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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Verbs not Nouns

The labels we place on students unfortunately stick to them and define them.  This is why referring to any student as a bully is a very dangerous and damaging proposition.  Adults who refer to a student as a bully  place a value judgment on the student is as person.  Using the term "bully" instead of "bullying" can trigger the following:

  • Create distance between the student and the adult.  Students will fail to trust adults who negatively label them.
  • Make it less likely that a student will accept responsibility for acts of bullying, since it would also mean accepting a negative label or judgment.
  • Define the student as someone who can defy adult authority and get away with it.  This is way of asserting independence of adult control.
  •  Solidifies the social identity of a student as being "cool" and able to control others.  Once other students perceive a peer in a certain way, it is hard for that student to stop acting in accordance with that role (even if he/she wants to change).
  • Makes bullying more attractive for students who want to escape being a target of bullying or want to raise their social standing.
  • Increases the likelihood that students who feel like they have little or no control over their lives, (including being able to control how others see them) will resort to bullying to get some degree of control or autonomy of their lives.
  • Decreases the likelihood that adults will be viewed as people who can help and support them.

This is why the idea of  "getting tough" with bullies is so misdirected.  It plays into a criminal justice mindset which alienates most students even the ones who could be empowered bystanders.  The more that adults use power and threats as a way to control students, the more they appear to be the "enemy" or the "oppressor" to more and more students.  This perception ironically transforms responsible reporting of bullying into snitching-betraying the peer group in favor of the adults.   When "punishment" becomes the predicted response of adults, students are reluctant to report since they know that it does little to adequately address the problem and probably makes it worse.  In their eyes it only harms a peer with whom they feel a stronger allegiance than to the adults in charge (if even they don't condone what the peer did).

Verbs however give students more flexibility and options for change.   This is very similar to Carol Dweck's work on mindsets. The concept of "making mistakes" is easier to accept and change than thinking you are "stupid" for making mistakes.  When adults model making mistakes and tell stories about how they learned from mistakes, they are letting students know that they are less likely to judge/label them when they make mistakes. 

Verbs serve another important function-they "script the critical moves" for people.  The Heath brothers in their book Switch, describe that any ambiguity related to a change in behavior for a specific situation, only makes that change more difficult and less likely to happen.  Even the slightest perceived risk or possibility of not just of failure but of discomfort, will most likely keep people from trying something different.  This is why telling kids not to be bullies, doesn't offer them any real alternatives for what to do differently or implies that they need to change who they are (worse yet admit that they are currently flawed and need to be fixed).   The same dynamic holds true for bystanders if adults just tell them to be responsible and either intervene or report in face of bullying.  Adults instead need to coach students in specific terms, e.g. if you see someone being bullied, here are some concrete things you can do and/or say:

  • talk to the student who was bullying afterward  and tell him/her to "cool it"
  • sit next to a student who could be targeted as a way to prevent bullying
  • if you observe bullying and don't feel you can do anything at least walk away rather than be an audience
  • find an adult you trust and share what you saw
Students will also be more open to these strategies and more receptive to messages about bullying when adults can transform the issue of "bullying" from something that is bad and has to stop into the larger and more relevant issue of how people relate to each other.  Adults need to recognize and acknowledge that the social world is so important to students.  When adults recognize the social world (rather then just the academic world) and the inherent difficulties "we" all face in navigating it , they will portray themselves as resources and coaches rather than people who just want to control and police students. 

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