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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. 

1 comment:

Charles said...

Bullying can turn a simple ride on the school bus into a traumatic experience. It is important to encourage children to see their similarities and what they have in common. Focusing on differences causes division.