When schools adopt or adapt the National School Climate Standards (www.schoolclimate.org/climate/standards.php) they are setting a social, emotional and civic as well as intellectual or ‘academic’ bar that schools must strive for.

Lesson #5: Educational practice that support the whole child: School leaders face an almost impossible task. It is an admirable – and essential – goal that no child be left behind. But to insure this we must understand and address a myriad of needs and barriers to learning.

Pass this info on to your schools and check out their resources. Now that we know better, we can do better.