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Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Power of Posters

"...but clearly the most important factor (in getting students to be good bystanders) is the influence of other students, specifically what children think their friends expect them to do." -Ken Rigby

This quotation from the book, Children and Bullying by Ken Rigby, reflects the empirical results of a study entitled: Using social norms to reduce bullying

This study hypothesized that students overestimated the amount of bullying occurring in their schools and underestimated the amount of disapproval of it by their peers.  Given the developmental need to act in accord with peer expectations, students either would bully or refrain from intervening because acting this way was consistent with what they perceived to be the social norms of the school.  If their perceptions of both the amount of bullying and the level of approval for it  changed, then they might change their response to bullying.  The researchers decided to survey students to determine the gap between their perceptions of bullying and actual amount of bullying and approval of it among the student population. They found that there was much less bullying and much less approval of it than the students thought. Their intervention was simply to share the accurate percentages of bullying and approval of bullying by publicizing the "truth"  in posters spread throughout the school.  What they did was pretty simple: give students the facts and facts were that most of them were responsible and caring people.

Compare that approach with the scare tactics that schools often resort to by bringing law enforcement officials in school to talk to students.  In fact when it comes to cyber bullying, many of our messages about it often inflate students' inaccurate perceptions of it.   The results of the study were pretty impressive given the minimal amount of intervention it involved.  The amount of bullying was reduced by up to 35 % in the schools were the posters had the greatest exposure over time.  Just think of what could happen if students themselves were involved in analyzing the data from the surveys and making the posters that showed the accurate percentages.

This finding also shows the power of being positive when trying to change behavior and attitudes.  The Heath brothers in their book, Switch, refer to this as finding the bright spots.  Students live up or down to our expectations of them-we get what we expect.  When we focus on rule breaking and our fear of it  instead of the inherent empathy that most students have we are inadvertently exacerbating the problem of bullying.

In fact in New York state with the passage of Dignity for All Act, the focus of most principals is how to investigate, document and apply appropriate consequences in response to acts of bullying. There is a great fear of being out of compliance if they don't follow the right procedures.  There is nothing wrong with the new law and having incidences of bullying appropriately investigated and documented, however, schools might forget the importance of preventing bullying because they are too worried about what to do after it happens.  With the best of intentions, sometimes laws, policies and regulations point our time and energy in the wrong the direction.

I have a better idea-let educators be educators.  Let our task be helping kids realize that they are not the problem but rather the solution.  That no one is to blame but we are all responsible for caring for every member of the community.  We need to act out of our hope and belief in our students rather than out of fear and anxiety.  As this research demonstrated, taking the time to find the "true story" (most kids really care) and sharing it with students can have very positive impact on a school culture.

Here is an example of one of the posters used in the research:

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