The 2013-14 school year is winding to a close. (Insert applause and shouts of glee here.) For many, this is the "wrap it up" part of the year where projects are finished, grades are turned in, and report cards are finalized. For others, this is more of a beginning -- a time to look ahead and plan for the next school year. For me, this becomes a busy time of year as schools and organizations are strategizing for improved bullying prevention measures for 2014-15 and scheduling workshops to guide them in their efforts.
In my conversations with faculty and staff about both the struggles and the successes they've had with regard to bullying and bullying prevention, one common theme emerges: It's all about the culture of the classroom. The teachers who are most effective in stopping bullying are the ones who work purposefully and systematically to create classroom cultures in which kindness is valued over coolness; and popularity among students is based not on the power to dominate social interactions, but rather on a young person's willingness to reach out to a classmate with compassion.
Purposefully? Systematically? What exactly does that mean? How can an already over-tasked teacher systematically add bullying prevention activities into an already over-scheduled school day?
It's simple. Truly. Now, just because I say that "it's simple" doesn't imply that the process is effortless. Quite the contrary: Shaping a classroom's culture takes thought, planning and active engagement by teachers. It is a hands-on, hearts-in process, without doubt. Yet time and time again, the interventions that are most effective in signaling to a child that his dignity is paramount and his safety is prioritized are the ones that are based on simple, routine actions rather than grandiose, complicated ones. What follows is a grouping of bullying prevention strategies, based on activities for building a positive classroom culture:
You may be familiar with various versions of the trendy "Family Rules" wall art, featured on sites like Pinterest and Etsy. A popular activity I use with teachers is to have them design and develop their own "Classroom Rules" wall art, as a way of thinking through and clearly defining their class culture. For schools that struggle with widespread bullying issues, Classroom Rules typically read along the lines of: "Kids will be kids," or "Bullying is a rite of passage; deal with it." In classroom cultures where bullying is minimized, the rules sounds more like: "You are safe here. You belong. You are cared for. You matter."
In any event, the most effective classroom rules are those that:
• Are based on values such as dignity, safety, belonging, kindness and accountability
• Help a young person feel valued, protected, nurtured and empowered
• Are mutually written and agreed upon by teachers and students
• Are referred to again and again throughout the year -- as a living, breathing statement that guides all interpersonal interactions rather than as an irrelevant piece of art hung on a wall
Flash back to your childhood briefly. Recall something that a teacher said to you -- either good or bad -- that has always stuck in your mind. Chances are good that you can readily come up with an enduring phrase or a lesson. Maybe you have even, in turn, imparted this message to your own kids or students? The messages that adults communicate have a way of becoming internalized as part of a child's own inner voice.
One particularly effective teacher I know describes her purposeful use of specific, values-based phrases with students as a strategy for creating a positive classroom climate. Each and every day, she uses culture-shaping messages such as:
• Kindness matters
• Be known for being kind
• Keep everyone in the heart
She explains the last phrase on the list by saying that she once was telling her students that their classroom was like a great big heart, when one of the kids shouted out, "Yeah! And we're all in it!" From that moment forward, the kids in the class collectively adopted the new phrase, "Keep everyone in the heart" as a gentle, student-initiated reminder anytime a classmate began to do or say something hurtful to someone else.
More efficient than a lecture and more impactful than a finger-wagging warning, positive classroom phrases play a powerful role in preventing cruel behavior among young people. These consistently-used messages shape the classroom's culture and impact the way kids think about themselves in relation to others. They can be a powerful part of any adult's daily bullying prevention routine. Consider for a moment: what enduring messages would you like to impart to a child?
Classroom Role Modeling
You are likely familiar with the old adage, "Do as I say, not as I do." Now, forget you ever heard it. It has no place in the classroom, particularly when it comes to maintaining a positive peer culture. The power of role modeling is second to none and while young people may not always seem to abide by everything adults say, they are most definitely modeling their behavior after what adults do. Teachers who show kindness and respect for their students have students who show kindness and respect for each other. Unfortunately, the reverse occurs as well.
True story: Two years ago, the mother of a socially awkward student shared with me her concern that her daughter's teacher was contributing to the exclusion her daughter was experiencing in her classroom. She described an incident in which the class was permitted to divide themselves into small groups to work on a project. Her daughter was not invited to join any of the groups. When the student asked to be included, her classmates told her, "Sorry, we're full." When the young girl asked her teacher to help her find a group, the teacher walked her over to a cluster of the class' most popular girls and announced apologetically, "I'm sorry, girls. Katie will have to be in your group." When one of the group members rolled her eyes, the teacher put her hand reassuringly on the angry girl's shoulder and said, "You'll be OK. It's only for this week."
As the mother relayed the story, I could hear her outrage. I want to tell you that I was astounded, but sadly, it's nowhere near the first time I have heard this kind of story of a teacher over-identifying with kids who bully and allowing acts of exclusion to go on unchecked. Effective teachers do not cater to the social hierarchies established by popular students nor do they sympathize with the inconvenience students feel at having to work with an awkward peer. Rather, teachers who are successful in building positive classroom cultures are those who encourage classmates to rally around vulnerable young people in distinctive, meaningful ways.
Are some students harder to like than others? Of course. Is it understandable that a particular student might get on the collective nerves of classmates and teachers? Yes again. Does a teacher ever have the right to join in on or passively condone cruelty among her students? No. Not ever. Effective shapers of classroom cultures are champions of the underdog and standard bearers of acceptance. They role model kindness and inclusion in all of their interactions -- especially the ones that are most challenging. This is how their students move beyond the lip service of wall art and actually live the values of their classroom's culture.
Every action, every day. This is the mantra of school culture I like to propose to the educators I work with. When every action, every day is shaped by norms of kindness, dignity, safety, belonging, and accountability, bullying behavior never has a chance to take root. Conflict is managed with dignity, young people learn that kindness matters, and oh yeah, teachers can get back to the business of teaching.
Signe Whitson, LSW is a school counselor, educator on bullying prevention, and author of four books, including the newly released 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents & Schools. For more strategies on creating a positive school culture or workshop inquiries, please visit www.signewhitson.com