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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.

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