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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Want to Prevent Bullying? Teach 21st Century Skills

My twenty five year old son was recently unemployed. He applied for some jobs and had interviews but no job offers.  Instead of continuing to apply to posted job openings, he found a small business that had no job openings but that looked like a great place to work.  He did some research and discovered that the CEO of the company had graduated from his university (although it was many years earlier).  Using his alumni connection, he called the CEO and talked about how his skills and the company’s goals was a good match.  After several conversations/interviews, the company decided to hire him. His initiative and risk taking demonstrated that he had what it took to make a significant contribution to the company. Most companies do not want people who are just good at doing what they are told to do.  They want people who do more than just solve problems.  They want people who find problems and turn them into opportunities.  They need risk takers, and independent thinkers who thrive in a team.  My son demonstrated that not only do “21st century skills” are essential once you get a job; they are essential in getting a job.

My son’s story shows the practical benefits of empowering students as an important outcome of their education.  As a retired principal and now as someone who has written about bullying prevention and school change, I see the concept of student empowerment as holding the promise of integrating two important initiatives, not  generally considered related to each other: 21st century learning and bullying prevention.

Research, resources, and the articulate advocates of each of these initiatives, end up competing for a limited amount of time and energy from the people who work in schools. These people, however, are always looking for integrated, approaches that can achieve many goals at the same time.  These initiatives can be integrated if we focus our efforts in one place: the students themselves.  Our approach should be guided by this phrase: “of the students, by the students and for the students”.  By focusing efforts in this direction schools can meet the important challenges and goals of both initiatives at the same time.

Traditional approaches to bullying prevention primarily that rely on rules, rewards and consequences, have been proven to be ineffective.  Research shows that adults see and are aware of about 5% of the bullying that occurs in a school, while students see almost all of it. Students who bully will not stop because they fear punishment. Some correctly think they can get away with it or some students bully reactively with little or no forethought.  Most students who bully do so for an audience.  The audience response to bullying will to a very large extent determine whether the bullying will continue and escalate or decrease and stop. The real solutions to the problem of bullying lie in the hands of the students.

The research in bullying prevention has converged on one key element: the importance of empowering bystanders-all students.  Effective bullying prevention requires us to look closely at what is going on in the hearts and minds of the bystanders. There are many reasons why bystanders don’t typically either intervene and/or report bullying to adults.  Many of these reasons are based on fear of becoming either a victim or being associated with a victim who has less social status (less popular) than the student who bullies.  Bystanders often don’t report bullying because they think that adults will not take them seriously, or make the situation worse.  They also don’t intervene or tell because they are used to adults handling all the problems in a school. Bullying prevention is seen as the responsibility of the people in charge-the adults, not the students.

Bystanders can also be caught with conflicting emotions when confronted with a bullying situation. They may have empathy for the target of bullying but lack confidence in their ability to do anything about it. They might have ambivalent feelings toward the student who is bullied and are not sure if they should help. The default response for students in these situations is to play it safe and do nothing. Doing nothing in response to bullying is not a neutral act-it tacitly condones it and promotes it.

Schools, therefore, need to shift the focus of bullying prevention from traditional approaches of establishing rules and enforcing them, or as separate stand alone program to a broader approach integrated with the overall educational program and school environment.

Such an approach should be guided by the following questions:

Do students know about the influence they have in determining the amount and intensity of bullying in their school?

Do students know they have a responsibility and obligation to protect and support all students?

Do students have an understanding of why and how it is difficult to be a helpful bystander?

Do students have a set of skills that they have learned to use in a variety of bullying situations?

Do students know that adults need their help and will support their efforts to be responsible?

Can students trust that every adult in the school cares about what happens to each student?

If schools can develop a culture and climate where the answers to these questions are “yes”, then bullying will be transformed from just a problem to be solved to an opportunity to improve the education of all students.   Empowering students as bystanders also transforms the problem of bullying from being another item on a long “to do” list, to a goal related to the core mission of education.   Both of these key shifts increase the likelihood of gaining greater staff commitment and support toward a positive and purposeful goal, rather than just their compliance to another mandate.

I once did an activity with a group of school principals where I divided the group in two.  I had one group list the skills, knowledge and attitudes needed for students to be empowered and effective bystanders.  The other group listed the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed for students to be effective in the 21st century work environment.  When both groups compared their lists they found that they were almost identical.  The goal of empowering students as effective bystanders is really the same goal of preparing our students for success in work and life.  This goal of student empowerment redefines success as the integration of individual achievement with a moral commitment to help others.

Peter Drucker said that leadership was not doing things the right way but doing the right things.  Schools need to believe that each student is capable of leadership: learning to do the right thing even when there are no clear rules. An empowered bystander, a student with 21st century skills and a leader are one in the same: a person with the courage, confidence and judgment to make right decisions that will benefit the greater good and who has the evolving skills to become more effective in doing so as time goes on. When schools meet this central mission, they will be preventing and reducing bullying while at the same time providing the best education possible for our students.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Success depends on understanding failure

My book, No Place for Bullying, poses the question of why given the widespread public awareness of the problem, availability of low cost/free resources, definitive research on best practice and mandated legislation, does bullying still persist as a significant problem in schools? Unfortunately, our approach to solving this problem too often relies on adding programs to the existing status quo of schools. When these programs don’t seem to work, the answer is usually  that they were not implemented with fidelity. I think we are looking in the wrong place for answers. We need to look deeper at why attempts to promote change too often fail.

The research on why any school reform effort fails lists five main reasons. I will apply these reasons to bullying prevention.

The purpose is not compelling enough.

This should be the reason why the problem of bullying is different from other school problems. Even more than raising student achievement, student safety should be a no brainer for motivation for schools to change. Even the most hardened teacher who might be resistant to changing instructional practice would readily concede that student safety should compel all educators to action. The irony of this reason is that on the surface of school life bullying is not seen as a pressing, visible problem to adults. Many teachers if pressed would admit that bullying is not a problem in their schools and that the media/parents have blown if out of proportion. Mandates, policies and regulations seek compliance but bullying prevention truly requires the whole community’s commitment.

The reform effort was developed without stakeholder involvement.

This relates directly to the first reason. If staff, students and parents were all involved in learning about the problem of bullying and how it manifests itself in the school environment, they would become more committed to it. This is why it is so important to involve staff in deciding how to collect data, interpreting it, setting goals and determining strategies. Getting the entire school community involved in the “how” of addressing the problem instead of the “what” should be the main focus of any change effort. School leaders should lead the learning rather than jump to quick fixes.

Everyone in the school was not aligned to the vision or purpose of the initiative.

This means that the proposed change must be clearly evident in the words and actions of those in charge-the administrators and staff. If caring and respectful behavior is not evident among all staff then any expectation for students to change becomes meaningless. The irony of mandates and threats of consequences for not meeting them is that such methods are themselves thinly veiled forms of bullying. Staff must understand how their words and actions must reflect the type of behavior they would like to see in students. They need to know and understand that bullying prevention is not just about changing student behavior but is about improving how everyone treats each other. Staff need to “walk the talk” and “talk the walk”.  Staff  (hopefully then students later on) should be able to explain what bullying is really all about and why any proposed goal or strategy is important.  Hopefully if they can explain it, they should be more likely to modelt the behavior they ultimately would like to see in everyone.
The change was not immediately implemented.

Too many times change is seen as adding a program to the status quo. We are doing something about bullying so we are now going to do the “______” program. Change in schools has to be more visible, specific and meaningful for it to change people’s hearts and minds. This is where being strategic is so important. A team of stakeholders needs to pick a tangible goal that can easily translated into action. I often challenge staff to make it a habit to say “please” and “thank you” to students every time they are given a direction. This might sound too simple for us and unfortunately schools often prefer to have more elaborated plans in place, but immediate, tangible, and visible changes will attract more attention and show that change is indeed possible.

Organization support for the change was not present.

Support means giving people the time they need to learn what they need to learn to move in the right direction. Unless the school leadership and organizational structure understand the change process and the requisite time and resources needed for positive change, any initiative placed before the school will ultimately “die” the same death that other initiatives have.

I sometimes joke that my interest in not really bullying prevention. I say that to get attention but also to make a point. Chopping up change into different problem sets and then creating a different solution to each set is what ultimately prevents making real progress on any problem. If educators believed in the power and potential of bringing the school community together to talk to each other and discover their needs and goals, and then empowered them to address those needs and meet their goals, schools would become more optimal places for learning-places of respect and support for everyone: places where bullying would be incompatible with the culture and have no safe hiding place.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Five Questions and Four Answers

In previous posts I shared about some of the research about bystanders’ motivation to intervene or not intervene when confronting bullying situations.  Just to clarify I include reporting bullying to an adult as intervening although it is not a direct and confrontational intervention.  There are five key themes that emerge from this research that I put into the form of a question to represent what a bystander could be thinking in a bullying situation.

Question One:
Is something wrong here?  Is someone being harmed in some way?
This question is basic to intervening for not intervening.  If bullying is commonplace in an environment, a bystander might not even notice it as bullying-it is just the way things are.  Just as adults incorrectly think that it is kids being kids, students can also see bullying as normal or no big deal.  This theme is also relevant because as students get older they are less likely to demonstrate that the bullying is hurting or bothering them.  Bystanders can incorrectly misinterpret low emotional reactions as an indication that the target is okay about it.  Since ignoring bullying sometimes a coping strategy offered to kids who are targets, this can contribute to bystanders inferring that nothing wrong or harmful is occurring.  If other bystanders don’t seem bothered by what is happening it is hard for any bystander to act as if something wrong or harmful is happening.

Questions Two:
How do I feel about the person being bullied?
These questions are interrelated because if someone is not demonstrating being hurt, it can be hard for bystanders to have empathy.  The other factor that influences how a bystander feels is their relationship with the student being bullied.  If that student is considered different or not a part of the bystanders circle of friends or group, they are less likely to feel bad for what is happening.  If a bystander feels that a student is getting what he/she deserves, that bystander is less likely to feel bad for that student.  If a bystander feels that a teacher doesn’t like the student who is bullied, the bystander is also less likely to feel empathy.

Question Three:
What will happen to me if I do something to help the student who is bullied?
A bystander may feel bad about what is happening to another student and also feel like he/she should do something but there are risks involved for intervening.  Most of us recognize the fear of ending up being a victim as the essential fear, but there are also other risks involved.  There is the fear of losing friends or social ranking.  There could also be the fear of getting in trouble for getting too involved and doing the teacher’s job.  There is the fear of getting in trouble for not doing something on the spot.  There is also the fear of breaking a school rule that might conflict with the unwritten moral rule of helping. 

Question Four:
Will intervening do any good or will it even make things worse?
A bystander might want to help but thinks that it will do little to stop the problem and could even make it worse.  Very often heavy handed adult imposed discipline will deter bystanders from helping.  Bystanders might often just want the bullying to stop but if telling gets the student who bullies in serious trouble, the bystander might think that the punishment for bullying is too severe.  Ironically they could think that the student who bullies shouldn’t bully but also shouldn’t be severely punished for doing so.  The bystander also risks alienating the friends of the student who bullies if telling gets that student in serious trouble.  The bystander might also think that telling will do little good because the student who bullies can easily deny the bullying and that other bystanders will not speak up and support his/her reporting.

Question Five:
Do I know specifically what to say or do when confronted with a bullying situation?
We have all experienced unexpected, unpredictable social situations that have caught us off guard.  After many of these situations upon reflection we say to ourselves, “Why didn’t I __?”  When bullying is the norm, bystanders don’t act because they don’t see the situation as wrong or an aberration. Conversely, when bullying is unexpected, unpredictable and or ambiguous, we shift into a more emotional way of responding and this often results in inaction- freezing in the moment.  The  irony of this question is that if a bystander has to ask it, then the bystander will probably not do anything.  Memorable phrases or simple actions should be as automatic as possible-they need to be in front of the bystander’s mind, not buried somewhere.  The more bystanders are prepared, rehearsed to expect the unexpected and have some simple and easily accessed responses, the more likely they are to intervene.  They also have to be coached to be strategic. Is it better to approach the student who bullied or the student bullied in the moment of bullying or afterwards? Maybe a bystander doesn’t do something in the moment but “files” the situation in his/her mind and then does something to prevent the bullying from reoccurring, i.e. sit next the vulnerable student or re-direct the student who bullies before the next round of bullying starts. 

Four Key Strategies/Answers for Educators

There are four basic strategies for educators to use that will help bystanders answer those questions in way to increase the likelihood of them intervening.

Talk about the social world
Sounds simple but if you spend some time in school it is remarkable how little time is spent talking about what is actually happening in the students’ lives.  When educators don’t talk about the social world they are sending the wrong message to students.  Not talking conveys the message that the social world is not important or worse yet doesn’t exist in the minds of the adults.   A key part of talking about the social world is discussing what is right and wrong beyond what the rules say.  The complexity and subtlety of doing what is right should not be reduced to the simple notion of following the rules.  Responsibility is not just making sure each student does his/her own work.  Regular conversations about responsibility and doing what is right will do more to develop character and conscience than stand alone programs. This learning needs to be embedded into the life of school. 

Clarify what each person’s responsibility is
Don’t leave this to chance. Students need to know that each person is responsible for making sure that everyone can feel safe and supported regardless of the person’s social status, degree of difference or whether or not the person is liked or not.  If we don’t make this clear it is too easy for students to give themselves excuses for not acting.  It is also very important to make it clear that students are needed for this-it is not the adults’ job alone.  Adults need to specifically state that they need the students to do this. This acknowledges that fact that students see what adults don’t see.  It also acknowledges the fact that students have more influence than adults do when it comes to supporting their peers by preventing and stopping bullying.

Invest time to give students the skills, strategies and attitudes they need to intervene and prepare them to use them

We can’t expect students to just follow our adult directions to help others unless we also give them the knowledge, skills and attitudes to help effectively.  This does take time but it is time well invested.  When students feel confident about their ability to deal with the demands of the social world –that is so important to them-this confidence can carry over to meeting the demands of any challenge.  Confidence in one domain builds confidence in any domain.

Make each student valuable in the eyes of their peers
Since how bystanders view other students is so central to the issue of intervening or not intervening, adults need to actively assert in word and deed the value of each individual student.  A competitive atmosphere of winners and losers, those who are favored or liked or those out of favor, will only feed into the notion that some students are worthy of being protective and some are not.  This is a very hard cultural “nut to crack” since individual achievement is rewarded and failure is frowned upon in schools.  A good phrase to readjust this thinking can be students should “compete with themselves but cooperate with each other”.  The best teachers help students realize that individual success can only be enhanced when the community is strong and supportive of all of its members.

Monday, January 21, 2013

How we see others is how we treat others

One of the most insightful researchers into bystander behavior and bullying is Robert Thornberg.  In an article entitled, Students Social Representations on Bullying Behavior (Psychology in the schools, (47), 4, 311-327)  he presents qualitative research on some of the reasons why some students bully others  and why bystanders fail to intervene to help.  He interviewed students to find out how they made sense out of the bullying that they observed. He lists seven explanations (social representations) that students give for bullying behavior:

All in all, at least seven social
representations on bullying causes are used to explain bullying:
(a) bullying as a reaction to deviance
 (b) bullying as social positioning,
(c) bullying as the work of a disturbed bully,
(d) bullying as a revengeful action,
(e) bullying as an amusing game,
(f) bullying as social contamination
 (g) bullying as a thoughtless happening.”

Bullying as a reaction to social deviance is far and way the prevalent cause of bullying in the minds of students.  Deviance takes many forms: appearance (how someone looks), behavior (how someone acts), characteristics (how someone is described, e.g. stupid, nerdy, odd) by association (what group a person is associated with e.g. having odd or different parents, ethnic group. The fear of deviance association is therefore a compelling reason for bystanders not to act in a helpful way.  Thornberg summarizes these reasons:
 By being defined or labeled as deviant, different, or odd, the victim is constructed as a person who evokes contempt or disregard from others, provokes others, or does not fit into the peer group.  All the older students (110%) use this type of explanation, whereas 66% of the younger students use it.”

He explains the disturbing cycle that occurs when some students are viewed as deviant.  Once someone is viewed as different and becomes a victim of bullying, that person is given an identification or persona based on the deviance.  This identification separates the person from the majority of students, creating a type of “us and them”.  This identification and separation devalues the person who is different.  The people who are different, separate and less valued can sadly serve the purpose of helping people feel better about themselves, “At least I am not like ___”.   Bystanders then feel emotionally  distant.  The more that bystanders fail to act the more bullying becomes the norm-just the way the social order works.  Bystanders feel less urgency when bullying becomes the norm and more likely to assume less and less responsibility for doing something about it.

 Since being viewed as different is what drives that unfortunate cycle of bullying, it is important to examine the origins of this initial perception of being different.  Thornberg states:  “we cannot know if a given behavior will be categorized as deviant until the response of others has occurred. Devianceis not a quality that lies in behavior itself, … but in the interactionbetween the person who behaves and those who respond to the behavior.”

 No person is considered different or deviant until someone starts to label and act differently towards that person. 

 This last statement brings me to perhaps one of the most important principles not just for bullying prevention but for education:  “Make all students valuable in the eyes of their peers.”  This sounds simple and what educator would take issue with this statement, however, I know from my own experience that giving life to that principle in word and deed is not automatic.  An environment where all students appear valuable to their peers runs counter to the prevailing culture of most schools and classrooms.

 Even in a school that I considered educationally progressive, I would often hear teachers make statements like this:  “If ______ wasn’t in my class, I could really teach the other students who want to learn” or “It is sad that __________, is taking all of my time and energy away from the other students.”  Even if teachers don’t verbalize these statements, many might feel this way.  Sadly if they feel this way, they probably convey it to both the student causing the problem and that student’s peers.

 My response to teachers who made that statement was to compare a student having problem in a class to a family member who had a problem.  When a family member has a problem, the family mobilizes to help that member rather than view that member ruining the family.   Inadvertently when the students who behave receive the rewards and approval, even if the students who misbehave don’t receive negative consequences, they can still be perceive as not being as good as the students who comply.   This influences student perception of the student demonstrating non- compliant behavior.   Other students equate the student's behavior with who that student is-regular non compliant misbehavior becomes equated with student identity.

 Fortunately, I worked with teachers who developed a strong sense of community and got to know and value every student.  These teachers made sure that every student got regular chances to contribute in some way to the classroom community.  They intentionally created opportunities for students to discover what they had in common. They created opportunities for students to work together on projects fostering interdependence.  What I discovered in these classroom was that when a student was having a problem or what would be considered “misbehaving” that the teacher conveyed a sense of help and support to that student.  The students’perception was more like, “_____ is having a rough time now and needs a little extra help.”  In classrooms with this sense of community, students didn’t perceive the misbehaving student as different but rather being in a temporary state of need.  That student’s membership in the classroom community was never in jeopardy.  Students in this type of classroom community would actually act kindly and helpful to the student who was having problems.

 I used to tell teachers that when they conveyed kindness, acceptance and support to students who were having a hard time for whatever reason, that they were reassuring the rest of the class that should they ever have the type of problem that their classmate was having, that they would receive the same acceptance, kindness and support. Respect and kindness to the student who was having problems never meant  the student's behavior was condoned.   In classrooms where teachers created a strong sense of community, the other students would never imitate the student who was acting out. In those classrooms fairness wasn’t treating everyone the same, it was insuring that every member’s needs were importance and were met.  After witnessing this dynamic over the years, I was guided by the following idea: if we are meeting a student’s development needs, there is no reason for that student to have to act out.

 In the early grades students take their cues from their teacher how to “perceive” their classmates.  When differences are respected, valued and highlighted as important to the life of the community, bullying becomes incompatible with the social norms of the class.  The community sends a message to itself about all of its members should treat one another.  As educators we need to take serious look at seeds of perception that we plant in the students we educate.  Schools need to discuss and explore what it truly means to make sure that every student appears valuable in the eyes of peers. It needs to be a high priority for everyone. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Something's Missing

Last night I participated in a New School Leaders Seminar, sponsored by the Capital Region Principal Center Board.  Even though I am retired I still serve on the Board and participate in its activities.  This seminar is a way for veteran, experienced principals to talk to teachers who are either in a program for administrative certification or thinking of it.  I always enjoy this opportunity and am continually impressed with the enthusiasm of both sets of professionals.

I was part of the elementary school roundtable discussion along with two other experienced principals, whom I admire.  The prospective administrators directed the majority of their questions towards the APPR-the annual professional performance review that is now mandated in NYS.  It is a serious and important topic and presents a tremendous challenge to both principals and teachers.  When I reflect however on our conversation on this topic, I thought that if someone who was not in education happened to hear us and just picked up on the tone of the conversation, they could easily thing that we were discussing root canals.   I am sure it is no picnic to give a root canal and even less of one to receive one. 
After a while with this type of conversation, it occurred to me to say something radical to these prospective principals:  try to have some fun, enjoy what you do and above all enjoy the children.  When reflect on my years as principal and what I miss about the job, it is being surrounded with wonderful kids and being in a position to help them. 

I made it a point to try to go into the classroom not just as a visitor/observer but also to teach either alone or with the classroom teacher.  I must confess at risk of being thought of as a heretic, that teaching is also a lot of fun and adventurous.  Some of the best moments I had were when students would say things that I couldn’t plan and I had to process that on the spot and stretch to find a way to connect it to our learning.   It was almost as much fun to talk to the teacher afterward about what happened: what worked and what didn’t.  Over the years my appreciation for how challenging and difficult it was to provide quality instruction only grew.  I used to say that teaching was harder than hitting a baseball where if you are successful 30% of the time you doing great.  The difficulty of playing baseball however doesn’t make it any less fun in fact the challenge is a big part of the fun especially when your efforts results in more hits and a higher average. If you were to listen to the baseball players discuss hitting, I would bet that it wouldn’t sound like they were talking about root canal.

My friend and colleague who I think knows more about instruction that anyone is Dr. Barrie Bennett of the University of Toronto.  Barrie did his master’s thesis on the effect of teacher enthusiasm on student achievement and guess what –it has a positive effect on learning.   Barrie who knows the technical part of teaching better than anyone also knows and emphasizes the human element in teaching and lists humor as an important quality for a teacher to have.

My question is: Where has this part of teaching, the enjoyment and exciting part of it, gone?  Or maybe the better question would be:  why has this element been forgotten or never thought of as ever even existing?   The irony of this whole situation is that if you ask any teacher or even any policy maker about the teacher who had the greatest impact on them and why, their answers would point to the missing element-the human, humor, fun, and the enthusiastic part of the experience. 

 This should not be interpreted as implying that the human element overrides the technical part of teaching-it doesn’t and shouldn’t.  Teachers need to have both and children need to have teachers who have both.  I just wonder why our education system seems to be obsessed with the technical. 

One of the best teachers I ever worked with retired several years ago after over 40 years in the profession.  She was someone that even literally on her last day of her career  called me into her classroom as  I  walked by to tell me about something that happened in her room that excited her.  Of the all the teachers that I have ever known, she used to receive the most invitations to college graduations and it wasn’t just from the high achieving students.
If teachers were given the support for building their technical skills and also given a psychologically safe environment for practicing them (particularly not getting penalized for failing to teach according to a tightly defined rubric), they could keep their enthusiasm and passion while increasing their skills.   The whole idea of merit pay would become ridiculous because the intrinsic value of teaching would be what would keep the best teachers wanting to get better.  The teaching profession would attract people who wanted a career that not just allowed but supported creativity, risk taking, camaraderie, continuous growth and a moral purpose.   If teachers could be teachers, the way my friend Barrie envisions them, it would be a professional that people would be "banging on the doors" to get into. For that to happen what is now missing from the current discussion has to  be at the heart of it. 

It should be no surprise that teachers can and should be heroes to our children, but heroes even the greatest of them,  are first and foremost human.  Policy shouldn’t push humanity out of teaching.  If it does we will be depriving students of the type of people they need to inspire them and help them work and persist while at the same time discovering the joy of learning.