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Friday, January 20, 2012

Challenge of Empowering Bystanders

One of the most basic of assumptions of education is that adults can have direct influence and control over what students do and say. Educators are "successful" in controlling students. Students adhere to the schedules that are determined for them. Students follow a variety of directions from simple ones of taking out a book to sophisticated ones like following procedures in a science lab. They do homework assignments so this control extends outside of the school building. This control is so consistent and educators are so good at it, that those relatively few instances when students don't follow the directions or adhere to the rules are cause for alarm and concern. Since so much depends upon this control, educators are naturally very wary of situations where they might need to change how they control students. It is also hard to imagine how education as we know it could function without this degree of control over students. The alternative to successful control is thought to be "chaos". This is why educators are afraid of letting any student "get away" with any infraction because other students would want to follow the student who got away with it. This control that works for so much of school is counterproductive when it come to bullying.

I am not proposing that adult control is a bad thing. Having hundreds of students in one building moving from place to place and all having to learn similar things requires that "things" run smoothly-or that certain routines and procedures are established and followed without having to question or think about them.

The problem of bullying is so resistent to adult control precisely because it operates in the social world of students which is the one area that students can protect from adult control. It is world that operates outside of the adult experience of school. For most educators getting kids to learn the curriculum and perform academically is what is most important. Ask most students (especially older than ten) what is most important to them and they would say their friends and social world of school. Students and adults occupy the same time and space but have totally different experiences. Students who allow themselves to be controlled with the academic world do not automatically allow this control over their social world. This works out ok because there is a tacit agreement between students and adults to keep these worlds separate. These world operate simultaneously but independent of each other until something like bullying happens.

Bullying takes place in the "protected" social world of students that adults are unaware of and often unconcerned about. This is why adults observe about 5% of the bullying that occurs in schools and students observe almost all of it. Adults are pretty good at dealing with the 5% and think that the 5% represents almost of all it. This perceived success is probably the biggest obstacle to changing how bullying is addressed in schools today.

Students have learned how to bully (exert control over others) in the world that they know is hidden from adults. A world that they know that even the student who is bullied is reluctant to reveal to the adults (especially if that student thinks that adults don't want to be bothered by events in that world). Bullying depends upon the separation the separation of the student world and the adult world. If the adult world is too controlling or harsh, students will not trust it or use it as a resource. They will only want to avoid adults who they perceive as controlling rather than helpful, respectful and trustworthy.

While students need adult control in their lives and of their lives, they also need to gradually learn to live with less and less direct adult control. The most optimum learning experiences are ones that provide structure and parameters for how students act with a balance of freedom and choice with the subsequent mistakes and misjudgments that come with living.

This is why effective bullying prevention requires adults to realize the limits of direct control of students . They must also trust that less control doesn't mean that most students will go wild and out of control. They must trust that most students want to do what is right but will sometimes forget and go astray. Adults need to shift from direct control of students and learn to be trusted coaches and resources who encourage and remind them that they are basically good and capable regardless of what they might sometimes do.

This shift is the essential shift for effective bullying prevention in schools.

Here are the assumptions that adults need to have regarding bullying in schools:

Focus on the social environment and the relationships among students rather just react to individual acts of bullying after they occur.

Realize that students behavior is determined much more by the social context rather than the consequences imposed by adults on their actions.

Adults are most effective when they empower bystanders helping them understand how influential they are in determining the amount of bullying that happens in an environment.

Adults must give them the specific skills and strategies to deal with often ambiguous social situations when bullying is occuring.

Empowered and effective bystanders are usually students who can think for themselves and can see what is right even when it is not clearly defined by the rules.

Ironically, empowering bystanders means promoting leadership in students. Students can only be leaders when adults can trust them and believe in them which means giving them the freedom to make mistakes.

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