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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Lessons from a viral video

Putting politics aside (not always an easy thing to do), even his most ardent rivals would probably agree that Mitt Romney is a good man.  He is a devoted husband, loving father and has a led a good life.  He has been a successful person in many endeavors.  His parents did a good job of raising him and I am sure that they were rightfully very proud of him.  He did, however, as a teenager commit an act of bullying that he would be the first to admit was wrong.  Should he be perpetually condemned for that act?  Should he be considered a "bad" person because of that act?  Should that act be considered sign of poor parenting?  Was he a "monster" deserving of death threats for what he did?  Should he had received a criminal record and possibly served time in prison for that act? Was a severe consequence necessary for him to learn that it was wrong?  What would have happened if that act had been caught on video and shown to millions of people?

I raise these questions in light of the recent incident of bullying of the bus monitor in Greece, NY.  Let me state very clearly that what those students did and said was unacceptable.  Their words and actions were mean and hurtful.  No person should be treated the way the bus monitor was treated.  There is never an excuse for disrespect toward a person.   They should (and have already) received negative consequences for their actions.  Should their words and actions be condemned-yes!  Should they be condemned as people, labelled as "monsters" and considered criminals-no!  How should we interpret or  explain what they did without excusing it?

 I think the bus monitor herself had the best response to that question.  When she was asked if criminal charges be brought against them, she said no.  When asked if they were "bad" kids, she said no and that deep inside they were good.  Since she has been around kids for a long time, she added that if each student was with her one to one, those comments would not have been made.  She said that when the students get together as a group they act differently and say things to show off to each other.

Kids especially teenagers say and do stupid things especially in groups and for groups.  They also do risky and dangerous things and sadly they often do mean and hurtful things. These things happen not because they are bad or because their parents have failed in raising them the right way.  These things happen because kids are not adults and they still are learning how to live life the right way.  Part of learning to live the right way means they will make mistakes, and unfortunately some of those mistakes that can have serious consequences for themselves and others.   I have yet to meet anyone, however, who cannot recall something or many things they did in their teen years that they regret.    All of us look back at things we did and wonder what possessed us to do them.  (Check out this revealing article on the teenage brain - it can help us remember that growing up is not easy). 

Kids are "works in progress".  They have great potential for doing good and for doing bad and it is our responsibility to believe in, nurture  and expect the positive/good in them.  They look to us to help them discover who they really are.  We "tell" them who they are especially when they "screw up"-they need us to help them interpret their mistakes and failures in a way that allows them to live and grow for another day and another opportunity.  They will and do take us at our word.  If we put negative labels on them in response to their mistakes and failures,  those labels "stick" and  can take a long time to come off, if they ever do.  We get what we expect-so we have to expect the positive even in the face of many mistakes kids make in the process of growing up.  We need to give them the right and hopeful interpretation of who they are especially in their moments of need.

Unfortunately, it can be very easy and tempting for the media to play up the "good versus evil" scenario and condemn the kids and their parents.  The media plays to an audience who often wants and needs to feel morally superior to these "character flawed" kids and their "inadequate" parents.  Such a media drama creates a larger audience than having a meaningful discussion of the event and more importantly of what our students need from us in order to learn these important life lessons.   It is, sadly, easier to condemn than to face our real responsibility to our children.

I would be tempted just to write off the media circus that now surrounds these type of events as just the way things are, however, these "ratings driven" media dramas do make it harder to have the type of discussions that can lead to effective bullying prevention.   When these events are portrayed the wrong way, it can make the atmosphere too charged and polarized for the type of discussions we need to have  and that our children need us to have.  Sadly it seems we live in a very harsh culture where people are afforded zero margin for error and find little if any empathy or compassion when their failures are public and visible.  (I often think that the phrase "Let him without sin cast the first stone..." would not prevent some people from throwing stones given the self righteousness we hear from many people in response to the "sins" of others.)   

There are many debatable points about bullying prevention; there is one point that I strongly feel is undebatable: effective bullying prevention requires students,  schools, parents and the entire community to work together and support each other in addressing the problem.  It is too difficult and complex a problem for simple solutions that direct blame toward any one group or segment of society.  Too much time and energy is wasted doing so.  In reality when it comes to bullying, no one is to blame but we all are responsible for doing something to prevent and reduce as much of it as we can.  We need to help each other learn the right lessons from these viral videos.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


I have written a lot about bystanders in this blog recently and I also wrote a lot about them in my book, No Place for Bullying.  Knowing that too many words on a topic can  be confusing, I have tried to summarize the key points about what we need to know about bystanders and their role in bullying prevention. 

This quotation from Ken Rigby's book, Children and Bullying, aptly sums up the challenge adults have with bullying prevention (it's a Good News/Bad News one):

" teacher influence is generally ineffective.  The approach must be more subtle and indirect...but clearly the most important factor is the influence of other students, specifically what children think their friends want them to do...Applying this last piece of knowledge requires teachers to help students understand what other students think, as opposed to telling them what they think they ought to think."

I think it is hard for most schools to not go directly at a problem especially when it is  a high profile problem like bullying.  Schools are  propelled to go directly at the problem by laws, policies, rules and regulations.  The bad news is that this direct route doesn't work.  The good news is the indirect route does work and has been proven to work in just about any situation where "change" has been successful.  The best leaders lead the process of getting people to influence each other, or to put it another way, the best leaders use the leadership of others to change the culture.  Since this is such an important lesson for all educators to learn and remember, I have tried to map out this indirect route toward success into an  ABCD format.  I hope it helps.

A:  All about the audience:  Educators must focus time and energy on the audience (bystanders) and that means all students.  Bullying is done for an audience and often serves a social function that we must understand.   We need to focus on the students who are not really breaking the rules-these are ones we often take for granted.  Most importantly-the audience must know that they have this power and influence. We need to tell them, remind them and show them this fact in any way we can.

B: Bullying is like Broadway:     Attendance is the key to whether a show stays open or closes.  If an "audience" doesn't show up for bullying, the reason for bullying is taken away and it usually stops.

C: Clarify the caring:  This is perhaps the greatest tragedy of bullying prevention.  Research shows that most students don't approve of bullying, but this feeling/opinion is typically suppressed and subsequently is mistaken for approval by the students who bully and who are bullied.  Educators must give the majority of these caring students the public opportunity to voice these thoughts and feelings.  Sadly the longer they stay hidden, the more they can become lost and forgotten.  This is why the research shows that empathy in bystanders diminishes the longer they are in school and the older they get.  It is possible to reverse this process.

D:  Display the disapproval (thumbs down): When this is combined with "C",  bullying prevention becomes more effective.  Educators must give students the opportunity to voice their disapproval about bullying in general.  More importantly, students can be taught or coached on how to simply and clearly display disapproval in as many simple, and if necessary,  scripted ways as possible.  If students had a scripted response to say when they are confronted with  bullying, e.g. "That's not cool", there is a greater chance they might  intervene.  If that seems like too much to ask of students, given all of the reasons for not intervening, we must remember that we don't need to get the majority of bystanders to intevene or show disapproval- we just have to get more than NONE of them. One can make all the difference.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Bullying Prevention: What door should we use?

I met with an assistant principal of an elementary school who honestly told me that the staff was tired of hearing about bullying prevention and had run out of ways to talk about it with their students. I appreciated his honesty and I think he has identified a real problem at the heart of our efforts at bullying prevention.

His comments made me think of the book, Switch by Dan and Chip Heath. It is book about how to change things especially when things are hard to change. They list several principles for managing the change process and their first one is: "Find the bright spots!"

It is hard to find bright spots in the field of bullying prevention. We always hear about the failures and tragedies and the incompetent and/or uncaring people in schools that are more a part of the problem and less a part of the solution. No wonder that many staff recoil (usually inwardly) when they are told they need to do more about this problem. (In an earlier post I described the blind spot that often makes school staff think that bullying is under control when it is not.) Unfortunately staff interpret any new initiative related to bullying prevention as a criticism of their current efforts. This is definitely another barrier to changing the status quo. This does create a Catch 22 for bullying prevention: we need to do better but conveying the need to do better can often turn off the staff in the process.

The Heath Brothers, in their explanation of why "Find the bright spots" is such an important principle, comment on our cultural tendency to analyze problems and dwell on the reasons behind them. They also state how people can be drained and pulled down by this focus on the negative, hence the assistant principal's complaint about being tired of bullying prevention. It is pretty clear to me that most of our efforts no matter how well intentioned approach the problem of bullying through what I call the negative door: schools need fixing.

This approach is so pervasive in our culture and our schools that we are often blind to the fact that we have a different door available to us-yes a positive door for bullying prevention. School leaders will have a better chance of getting staff buyin and sustaining their support if they can (excuse the pun) reframe the problem of bullying and show that a different door is possible and available.

The best quotation to hang over that different doorway would be this one by Robert Fritz: "Problem solving is taking action to make something go away; creating is taking action to something new come into being." School leaders need to take the problem of bullying prevention and transform it into a positive opportunity to make things better while affirming the postive things that are being done in schools. It is easier to accept the message that we are capable of building on success rather than we failed. Education itself should be about always wanting to get better-lifetime learning. The fact that I want to learn new things does not imply that my previous learning was wrong or inadequate. In bullying prevention, school leaders need to give the school community a positive image or goal to shoot for or at least get people to look in that positive direction.

In my recent presentations I have found a brief video clip showing a positive image of change that illustrates how bullying prevention is really about creating something new. The clip is from the start of a NBA basketball game where the young teeenage girl who won award to sing the national anthem flubs the first few lines of it and freezes. There is a palpatable gasp in the arena yet a calm reassuring Mo Cheeks, a coach of one of the teams, gently goes over to her puts his hand on her shoulder and starts softly singing the next line of the song. Within seconds the entire arena starts to sing along and the girl regains her composure and is able to belt it out finishing in a moment of triumph.

This clip is very moving and affirming for it depicts a very basic human action-helping out someone in trouble. We all can identify with the young girl, with the fans in the arena and hopefully with Mo Cheeks. The positive goal everyone shares would be creating the conditions where more and more people would be like Mo Cheeks. He was an empowered bystander who stepped forward in a difficult situation. My statement to my audience after hearing their response is simply this: if we can have more and more of our students become like Mo Cheeks, we will be preventing bullying while at the same time giving them a new set of skills required for success in the world today. This is not just solving a problem but it would transform how we educate. I think that people will get more excited walking through this positive door than the negative one. (Isn't more energizing to buy a new car than going to the repair shop to fix a clunker!)

This approach to bullying prevention moves the issue from being another item on a list of "things to do" to being at the heart of our educational mission and consistent with the original moral purpose of being an educator. The energy from touching this basic core/purpose of education, I believe is limitless and in fact creates more energy as people work together towards this goal. Leaders who know that this is right direction to take and begin to tap into this are ones who plant the seeds of the culture and climate change that makes bullying stick out instead of blending into the school culture. Strong school communities have a built-in strong immune system that doesn't eliminate bullying but notices it and does something about it when it does occur. Empowered bystanders become like antibodies that maintain the health of the system. This type of school culture is one where all members accept responsibility for caring for each other and for improving how they treat one another. Strong leaders help people believe that such a culture is not just possible but inevitable if people work together in the direction of the postive goal.