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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Five Truths about Helping

Let's say someone you know has high blood pressure.  Is it a sure thing that the person will do what the doctor recommends to lower it? In most cases it is not a sure thing.  Some people do and some don't.  Some might want a pill to take and hope that it alone will solve the problem.  Some might want to do something about it and make some positive first steps but then fall back in old routines and habits.  Some might end up becoming discouraged and give up.  In many cases people might have the will to do it but lack the skills to change a habit.  In other cases, they may know how to change habits but don't feel that this change is a necessary one.  

As I said in my previous post, the problem of bullying in schools is lot like the problem of high blood pressure.  If a loved one had high blood pressure and you wanted to help that person to change, how would you go about helping that person?  This is the problem that a school leader faces (a school leader who is motivated to do something about the problem).  Just presenting a rational argument or sharing the data, is not and never will be enough to get the real job done.

In order to help someone do anything it is important to know something about how "helping" works.  Jim Knight at the University of Kansas has researched the impact of coaching  on improving teachers' instructional skills.  Since coaching is a form of helping, he has researched and studied what makes helping a complex endeavor.  He has summarized the research into what he calls the Five Simple  Truths about Helping.  I will share them and briefly describe how they can be applied to bullying prevention.

People often do not know that they need help.

This idea is central to why bullying prevention doesn't seem to gain traction in a school.  It is the blind spot phenomena where staff see 5 % of the bullying and students see almost all of it.  Staff usually underestimate the amount of bullying they see and overestimate their diligence and effectiveness in dealing with it.  This is a much better interpretation for  why schools seem either indifferent, incompetent or both when it comes to bullying prevention.  Bullying may very well be a problem that they don't really think is a problem (nowadays it is politically incorrect to openly state that belief)  but it most likely explains why compliance to mandates is more commonplace true commitment.

If people feel "one down" they will resist help.

If someone with more power and/or authority tells someone to change and that change is perceived as  imposed, people with naturally (almost subconsciously) resist it.  It is definitely a case of "who are you to tell me what to do-you don't understand what life is like in schools".  People who work in the trenches in schools have an understandable resistance to mandates imposed by people who they perceive to be out of touch and removed from the real problems they encounter.  This truth is directly related to the first one: "if bullying is not a real problem why is someone telling me that I have to do something about it" is often the mindset of many people who work in schools.

Criticism is taken personally.

Very often the people who advocate for change feel that the people who don't change are stubborn, not open and possibly don't care.  If advocates for change feel this way, you can be sure that the people who are supposedly resistant to change feel that they are being perceived this way.  Not only do school staff  often feel they are blamed for the problem of bullying, they feel judged and criticized for not doing a good enough job in preventing it and reducing it.  Advocates for change though well intentioned often feel that the answer to the lack of progress in bullying prevention is simply a matter of gaining greater compliance with policy and/or  fidelity with the program designed to stop bullying.  This only adds to sense of criticism and judgment that staff feel.  Knight feels that our failure to understand this only creates greater resistance on the part of the people who truly need help.  The importance of  "saving face" is critical and cannot be underestimated in helping.

If someone else does all the thinking for them, people will resist.

My best advice for school leaders is to lead the learning about the problem rather than impose the solution.   Knight makes the case that teachers are professionals who feel that they are good at solving problems, good at thinking, and good at helping students.  Simply telling them what to do or what program they should follow, is also asking them to change how they see themselves.  It is critical that if a school is going to use a program that the staff/school community have a key voice and say in what program is ultimately selected.  (One caveat-the selection must come following a sufficient amount of collective learning enough to avoid choosing a quick fix-like just getting a speaker or having a one time assembly.)

People aren't motivated by other people's goals.

This is why getting the whole school community involved in understanding the problem, seeing it in the right context, digging into the research regarding best practice, and determining the best direction to take is really the only approach that will lead to significant progress in bullying prevention.  The saying from the Field of Dreams movie,  "If you build it they will come",  doesn't apply to bullying prevention.   Instead it should be "If WE build it, we will own it, use it, want it and it will work!"

Knight sums up the necessity for accounting for these Five Truths this way:

"Professional learning fails when change leaders underestimate how complicated change can be.  Just telling people what to do and expecting them to do it might work for simple tasks like stocking shelves in a grocery store, but such an approach is seldom motivating or effective for professionals...Failing to understand the nature of helping relationships can doom leaders of change."

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