THE BLOG
07/28/2015 03:11 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2016

The #1 Way Schools Are Failing Our Kids Will Surprise You

This isn't a story about bullying, but let's start there, with a recent incident at an 8-year-old's birthday party.

"Who here thinks Adam is unpopular?" a young bully asks his classmates, right in front of Adam. "Raise your hand."

Hands shoot up. Adam, who has autism and is confused, also raises his hand. The kids laugh. Then the bully starts shoving Adam.

Maybe it shouldn't have been surprising that this all happened right under the noses of parents at the party. Bullying grows like mold anywhere obscured from the light of adult concern. Under school stairways. Throughout locker rooms trafficked by teachers. Online. The nearby presence of grownups is no deterrent, so parents shouldn't presume that their kids in the next room are safe. Children with autism and developmental disabilities are particularly vulnerable - two to three times more likely to be bullied than non-disabled peers.

Kids will be kids, sure. But the volume and tenor of bullying has increased substantially in our digital age and we all know by now that bullying can have tragic consequences. With over 13 million kids bullied every year, bullying has become a national issue that's prompted 49 states to pass anti-bullying legislation. With elaborate "anti-bullying" procedures in place, schools increasingly have detailed protocols to follow when a student reports an incident of bullying.

Admirable steps in the right direction, but studies show this isn't enough to move the needle.

The problem is that the law, schools and parents are treating bullying as if it's the beginning of the story, something to react to and treat. And the thinking of far too many school officials is that an occasional assembly is an adequate measure for them to check this issue off their list.

Does anyone really think that an assembly is going to change behavior? We've gotten better at defining, reporting and punishing bullying, but we're overlooking the necessary starting point that not only wards off bullying but is the key to academic, personal and professional success: building character.

It sounds like a quaint throwback, and maybe it is. But the essence of good character - empathy - isn't innate. Decades ago, families existed within tighter networks of support that helped impart and set standards of kindness. These days, our communities are more fragmented than ever and we've lost the cohesive familial, spiritual and neighborhood bonds that once cleaved us together. Gone are the neighbors helping us watch out for our kids, keeping an eye on Johnny and telling him to cut it out when he's acting up. Now we aspire to houses shielded by high hedge fences where we can hide out

But we can't teach our children to be good people in a vacuum. Studies show that empathy can absolutely be taught to kids, and a culture of empathy is both the necessary breeding ground for good character and the deterrent to bullying. Cultures, however, are a group effort.

The character education movement is an answer to this need, a re-emergence of the idea based in the founding of our nation's schools that the social, emotional and ethical development of students is just as important as academics. In fact, it's the precursor to academic achievement.

As the nonprofit character education firm Character.org defines it, "character education is the proactive effort by schools, districts, communities and states to help students develop important core ethical (recognizing what's right) and performance (doing what's right) values such as caring, honesty, diligence, fairness, fortitude, responsibility, grit, creativity, critical thinking, and respect for self and others. Character education provides long-term solutions to moral, ethical, and academic issues that are of growing concern in our society and our schools."

While character education can and should take root in the home, children spend over 900 hours in school each year and schools must play a leading role for character education to thrive. But building the social, emotional and ethical foundations of character doesn't happen via assemblies alone. The mission of this movement is to infuse character education into all aspects of a child's school day, from the school's curriculum to its core messaging, from the opening bell to the bus ride home. This kind of total immersion and blending of academics and character can only work if schools understand the life-changing importance of character education and are supported by parents and communities to reinforce moral values.

"We tell schools, 'you do character education whether you want to or not because kids are always watching," says Becky Sipos, President and CEO of Character.Org. "It's so much better if you're intentional about this and really define and enforce your core values, with the goal of teaching kids how to consciously choose right over wrong."

Since 1998, Character.org has recognized over 300 American schools and districts as National Schools of Character, where character education correlates with academic achievement. This exemplifies a promising shift from reactive anti-bullying procedures to proactive character education that creates a climate inhospitable to the growth of bully behaviors and hospitable to the flourishing of grounded and compassionate citizens.

Addressing the culture of schools and communities is at the heart of Lee Hirsch's Bully Project, the impact campaign that has flourished after the success of Hirsch's 2011 documentary "Bully." When his team begins work with a school, Hirsch requests a climate survey to assess the existing culture. "These surveys are kind of a no-brainer, but you'd be amazed at how hard it is to get schools to do this," he says. "A lot of schools are afraid of doing this survey."

According to Hirsch, the relationship between bullying and culture is huge. "If you understand the culture of the school, then you have a real path in understanding how you can lift up the culture elements of your community."

In collaboration with the Harvard School of Education, Lee's team works with schools to conduct one particularly compelling exercise around relationship mapping. The school is asked to gather every adult at the school, from teachers to cafeteria workers to bus drivers and beyond. The names of all students are placed on a board and school staff is asked to place a blue dot next to each student with whom they have some sort of a relationship. Do they know what's going on at home with these students? Would the kids come to these adults in a crisis?

When you step back from this board, a picture emerges. Typically, between 60% and 70% of kids have no blue dots next to their names. Hirsch then workshops with the group on how they can change this composition to foster a greater feeling of connectedness. For the kids who have multiple blue dots next to their names, Hirsch asks whether the school is leveraging the natural leadership of those kids and helping them shape their perspectives to set the right example. "The culture of a school has a huge impact," Hirsch notes. "And it's something you can change for free."

Hirsch is a big believer on building empathy skills into the everyday fabric of schools. Getting started on this work in preschool, when social laddering begins, is not too early. And helping adults with this work is not too late. "We offer a primer for adults on how not to be a bystander," he says. "You can't ask the kids to do it alone. You have to have that partnership with adults who set the tone and culture of the school. If we can get the adults to do the work first, it's easier to get the kids to follow."

Character.org reports that schools that prioritize character education see the results in improved academic achievement, behavior, school culture, peer interaction, and parental involvement. Positive behaviors such as cooperation, respect, and compassion replace negative ones like violence, disrespect, apathy, and underachievement. The school environment becomes more conducive to working, which invites greater perseverance and diligence, leading to greater success in school, employment and community involvement.

"We show kids the opportunities for moral action," Sipos notes. "We empower them by helping them understand how they really can make a positive difference in their classroom or community."

When parents and schools don't take the lead on shaping the culture of their communities, we can't be surprised when our kids shape it for us. Let's recognize that our children's character is as important as their ability to read and write. And then let's urge our schools to create an active, consistent and immersive culture of kindness that not only prevents bullying from taking root but more broadly helps our kids build strong moral compasses that will guide them in everything they do throughout their lives.