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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.

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