12/06/2010 05:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Schools Must Be Part of the Solution to Cyberbullying

I don't get it!

In the world of cyberbullying as portrayed by the New York Times, the schools are strictly off limits when it comes to addressing cyberbullying. In fact, this page one article by Jan Hoffman begins with the poignant story of the mother of a ninth grader. When she found out that some other kids had created a forged Facebook page for her son and were bullying other kids under his name, she went to the school authorities. After expressing concern for her son, she was told that the schools could do nothing about this situation: It's an off-campus matter.

Yes, I completely understand that teachers are overwhelmed with everything they have to do in the era of No Child Left Behind accountability where test scores determine children's, teachers' and schools' futures. And yes, I completely understand the time consuming and legal complexities of dealing with rampant cyberbullying on a case-by-case basis. The principal of a middle school, in fact, recently told me that if she got involved, she would spend at least half her time every single day dealing with what goes on in cyberspace among the kids in her school.

But the assumption that the schools have no role is not productive. It reflects the old fashioned and erroneous notion that social-emotional issues (cyberbullying) are separate from cognitive issues (learning in school). As Jack Shonkoff of Harvard University famously put it when releasing the National Academies of Science book, Neurons to Neighborhoods: if Johnny is sad or mad, Johnny can't add.

In addition, this assumption also reflects the old-fashioned and erroneous notion that parents and educators have totally separate roles. When that happens, you get a lot of parents denying that their children could ever engage in cyberbullying, or being defensive or downright mean themselves. The New York Times article was filled with stories of parents mishandling situations when their children were either the perpetrators or victims of cyberbullying. We all have to be in this together.

So why not turn the situation around and focus on prevention rather than trying to pick up the pieces in a world that seems frightening like Lord of the Flies -- kids gone wild. Starting early is best, but it's never too late.

First, I would suggest that teachers promote perspective-taking skills as a part of teaching literacy. Teachers can do this without a fancy curriculum, by simply asking children to discuss the perspectives of the characters in the stories they are reading: "Why do you think this person acted this way? What was she or he feeling? What was she or he thinking?"

There are also curricular approaches that teach this skill -- and some have even been evaluated. Take, for example, the research by Larry Aber of New York University. Aber and his colleagues found that 20 years of efforts to teach children problem solving skills as a way of reducing conflict in children were only partly successful. They began to probe what goes on in children's minds when they are provoked. They discovered a missing link, a link they call "an appraisal process." The children most likely to be aggressive haven't learned the skill of perspective taking, of understanding what is going on in other people's hearts and minds.

Aber and his colleagues evaluated a curriculum in the New York City public schools, called Reading, Writing, Respect, & Resolution. This program doesn't separate teaching children to handle conflict from other kinds of academic teaching. Each unit is based on a children's book selected for its literary quality. Through discussions, writing exercises, and role-play, children explore the meaning of the book, learn how to appraise the perspectives of others in complex situations, and then are taught how to resolve these conflicts. The results showed that not only was conflict reduced but academic achievement was improved.

Second, I would suggest that schools put together campaigns to use kids technology skills to help stop cyberbullying. This can be done in grade school, middle school, or high school. Designate a group of children to be the leaders in this campaign. Have them work with teachers to come up with the rules around cyberbullying and the consequences for when the rules are broken. Have them also help create a process for enforcing the rules. You can even have the kids compete on creating the best social media ads, posters, songs, etc. that carry the messages of the campaign. In other words, give the children some autonomy over solving the problems. My research on Youth and Violence involving a nationally representative study of young people in the fifth through the 12th grades found that children want this. As one child wrote, "If we are the problem, then we need to be part of the solution."

This is not just a family issue. Yes, we should continue to help parents improve their capacity to respond to cyberbullying in constructive ways. But schools and communities, children and adults need to be part of the solution too!

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