October is Bullying Prevention Awareness Month.
My brother-in-law’s tomatoes drove me crazy! His garden not only produced more tomatoes than mine but they were bigger and tastier. Our plants came from the same greenhouse — I purchased them for the both of us. Both of our gardens were watered, fertilized and got about the same amount of sun. Why did his garden produce so much better? Here is what I finally figured out: I have had a garden for many years; he has had one for two years, therefore, my soil was depleted and his was enriched. All the other gardening things I did were necessary, but ultimately what mattered most was the soil! The lesson was clear: To get the best tomatoes, you have to start from the ground up.
This lesson can be applied to bullying prevention in our schools: Even the best policies, programs, rules and protocols will fail to reduce or prevent bullying, unless they can take root in a positive, caring school culture and climate. Perhaps this is why that even with anti-bullying laws in almost every state, greater public awareness of the problem and many available bullying-prevention resources, recent government statistics from 2005-2011 show little change in the rate of bullying reported by students. Bully prevention, like any change initiative, must always confront the predominant influence of school culture and climate on all that happens in school, or as Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Policies, programs, protocols, etc., can be useful tools for people to use, but they don’t change people — only people can change people. Bullying prevention must also start from the ground up — the ground of changing people’s hearts and minds towards greater respect and caring. Bullying prevention should not just be about stopping a negative behavior; it should be about how the members of the school community treat each other. Although it is tempting to mandate change by implementing a program to feel like something is being done about the problem of bullying, schools that do so are like the surgeon who said the operation was a success but whose patient died. Compliance is a poor, ineffective substitute for a community’s commitment to creating the type culture and climate needed for learning — one that is incompatible will all types of bullying.
Realizing that the issue is school culture and climate and then wanting to change it are important first steps, but actually doing so is another matter altogether. Changing a school’s culture and climate is a daunting endeavor. Here are a few key reasons:
The people who are in a culture/climate don’t see it. It is not culture/climate; it is just the way school is. If I didn’t have my brother-in-laws tomatoes as comparison, I probably wouldn’t know anything was wrong with my soil/tomatoes. A teacher once told me that he didn’t realize that “bullying” was the norm at his previous school until he came to a different school where he experienced greater respect and caring for members of the school community. If people can’t see their culture, they will not be able to change it. Unfortunately, people can become easily habituated to ways of interacting that are often not respectful. These behaviors, too often directed towards students, can be too easily justified and rationalized by adults in positions of authority.
People can easily interpret any suggestion of changing their school as criticism of their current efforts. Directly telling educators that their school culture/climate needs to change is probably the best way of insuring that it won’t. Regardless of how they might appear, all educators think they are doing a good job and suggesting the opposite will only make them more defensive and less open to any recommendation for changing.
There’s often an “elephant that is in the principal’s office.” A school principal who is authoritarian and routinely uses his/her power as a way of getting things done, will have zero creditability with staff and students for any bullying-prevention initiative. Chances are that many teachers and students imitate the leader’s way of getting things done. A school can become full of bystanders too frightened to say anything or raise any questions with such a principal. Fear freezes people into place and prevents meaningful change.
Change to what? Most bullying-prevention efforts emphasize what shouldn’t happen:“Don’t bully others.” The implicit message is that the schools themselves don’t have to change; they just have to make sure that bullying doesn’t happen. Adults often don’t see bullying prevention as applying to them. Students can interpret this message as implying that they are the problem and not the solution. In fact, most students, who don’t bully and don’t approve of it, are turned off by this negative message (telling to not to something they don’t already do). It deters them from working with adults as partners in making their school a better place.
Change how? Schools tend to follow the legal/criminal justice model for addressing unwanted behaviors. Educators often think that traditional school discipline can be applied to bullying. Bullying however can be subtle and many students who bully learn to do it under the radar of adult supervision. Traditional rewards and consequences have little if any impact on bullying behavior in schools. When it comes to bullying, deterrence is a myth. If students believe they won’t be caught (the great majority of the time they won’t), they don’t worry about consequences. If students impulsively bully students in retaliation for being bullied, they aren’t thinking beyond the moment anyway.
Although starting from the ground up is a challenge, it is worth the investment. Bullying prevention holds the opportunity doing something beyond just solving a problem; it can be the portal for igniting the community’s moral purpose for improving the learning environment for all students and staff.
Here are some ways to approach bullying prevention from the ground up:
Tell a different story. Bullying prevention needs to be re-framed. Too often it is seen as another problem on a long “to do” list. Having a positive and supporting school culture and climate is at the core of every school’s educational mission. Every member of the school community has a positive role to play in that mission. Rather than simply telling people what NOT to do, bullying prevention “reframed” can invite and inspire all members of the school community to work together to create the type of school that they want and need.
Stand on principles. Schools should invest the time to determine, articulate and communicate guiding principles for how all members of the school community should speak and act. Guiding principles don’t necessarily have to preclude having rules; they can explain the reasons for having the rules. Examples of some guiding principles could be:
- There is never an excuse for treating anyone with disrespect.
- Make all students look valuable in the eyes of their peers.
- Establish trusting relationships with all members of the school community.
When all members of the school community are included in the process of determining these guiding principles, the school community is strengthened and prepared to plan the next steps in the process.
Translate principles into specific words and actions. Very often people want to change but are unsure of what to say or do differently. This lack of clarity can make it easier for people to keep doing what they are used to doing. When a guiding principle is “translated” in specific words and actions that people can try, it makes the first steps toward changing behavior little easier. For example, staff can build trusting relationships with students by greeting each student by name as they walk into classrooms. People are more likely to change behavior when they see its connection to a higher purpose.
Get adult behavior aligned with principles. The best way for staff to influence student behavior is to model the change they want to see. As students get older they are more likely to resist or resent adult attempts to control them. This doesn’t mean they don’t want adult guidance, support and understanding. When school staff consistently act consistent with guiding principles, students will be more likely to communicate a problem or a concern.
All students can lead. The more students are involved in the process of shaping the school culture and climate, the more they will feel a sense of ownership for their school. This sense of ownership and community provided the best motivation for bystanders to act in a caring and responsible way if they see another student being hurt in anyway. Empowered bystanders are the key factor in decreasing the amount and frequency of bullying in any school.
Learn about changing. Sometimes the greatest obstacle to change is not believing change is possible. When people learn about the change process together, they discover ways to change without perceiving the change as a criticism of their current state. Members of the school community can read together and discuss articles and/or research on how people change. When the people who need to change have some choice in how they can change, they are more likely to change.
Becoming a more caring and respectful school community is the means and the ends towards preventing and reducing bullying in schools. All schools can start from where they are and build on their strengths. Once the school community knows what their real goal is and takes those first steps toward it, change is not just possible, it is inevitable, because they will have solid ground to walk on.
Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including twenty as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written two books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden) and No Place for Bullying (Corwin). He writes a blog at www.jim-dillon.com.