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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.

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