Taming the Global Bullying Epidemic, An Interview with speaker and leadership trainer, Houston Kraft - Part 2

Bullying is a worldwide phenomenon that piles weights on students put during their education experience, and it plays a part in deeper forms of violence in schools. Still, resilience and social-emotional strengths are possible for every student everywhere. Houston Kraft is a sought-after speaker and trainer in schools across the nation and has a message that can change this generation. Today, I had the honor of interviewing Houston for part two of a three-part series on bullying prevention. In case you are just joining us, here is part one.

What follows is a guided interview with Houston.

Jonathan: Hi there, Houston. It's an honor to speak with you today, and get your thoughts on school violence, bullying prevention, and how we can make some serious headway on dealing with these issues in our nation.

Houston: Hi Jonathan, thanks for connecting with me. I want to reiterate how grateful I am for your reaching out. I've been reading some of your work and love your position and passion.

Jonathan: Thanks! So let's get started. Can you talk about some of the cultural underpinnings of violence in schools, and then bring this back to nurturing a durable, lasting sense of health and wellness in students.

I think there are a lot of causes for bullying and more serious forms of school violence, but I feel that the causes stem from four areas: Exposure, Expectations, Emotions, and Empathy. And within each of these ideas, I think we find not only the root of some of our problems, but also areas where we must take time to reflect on as a culture, and then to grow, and potentially find some hope (and solutions)!

Jonathan: Fair enough. Well, tell me more about the exposure kids have to violence these days.

Houston: Unfortunately, the exposure to violence and to school violence is everywhere. To this end, the ubiquity of the internet and the constancy of our news media have created a space where people can become famous (or infamous) in the matter of hours. Thus, acts of violence and terrorism are often reported on within minutes and are guaranteed to be the type of story that goes national, international, and viral within an hour. Oftentimes, the perpetrators of these awful things become accidentally aggrandized - their names, faces, and actions displayed across thousands of sites and news outlets. The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary was one of the first large scale acts of school violence since the coming of the social media age and, in the three years since Sandy Hook, there have been well over 100 school shootings on K-12 campuses across the country.

Many times, we learn that the story of the shooter is one of disengagement - of a kid who felt ostracized, perhaps bullied, and in many ways alone and desperately wanting attention (as all humans do). I think the exposure that school violence has received and the way the media billboards these stories for weeks at a time is alluring to students who want nothing more than attention and who are pushed far enough to do anything to get it.

Jonathan: Wow, Houston. That sounds frightening. Where do you think this excessive attention to school violence began (or perhaps was most prominent in recent years).

Houston: Since Columbine in 1999, armed officers on campuses have increased dramatically such that many schools have them nowadays. I think when we provide a visual of violence (even if it is preventative) through the presence of armed guards on a campus, we create the expectation that violence will occur there. That is not good as far as student respect and bullying goes - and it is worse when we think about more serous forms of violence.

It is the scary side of the Pygmalion Effect, which says that when we expect things to happen, we affect what does happen.

Jonathan: That's kind of frightening, to be honest.

Houston: Yes it is. I believe (in the example of the armed officers) the assumption that violence might happen increases the likelihood that violence will happen. In my experience working in schools all over the country, the expectations we have for students are almost entirely negative. Examples of these negative rules include the following:

  • Don't browse these web pages;
  • Don't wear these types of clothes;
  • Don't use harassing or hurtful language;
  • Don't bring weapons or to school;
  • Don't present gang symbols at school.

Don't get me wrong. I understand the need for rules, but when we provide a framework of "don'ts" to teenagers (instead of do's), what will result is a lower expectation for their behavior. As a result, students will:

  • Inevitably push against these rules;
  • Rise (or fall in this case) to the negative expectations.

Indeed, I think our cultural expectations of school violence have become sadly distorted. In 1999, Columbine was a national tragedy - and as a result, people across the country recoiled in shock, insisted on change, and came together in healing. In 2014, I remember sitting in the airport and watching the news of the shooting at Marysville-Pilchuck High School and thinking to myself, "no one here seems surprised." It felt like it wasn't a national tragedy, but instead "just another incident." I think when our cultural mentality expects that to be true, we continue to allow it to be true.

Jonathan: You know, Houston, this saddens me also. Last Spring when the Marysville-Pilchuck High School shooting happened, I was in an airport as well. Around that time, William H. Macy's amazing movie, Rudderless, had just came out - and it helped put a name and face to the need for the prevention of school violence. I had published a review of the movie that morning, had already heard back from one of the co-writers, and then the shooting occurred. I was devastated, as was another community and the families therein. How should we respond when hope seems to run out?

Houston: Hope doesn't run out. There are always helpers and always goodness and positivity around us every day if we look for it. But you're right - we need to shape young people to be resilient and socially and emotionally strong to help combat some of the intense challenges we face in our world. We need to be very cognizant of the emotions of students and their ability to understand, control, and use them for good.

I was working with a group of teachers at a school this past year and talking with them about some tools I've created to promote character and social-emotional learning. After I was done, I overheard that teachers felt frustrated that incorporating some of these tools "was just another thing on their plate"

I totally understand - teachers have increasingly difficult jobs and standards. Their plates are piled very high. However, I don't think social-emotional learning and character development are just another thing to add to their plate. I think it IS the plate! Of course it is Education's job to create students who are equipped with hard skills like math and science for the 21st century. But if they come out on the other end unpracticed at compassion, forgiveness, reflection, or selflessness then what value do those other skills REALLY have.

Jonathan: Your Character app for iPhones is amazing. It gives students who use it a daily chance to exercise tangible ways to help develop positive behaviors so they become habits and then proven character. Tell me more about the students that have inspired your work in building character in young people.

Houston: In the past 4 years, I have spoken at over 300 schools and events to nearly 300,000 students and staff. After every presentation, students approach me desperate to share their story with someone - they figure since I just shared my story with them, I am a pretty safe person to confide in. I can't tell you how many stories I've heard of kids who are struggling with depression, anger, resentment, abandonment, addiction, and more who have no idea what to do with those emotions.

My first question is always, "Have you shared this with anyone else? Have you talked with a counselor in or out of school?"

Jonathan: And what do they say?

Houston: An overwhelming percentage have not told anyone because they are too scared to ask for help. The main reason for this is fear that it makes them look "weak." Other types of fear include fear of what their friends or family will think of them, or fear of the whole idea of counseling in general.

So let's think about those students in schools who are hurting or struggling with mental health. They've spent their whole life in school feeling frustrated, angry, alone and have never been really coached on how to handle those emotions. They oftentimes don't have great role models at home of what strong mental and emotional health look like. And to top it off, our culture has created this stigma - this idea that "getting help" means you are in some way broken.

Jonathan: It's an environment where bullying behaviors can really take root.

Houston: Yes. Also, our culture sends the message that mental health is taboo, and as a result kids don't get help they need. Then, things accumulate until one day those emotions that are complicated or require professional help reach a breaking point. However, social-emotional learning IS the plate that everything else gets piled on. We have to make sure it is strong enough to support all the things that get piled on kids.

Jonathan: Wow, I get the picture now. It's amazing how clearly you have explained things. Is there anything else we need to understand to provide supports to hurting students?

Houston: Yes, the last thing we need to focus on is empathy - in fact, it's at the top of the list, not the bottom.

There is a lack of empathy in our world that permeates our schools. Kids can be really mean to each other sometimes, but it's usually because they've seen adults do it first. Empathy is a skill that all of us could use some work on because, by default, I think we are pretty bad at it. It is hugely challenging to put yourself in the shoes and mindset of another person when all you know is your own experience.

I often tell students that empathy is intentional imagination - the exercise of understanding someone else's struggles by extrapolating similar feelings from your own experience. It is an umbrella skill that requires a lot of other ancillary skills like patience, kindness, selflessness, and humility - all of which I would suggest are things that we need to practice in small ways every day to get better at them.

To tell the truth, I'm always frustrated when I think about it that way - these are all things that we CAN improve. Empathy is a muscle that gets stronger if we apply intentional, consistent practice. And schools across the country already provide opportunities to practice athletics, activities, and academics for HOURS a day. WHY don't we spend 5-10 minutes a day intentionally practicing love? It is an empathy-deficiency in schools that creates pain, harassment, and disengagement.

And what is the solution? Just like athletics, activities, and academics - let's provide tangible opportunities every day for our students to build habits like patience and humility so they can get better at taking care of each other and our world. I strongly believe that kids all across the country want to BE good, they just don't always know how to DO good and I think it is Education's job to provide examples and practices to become more empathetic, kind people.

This is how we develop an attitude of empathy - by building positive habits through thoughtful curricula and practices in order to increase our capacity for intentional imagination, provide new perspectives, and develop more selfless students. It's where something like CharacterStrong http://www.characterstrong.com/ is really important - providing kids with tangible ways to exercise their ability to show compassion, character, and Love to all kinds of people (including themselves).

Jonathan: Amazing words, and your idea of CharacterStrong even helping students be kinder to "themselves" reminds me of Nick Vujicic's (Stand Strong: You Can Overcome Bullying http://www.amazon.com/Stand-Strong-Overcome-Bullying-Other/dp/1601427824, 2014) advice for students as they create their own internal antibullying system. As advice to young people, he said, "Be nice to yourself. Forgive your mistakes, your flaws, and your failures. Be kind to yourself instead. Focus on the good."

This is excellent advice for all of us! Well, Houston, I cannot thank you enough for sharing your stage with me today. I look forward to hearing great things about the work your are engaged in.


Houston Kraft is a speaker & leadership trainer in Seattle, Washington. His website is Houston Kraft and he has an amazing video that starts a conversation about character called Perspecticles.