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Friday, February 22, 2013

In the eyes of their peers

One of the key principles of bullying prevention should be: Help all students look valuable in the eyes of their peers.

This sounds quite simple and I doubt that there would any teacher who would admit to not doing this, but putting this principle into action is quite challenging given how schools are organized and structured. 

Why it is hard to do?
Schools are designed to sort students into different groups: those who succeed and those who don’t.  This success is primarily based on academic tasks, so those who happen to have a greater initial aptitude towards academic skills are the ones who succeed.   Students who might enter school with other aptitudes or abilities in different areas are at a disadvantage. Schools become very socially stratified as early as kindergarten and it continues right through high school.  It becomes very difficult if not impossible for students to break out of the “box” they are put into. 
Why is it so essential?
Even if you put the problem of bullying aside, it would be still be so important to put this principle into action.  When bullying is considered, it becomes an even greater moral imperative.  Robert Thornberg’s research, which I cited in an early post, points very clearly to the perception of deviance as being the key factor in determining bystander response to bullying.  To put it in the simplest terms:  students who are considered different or inferior from the norm are less and less likely to have any bystanders intervene or help them.  In fact, socially adept students who want to raise their social status by appearing more powerful, intentionally select students as targets based on their knowledge of how they are perceived by peers.   They pick their targets knowing that these students will not have kids helping them because kids will not want to be associated with them.

Why is it particularly challenging for teachers?
Teachers can be easily trapped into inadvertently conveying and reinforcing the perception that certain students are less valuable than other students.  Just think of a student who presents a behavior challenge to a teacher.  If a teacher is implementing a PBIS system giving out tokens or tickets, it is inevitable that some students earn more than others and subsequently gain more teacher praise and approval.  Even though PBIS strongly wants to separate the individual from his/her behavior, it is impossible to avoid having some kids viewed as “winners” and some as “losers”.  In fact, gaining teacher approval based on showing appropriate behavior is a key tenet of the program.   Most kids if they were interviewed in most schools would probably say that the student who misbehaves is giving the teacher a hard time and would probably have more empathy for the teacher than the “problem student”.   Students with problems in most schools unfortunately are considered to be a problem to the teacher and usually then to the class.

What can be done?
It is hard to change of the culture of most schools because the basic underlying structure has made this social stratification just part of how things are.  It is hard or almost impossible to imagine school being any other way.  Teachers and students become almost trapped in this culture.  This is why starting with a different principle to guide words and actions is so essential.  A school leader can devote a small portion of a faculty meeting by putting this principle before the staff.  Instead of talking about rules, regulations, programs etc., let staff discuss what this principle means to them.  They can discuss and possibly debate its importance.  The discussion can go in almost any direction as long it can start getting people to think even a little differently about their practice.
What potential does this principle have?
It is hard expect a system that is largely responsible for a problem to assume responsibility for addressing that problem successfully.  It is hard for people to accept the implicit criticism of their own performance when they are presented with the problem itself.  The traditional structure of school unfortunately does not like problems and wants them to go away as quickly as possible.  When they don’t they are either denied or someone else is usually to blame for them.   Effective leaders realize this so they frame the issue differently.  They can take bullying prevention from a problem to be solved and instead present a principle like, Help all students look valuable in the eyes of their peers, to the staff.
Ask the staff and at some point in time the students, how do we make this happen?  This becomes the goal and challenge and it is based on aspiring to something better rather than criticizing what is there.  It might take longer to put this principle into action than it would take to get compliance with a mandate, but any energy devoted to moving this direction would do more in the long run to make schools better places for learning for all students.

I believe that when people discuss a principle like this one and are invited to help in realizing it, then creativity can be triggered.  Creative solutions emerge not from free form brainstorming but rather from the tension of putting a principle into practice.  It is not easy, but if the people involved in this type of problem solving feel safe and are freed from feeling blamed or put down, they can commit to working together to find the way to this principle come to life and touch the lives of students for the better.

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