Want to improve your school’s climate? Stop focusing so narrowly on “bullying.” That was the advice Stan Davis, anti-bullying expert and retired school counselor and family therapist, had for teachers at a CEA Human and Civil Rights (HCR) Commission workshop earlier this month.
Bullying has received increased national intention over the last decade. Forty-nine states now have anti-bullying laws. Connecticut’s legislation was most recently revised in 2011.
Davis said the intention of these laws is admirable, but the results often fall short.
Bullying legislation often requires educators to report incidents that meet a variety of criteria. Incidents usually must be repeated, one way, and involve a power differential between the parties concerned and an intention to harm.
Davis said it’s unrealistic to think that teachers can assess all of these criteria amidst the many simultaneous demands on their time and attention.
The wrong questions
Instead of worrying about a long list of criteria that could classify an incident as bullying, when teachers witness a potentially problematic interaction, Davis said they should ask, “Is it likely to harm? If it’s likely to harm a student, either emotionally or physically, none of the other criteria matter as far as I’m concerned.”
He added that “Words that urgently have to go are bully, victim, and bystander.” According to Davis, “bully” and “victim” are forms of name calling that pigeonhole kids. Even if we just use the words in our own minds, thinking “that kid is a bully,” impairs our relationship with that child. And it affects how we think about the child whom we label a victim too, he said.
Why not ask the kids?
There are lots of bullying prevention programs out there, but when Davis went looking for research that asked students what actually worked to stop bullying, he couldn’t find any. So he did the research himself.
Thirteen thousand students in grades five through 12 in 31 schools around the country completed an anonymous online questionnaire about what they had done to stop bullying and what worked. The children answered questions about what actions they had done themselves, what their peers had done, and what adults had done that made things better. (Click here for more about the study.)
Twenty-six percent of youth in the study reported being emotionally hurt or excluded twice or more in the past month. Of those 26%, half reported that the behavior did not bother them very much, and half reported moderate to very severe trauma.
What really helps
Strategies that students in the study used included “don’t act like a victim” actions, seeking support, and “don’t think like a victim.” Although 65-70% used “don’t act like a victim strategies” only 20% said this approach worked.
When it came to actions by peers, the least effective strategy was one commonly promoted by anti-bullying initiatives: confrontation by bystander peers.
“We have a collective cultural fantasy that if kids would go around saying ‘stop it,’ mistreatment will go away,” Davis said. Confrontation by bystanders might halt a particular incident, but down the road it frequently backfires on the child being mistreated, according to Davis.
The most effective action peers took toward helping a mistreated child was spending time with and including the affected student. Students who used this strategy found that it was effective more than 50% of the time.
A teacher in the audience reported talking about this strategy with students at his school. One student said he was afraid that if he publicly befriended a student who had been mistreated, he might be targeted too.
Kids who felt that they belong , who said they were valued and respected at school, and who were close to adults reported experiencing far less trauma, even if they were mistreated, Davis said.
Meredith Menton, a Region 15 middle school reading consultant who attended the workshop, said she’s witnessed how differently students can respond to the same mistreatment. “It’s really amazing to see how some kids aren’t influenced by negative peer perceptions,” she said.
The most effective strategy Davis found adults used was “connection, support and help reframing” an incident. “Direct intervention” sometimes worked, but it depended on how it was handled. The least effective action by adults was telling children that they should have acted differently, or to stop tattling.
What you can do in your school
Davis had some concrete recommendations based on his research for teachers to take back to their schools:
- Encourage connection. When you’re doing a school climate survey, assess how many students feel connected to an adult at the school. Break it down by subgroups if your school is big enough. You can’t know whether you have inequity unless you ask these questions.
- Reshape bystander behavior. On a school climate or other survey list a variety of potential circumstances, from very serious to unimportant. Ask students to mark whether, for each circumstance, they think they should tell an adult about it. Distribute the (anonymous) results widely. Normalize the action of going to an adult with information and for advice.
- At a high school or middle school level, create a peer mentoring program to promote inclusion of all students.
- Normalize inclusive behavior. Ask lots of students to write stories answering: What did you do to help someone who was mistreated, what happened next, and how do you feel about what happened next? Keep the stories anonymous and post them throughout your school. Have students act out other students’ stories, or do a reading of the stories.
- Stop discouraging students from tattling – children internalize the message and become wary of sharing important information with adults. For elementary students who report minor issues, consider simply saying, “Thank you for telling me.”
- Reframe behavior. For example, if a child cries easily, instead of telling him or her to be less dramatic, say, “I bet you wish you had a calmer reaction,” and help the child work on that.
- Encourage intrinsic motivation. When students who commonly misbehave exhibit positive behavior, give them explicit feedback so they can replicate the behavior. Feedback should be descriptive rather than evaluative and include the result of the action. For example, “I see you lining up quietly and keeping your hands to yourself. We’ll all get to lunch more quickly now.”
Teachers plan to spread the word
Teachers attending the HCR workshop found Davis’ presentation very useful.
“I thought Davis’ examples were excellent,” Menton said. “I really liked how he described the results of our actions in the classroom and made it about more than just bullying.”
“I wish more of our teachers could have made it to the workshop,” she added.
Lukas Kailimang, a counselor at Newington High School, said he really appreciated how the workshop promoted a safe school culture, rather than simply attempting to stamp out bullying. He said that Davis’ new terminology was “a real paradigm shift.”
“I wish our administrators could have been here,” Kailimang said. “We need school-wide professional development on this topic so it can positively affect all students at Newington High.”