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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

STEALTH Approach to Bullying Prevention

I am reading a fascinating book entitled, Thinking,  Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahnman.  He reviews and analyses the research on how we perceive the world and how that influences our words and actions.  Here is an experiment he describes: two groups of people are given a set of words to put into sentences; one group is given an unrelated set and the other a set containing words that related to old age (Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, wrinkled); the researchers then measured the time the subjects took to walk the length of the hallway where the experiment took place.  The people that were given the words related to old age took longer to walk this length of the hallway.  This is  hard to believe, but empirically this effect called "priming" has been consistently demonstrated in variations of this type of experiment.  Kahnman states, "Studies of priming effects have yielded discoveries that threaten our self image as conscious and autonomous authors of our judgments and choices."

Kahnman describes how this type of "fast" thinking or system 1 thinking can be offset by "slow" thinking or system 2 thinking where the brain can figure things out.  Obviously conducting research to discover how the brain works is itself an example of "slow" or system 2 thinking.  The more we know about how easily we can be influenced allows us to know ourselves better and account for this in living our lives.

I do think that this research can be helpful in how we educate our students in two important ways: using this research to create environments that influence students towards positive and responsible behavior and teaching students about how their brain works.  I am not suggesting that we trick or hypnotize students into behaving the way we want them to behave.  I am suggesting that we acknowledge the impact of the environment/atmosphere of the school on how students behave.  This is no different than recognizing that  the environment itself sends a louder more influential message to students than our more direct methods of controlling them.  John Dewey knew this way before the priming research proved it: “we never educate directly but indirectly by means of the environment….the required beliefs cannot be hammered in, the needed attitudes cannot be plastered on…the very process of living together educates…education is thus a fostering, nurturing, cultivating process…”.  People used to say to me that they could "feel" something special about our elementary school as soon as they walked through the front door.  Educators need to recognize and accept these "intangibles" and use them in the right way.  

The second way of using this priming research is to share it more directly with the students themselves.  What is more relevant and meaningful than to reflect upon who we are and how we operate in the world.  This is especially true of adolescents who live in a world of new emotions and feelings and are trying to make sense out of who they are.  I experienced this "need" firsthand the other evening when I was asked to make a presentation on bullying to a group of inner city teenage girls.  As part of my presentation, I showed videos from Dateline about bystanders having to deal with bullying.  I also showed a video clip demonstrating how easy it is to conform to others in social situations.  Rather than telling them how bullying is wrong, how it is against the rules and what they should do, I tried to help them gain some insight into why is it so hard to be a helpful bystander.  I can't say for certain how much my presentation will affect their behavior in the future but I do know that they were very attentive and responsive for the entire 2 hours (5-7 p.m.) which was a pretty good for summer evening and a group of 20 teenagers.

This research on how we think and act opens up a world of possibilities for how we educate our students, however, it only reflects and affirms much of our own common sense about teaching and learning.  The greatest obstacle we face in effectively preventing and reducing bullying is not the lack of knowledge and strategies, is it breaking the habits so embedded in our culture and our schools.  Starting to change how we think and feel about how to get the changes we want is the first step in the right direction. Leadership often boils down to just taking the first step in that right direction and getting one or two people to walk with you.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Different Worlds

The school bus and the school building are completely different worlds yet we typically try to solve their problems in the same way.  Solutions that work in the school building not only fail to work on the school bus but may even exacerbate the problems on the bus.  Here is a chart comparing the two environments (taken from my forthcoming book:  No Place for Bullying):

School Building
School Bus
Students are grouped by age.

Students are in one large mixed-age group.
Staff focused on students
Driver has to drive the bus.
External controls under adult supervision can be effective.
External controls from school don’t extend to bus.
Internal control not  always necessary
Internal control only real option
Most bullying is unnoticed by adults.
Even easier to conceal than in building
Purpose and importance of school clear in students’ mind
Bus is a means to an end—something to get you to school.
Many environmental options for behavior change
Contained space with few options
Adults are adjacent to students.
Driver can be far away and occupied driving the bus.
Timely response to behavior possible
Response to behavior can be days away
Traditional approaches to behavioral management can work.
Traditional approaches are not effective.
Bystanders can remove themselves as an audience to the bullying.
Students who bully have a captive audience on the bus.

There are no off the shelf solutions to the problems on the bus.  The only effective solutions will come from transportation staff and school staff working together to analyze the problems and develop creative solutions based investing time and energy to prevent as many problems as possible.  Waiting until something happens and then providing some type of consequence is ultimately just damage control.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

From the List to the Core

I was asked by a principal to give a "pep talk" about bullying prevention to his staff at the faculty meeting. I had been helping them  implement a bullying prevention plan.  The staff had already been trained in bullying prevention, so I would just be there to help them refocus their efforts and answer any questions they might have.  I agreed to help out and  was told I would have about an half hour and would be the last item on the agenda.  I arrived early and attended the meeting from the start. 

It so happened that it was the day of state testing, so the teachers walked into the meeting looking pretty tired.  The first item on the agenda obviously dealt with the state testing procedures.  The other items were related to  the new teacher evaluation system mandated by the state, a new requirement for writing learning objectives, and a changes in the procedures for ordering materials for the next school year.  As the principal went through these items, I could see the teachers getting more and more tired and distracted.  I quickly realized that this was probably not the best time to talk to them about bullying prevention, yet I was still on the agenda. 

I  knew that I would need to say or do something to gain some of their attention. They were expecting me to tell them something else they needed to do or point out what they were not doing.  Bullying prevention would just add another item to their to-do list. Standing in front of them, I realized that I had encountered one of the key reasons why bullying prevention fails to "take hold" in a school-it is seen as just another item on a list placed on them from above like so many other things  like tests, mandates and regulations.  I announced to them that they should take bullying prevention off their list of things to do. If it merely stayed there on the list,  they would make little if any progress in addressing the problem.  This announcement did get their attention.

I thought that if I did nothing else at the meeting, I needed at least to "reframe" the problem of bullying prevention for them.  This reframing is essential to any progress we hope to make in this area.  School staff need to see bullying prevention as being at the heart of education: creating a safe and supporting environment, empowering students as leaders and learners, and giving them the knowledge, skills and attitudes for success in the 21st century.  As I stated in my previous posts, this is the positive door to use in approaching bullying prevention.  If bullying prevention is at the heart of education, it cannot be an item on a list.  To move from the list to the core will require strong shared leadership for reframing the issue and using a positive door, but this is the right direction to go even it if takes a while to work. 

If a school fails to use bullying prevention as an added opportunity for overall  improvement, it might find itself complying  with the laws, policies, and regulations but doing little to prevent the bullying that adults in the school can't see or hear.  It will be like the successful operation (because all the procedures were followed) where the patient died.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Prime Time for Bystanders

The other day I was walking down the street and was approached by a panhandler who asked me for some spare change.  Just prior to this I had been thinking about my wife who happens to be the most caring, charitable person I know.  I was caught off guard by this panhandler who directly walked up to me.  I didn't have change and my default response of shaking my head no and continuing to walk was all set to go into effect, but for some reason it didn't.  Instead (to my surprise and his) I reached into my wallet that had several one dollars bills and a few twenty's and gave him a twenty.  I made his day and who really knows or cares what he did with it.  I continued to walk to my destination and tried to figure out why I did what I did-for my behavior was spontaneous and not my default response.  I could only explain my response by attributing it to the thoughts I had about my wife immediately prior to the interaction with the panhandler.  My thoughts of my wife as a "giver" had primed me to give more generously than I typically would have. 

Social psychology research reveals how suggestible people are to invisible influences in the social environment.  I recall a study where people on the way to an interview were given either a hot or cold beverage to hold.  They were asked the same set of questions by the same interviewer yet when their answers were analyzed, those given the hot beverage gave answers that were warmer or more personable than the answers given by the  people who were given the cold beverage.  This results of this study are hard to believe, but other studies has shown similar effects.  This type of influence is called priming.  (Advertisers unlike educators have not overlooked this social psychological research.)  The prior thinking I had been doing about my wife had somehow slipped into the unexpected moment, overrode my typical default response and produced a more charitable act.

Similar to priming as an influence on behavior is the use of "identity" to influence behavior.  People will act according to how they identity themselves and this sense of identity can also be "primed".  People tend to adjust their behavior based on how they think of themselves: I am a caring person so I will help this person out.  Since students are in a formative stage of development, they are very dependent upon how adults think of them.  Educators therefore have a great opportunity to shape the type of identity in students that will lead to positive and more productive behaviors.  We also need to be aware of how we already shape this identity in many of our traditional approaches to student behavior. 

When we use rewards and consequences and become rule focused in our approach, we are inadvertently shaping, or priming students for the very behaviors we don't want to see.  The hidden message behind these traditional approaches shapes students' identity toward being irresponsibile:  they are one step away from being rule breakers unless they are restricted by adult imposed consequences.  It is not surprising then that when they are outside of adult supervision and the restraint of rules and consequences, they follow the identity that adults have inadvertently given them.

An alternative approach would be to send a message that all students are leaders who care and who are responsible.  This  means lessening our direct control and demonstrating a greater degree of trust than we are used to giving. (We are often uncomfortable doing so.)  This means rethinking our default response to student behavior.  We have to avoid the false dichotomy  of equating the  lessening of direct control with a laissez-faire approach.

Here are some ways we can prime students and shape their identity:

  • As Michael Fullan says, "Give people respect before they have earned it."  Treat students as being trustworthy, responsible, caring people.  Rules are okay and should  be visible.  Assume that most kids already know the basics of right from wrong.  We don't need to constantly remind them of it.  (Failures to follow rules are usually  not the result of not knowing them or forgetting them).

  • Give students the opportunity and support they need to act in caring and responsible ways.  Ironically, we often give the kids who are already perceived to be caring and responsible those opportunities as rewards. All students need these opportunities on a regular basis-this is why service learning is so important. 

  • Treat students as the source of the solution to  problems rather than the cause of the problem.  Involve them as active participants in solving individual problems, classroom problems and school wide problems. 

  • Talk about problem situations they typically might experience or have experienced. Don't wait to just talk about a problem after it has happened. 

  • Give them time to reflect upon how they would like to think of themselves and help them see what behaviors correspond to that identity.  (Most kids do want to think of themselves as caring and responsible but may not know how those attributes manifest themselves.)

  • View all kids as leaders and refer to them in that way.  Study leadership and how it differs from "being the boss".  Don't let the cultural images of leaders as bosses be the default response in situations where adults are not around.

The more preparation we give students (the more they are "primed") they more likely they are to respond in a positive way to those spontaneous and often ambiguous situations that can catch them off guard (like many bullying situations).  Most of all we need to believe that the more we act as caring, respectful and responsible people to students and towards everyone, the more we will be priming them to be that way-just as my wife primed me to give more.