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Monday, April 29, 2013

Identity Crisis

When it comes to bullying prevention schools are having an identity crisis.  The people who work in schools think that they are doing a good job and in many ways they are right.  How you judge the job they do depends upon what you think there job is and what criteria you set to judge success.  If you walk into a school almost any school, you will see hundreds of kids behaving in an orderly fashion and pretty much doing as they are told.  This appears on the surface to the adults who “run” the schools as the most tangible sign that things are working. 
As I have written previously, bullying is seldom a blatant or visible occurrence to the eyes of the adults who are in charge.   Think about it-the need for bullying prevention came from outside the school.  Take away the outside forces and pressures to do something about bullying and it is doubtful that most schools on their own would initiate bullying prevention programs or direct any type of effort towards reducing or preventing bullying.

No wonder that many educators when they are honest with you have trouble believing that there really is a bullying problem in school.  I found that administrators only started to attending professional development on bullying after laws were passed about it-they went to make sure they were in compliance not because it was a priority based on their own experience. 

So the outside world handed schools the problem of bullying and said to them, “Stop it-it is the law and it is your job to enforce the law.”   Bullying was happening before laws were passed but now that bullying is officially recognized as a “problem” schools have to do something different-different from before the laws were passed.   These laws do not require schools to change in substantive way or even suggest what needs to be changed.  These laws basically say “stay as you are” but just make sure that the law against bullying is enforced. What they have to do differently is implement and enforce the law.  Many people who work in schools probably think that they have a pretty good handle on bullying so all they really have to do is be in compliance with the law and then all will be well.

Bullying by default is a legal issue in schools.  Schools need to enforce the law and assume a policing role.  Just like the police their focus is on the rule breakers and to make sure they follow the procedures and protocols that come with enforcing the law the right way.  This approach has very little to do with actually preventing or reducing bullying.  Bullying is a complex manifestation of imbalances of power in social relationships that exist in a school.  It is not a distinct observable act like breaking the speed limit, defacing property or even like defying a teacher. 

Bullying has not and will not go away as an issue now-it is good copy for the media.  Bullying is not a phony problem either but it is a problem that easily operates within the legal system-that is it is easy to commit and hard to prove.  When some schools finally collect data and the data reveals a “real problem”,  schools have no other way of addressing it.  They just continue to use the default approach of treating it as a legal issue and increase its level of policing - mirroring the criminal justice system.  No wonder that many educators are so ready to hand over the responsibility for enforcing the law to the actual police.  Maybe in their minds, the reason they seem to make little progress with bullying is because they have less authority than the “real police” do.

Bullying however is really a moral issue-it is about how we all interact with each other and how we treat each other.  It involves everyone and requires everyone to act in a caring, responsible way in situations that are not clearly defined by rules or laws.   Bullying will only diminish in an environment where all the people in that environment treat each other with respect and caring-where each person is valued and cared for-a strong community.   This means that schools need to change or grow towards greater community with social norms of caring and respect.  They cannot remain status quo with just the absence of a negative or forbidden behavior.
Schools are not used to being asked to “grow” or change.  They are just asked to comply and make sure the negative doesn’t happen.  There is little provided to them on how to change or grow.  The whole idea of embracing bullying as a moral issue is a strange role for a school and the adults in the school.  Most would say that getting kids to grow in a moral sense is not in their job description-it is the parents job.  The parents need to make their kids moral enough to follow the rules and the school only has the responsibility to make sure that they do. 

Schools however are where kids live and breathe for at least 6 hours a day-it is the social environment where bullying either happens or doesn’t.  Kids need to learn to make moral choices in the arena where they happen.  They cannot get a booster shot of morality at home and then come to school and act moral.  Even though they may not admit it, most kids do look to adults to help them grow morally.  They are watching us, listening to us and in most cases waiting for us to provide them with the modeling and the opportunities to talk about what being moral is.  When we pretend that it is not our role to do that (they should get it at home), we are basically saying to them-figure it out on your own and when you make a mistake we are here to nab you.  What is probably even worse is that when schools fail to embrace bullying as a moral issue and accept responsibility for helping and guiding kids, they  are devaluing the moral aspect of life and misleading kids to think that morality is just following the rules. 

By embracing bullying as a moral issue and tying it to the core moral issue of helping kids learn, schools can become revitalized.  Helping the “whole student” learn and grow can become more than a job or maintaining the status quo and become instead become a heroic endeavor.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Confusing the Issue

Is the problem of bullying a legal issue or a moral issue?  This is a question that is seldom asked.  By not asking it, those in leadership positions easily and without thinking accept the default approach to solving serious problems: pass a law against it and then enforce the law.  This approach is concrete and demonstrates that “something” is being done about a problem that we would like to go away. What could be wrong with that?

Most laws work well in setting limits on behaviors.  It is easier to stop people from doing unacceptable things or at least containing and constraining that behavior within reasonable limits.  Stopping an unacceptable behavior doesn’t require getting someone to learn anything new.   Strategies for stopping or containing an unacceptable behavior consist primarily of monitoring people’s behavior and only interacting with the people who overstep or exceed the limits.  Think of the speed limit on driving.  People don’t need to be taught how to stay within the limit.  Police just monitor the roads and when they detect someone exceeding the limit they have the authority to stop them and provide a consequence for the behavior that “broke the law.”  Most people drive in a relatively rational state of mind-they have to make decisions about where they need to go so it is not hard for them to decide if they want to take the risk of exceeding the limit to get to their destination sooner.  To a large degree, driving over the speed limit is a choice most people make and they weight the risks involved along with  their awareness of police presence and the likelihood of being caught.   This approach to problems “works” for some problems.  It doesn’t work for all problems.  Life would be simpler and easier if it did but it doesn’t.  We can be fooled thinking that it should work for all problems. since it is hard to do “nothing” and it is unclear what the solution is to the more complex problem, we go ahead and use the tried and true solution used for a very different type of problem.
Some problems are more concrete and can be contained by setting and monitoring reasonable limits on the problem behavior.  Because this approach is so concrete and only requires effective monitoring and enforcement, we want all problems to be solved this way.  In fact, when confronted with a more complex problem that requires a different approach, those in authority continue to see the problem in simpler terms so that they can feel like they are doing something about it.  I recently heard a story that illustrates this phenomenon:
A man is doesn’t feel good and goes to his doctor.  The doctor examines him and can’t diagnose what is wrong.  He tells the man to go home strip down to his underwear, open up the window and stand in front of the cold air.  The  man says to the doctor that if he does that he is likely to catch pneumonia.  The doctor replies, “Good, then you can back to me and I will know how to treat you.”

This is what happens when a legal solution is used for a moral problem.  The cliché that you can’t legislate morality is true. Moral behavior is different from legal behavior.  Not all immoral behavior is illegal and not all legal behavior is moral.  Getting the two mixed up is confusing and leads to getting nowhere with either problem.  The irony of this situation is that moral people don’t need laws.  Immoral people are not constrained too much by the law anyway.

 Ask a group of your friends what law would they break if there were no law there to prevent them.  If they name a law they would break, it would probably be a questionable law only pertains to their own individual behavior, i.e. marijuana use.  Even in that case it is doubtful that it is the law that would inhibit them-if they wanted to do they would find a way to do it without getting caught.

An example of a disastrous attempt, to address a moral problem with a legal solution was Prohibition.   Alcohol abuse does tremendous damage to our society.  They were many people who wanted to stop this damage and it must have been appealing to those people to solve the problem by banning the source of it.  (This doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be limits on using it-there should be limits and limits are necessary and useful.) Lifting the prohibition on alcohol, is not the same as saying alcohol abuse is good and go ahead and drink all you want.  In the case of Prohibition we learned that banning something that people were already doing was not the solution to the abuse of the behavior.  Responsible use of alcohol is really a moral issue and getting people to use it responsibility requires a lot more than simply telling them not to use it at all.

The problem of bullying is ultimately a moral problem not just a legal one. When kids bully other kids it is not usually a rational decision that one that a driver would make to stay within the speed limit.  Kids bully for many reasons-most of them they are not aware of.  Bystanders don't intervene or help for many reasons most are not rational clear cut decisions.  We need to help kids learn about this problem and what is going on inside of them and how it connects to the social world that is their reality.  The solution to the problem needs to be more than just telling people not to do it.  The solution (solution is probably not the right word) requires helping people learn what responsible behavior is and helping them become responsible.  Learning to live in the social world is not easy-it is a learning process.  We interact with each other in many subtle and complex ways and it is inevitable that we will all make mistakes.  Mistakes shouldn’t be crimes.  People who make mistakes shouldn’t be thought of as criminals-we would all be criminals if that were true. 

Some mistakes are egregious and shouldn’t ever occur.  These more serious mistakes are more likely to be avoided when the less serious mistakes that people make can be talked about in an environment free from shame and blame.  If adults only talk to kids about responsible behavior after the limit to that behavior is crossed, we are not really giving them the guidance and wisdom they need to become more and more responsible.   When mistakes are perceived as crimes and people are not caught making them, there is no reason for even discussing them, in fact most people want to keep them secret and hidden.  When mistakes are perceived as crimes, most people will deny that they made a mistake for admitting the mistake would mean they are admitting they are a criminal and few people would want to accept that as their identity.  In effect when the emphasis is on the legal and not the moral and human element, we reduce the amount of learning that can and should occur concerning the problem.

When we make bullying a legal, criminal issue we push kids away from ever admitting a mistake in the social world.  We make those necessary conversations with adults where they can get our help and guidance less and less likely to happen.  "Bullying" becomes an adult word that is just another attempt on the part of adults to control and manipulate them.  We are pushing kids away from our help and support in becoming more responsible.  When we criminalize bullying we are removing all distinctions of social interactions and leaving kids on their own to figure it all out,and get it  right on their own.  We are just crossing our fingers and hoping it turns out all right.  We are trading our need to keep things simple and to feel like we are doing “something” for doing what it really takes to help kids-becoming trustworthy in their eyes.   We need to realize that bullying is really a moral issue and morality is something that is learned from human relationships and the connections among people. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

On Not "Burying the Lead"

There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?

New York State’s Dignity for All Students Act (The Dignity Act) seeks to provide the State’s public elementary and secondary school students with a safe and supportive environment free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment, and bullying on school property, a school bus and/or at a school function.

Alberta, Canada-A board, as partner in education has the responsibility to ensure that each student enrolled in a school operated by the board and each staff member employed by the board is provided with a welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environment that respects diversity and fosters a
sense of belonging.

These are summaries of the legislation regarding bullying passed by New York and by Alberta, Canada.  Both laws are necessary and represent progress in recognizing the importance of keeping students safe in order to learn.   Both provide an important foundation for school district to actively sustain a positive school environment.  There are some differences between the statements that are worth exploring. ( I do this not evaluate one against the other.)  How the law translates into action is what is most important, therefore exploring the words and their effect on subsequent action can be instructive.

 A law is a statement, a message to the community about what is important and necessary and it can and should trigger a wide range of initiatives and changes in school, that will ultimately shape and determine the type of experience that students have in school.   I think we all know that compliance with a law is not the ultimate goal for any school, instead schools should be in compliance as a first step, a minimal step in achieving the goals and the intent of the law.

We all know that there could be schools that are in compliance but fail to truly keep all students safe.  Conversely there are schools that could be out of compliance that are not only safe but great places for learning.  Laws can and should point in the right the direction and the words and their emphasis do influence how school leaders lead their schools.  Words, as they say, do matter.

I have looked at a lot of the written material that has come out of DASA, NY’s legislation and it seems that the emphasis is much more on stopping something bad from happening.  That is good and noble thing-who could not agree that it is good to stop a bad thing.  There is less of  emphasis on what to do in addition to stopping a bad thing.  The language connected to the law also reveals that the main responsibility is to make sure that schools stop students from doing bad things.
It is easier to know communicate about what shouldn’t happen.   It is a harder thing and requires more imagination to envision how schools could be different.  The vision of most laws is one that envisions the status quo but only without the bad the things happens in it.  It is similar to the medical model of disease being something that needs to be removed from the body so that the body can go about living as it did before.  In the case of bullying, when kids who bully stop bullying, the school can go about its business the way it traditionally has.  The school staff then just need to police the environment to make sure the law is not broken-sort like the police making sure no one breaks the speed limit.  They leave the people who stay within the speed limit alone. 

This is a good thing and is really what the law is all about.  The problem is bullying is not really a legal issue it is a moral issue and. as they say, you can legislate morality as much as one might try.  The problem schools are not designed at least on paper to address moral issues-it is not their job-it is the parents’ job, so if kids are acting immorally  there really isn’t anything a school can do (some might say should do).  It is hard to schools to do this job and even harder if they are left on their own to reimagine how they need to change who they are and how they should be.  One of if not the most important jobs of leadership is shape that vision and ask why not like Robert Kennedy said.

The Alberta provision is not a better but is just different and that difference is worth exploring.  There is no “not” in it.  Some could criticize it for not having the word bullying in it.  (They do in other places in the provision.)  They “lead” with a vision of how schools should be.  I am sure that everyone involved in writing the DASA legislation and every administrator in NYS would sign up for the statement of Alberta-they would say yes, of course that is the same thing we want.  If you look deeper into the all the words written about DASA and the resources that NYS provides, you could find a similar vision to the one articulated in Alberta.  I could easily be accused of nitpicking these statements, so why should I even bother.  I do so because of what  journalists/writers know: how important it is not to “bury the lead” in any type of story.  What is said in the first sentence in many ways determines everything that comes after; determines to a very large degree whether people even keep reading.
Like good writers, good leaders no how it important it is not to “bury the lead” of any story.  Good leaders, like good writers, know what story needs to be told and know the arc of the story and the end of the story-the story needs to be imagined so to speak in order to be told and understood.  All of that depends on the “lead”.  Alberta has not buried the lead.  They have put their re-imagined vision of school at the front (in the lead) of everything that  they want to come after it.  They have chosen the direction that they want people to go-have given them a vision as a direction-a positive image not just the same old with vision without the bad thing in it.

Ultimately however what happens in each school is up to each school and the people in that school.  Each school needs to determine its own “lead” in order to create the school they want.  It is easier not to reimagine the school as being any different from how it currently is except without the bad thing happening.  Good leaders know however that the best schools are always re-writing, re-creating themselves, re-imaging themselves and involving everyone in that process.  Good leaders know how important it is not to bury the lead, but to put it up front and make it very visible and then help everyone walk together towards it.

“If we are all facing in the same direction, all we have to do is keep walking” is a Buddhist saying that really says it all. Good leaders are the ones who believe this and lead in a way that turns that saying into a reality.  That would be a good lead for them to follow.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Between Two Worlds

One of the funniest skits of SNL was when Chris Farley played a motivational speaker hired by parents to get their teenage kids to behave.    There is such an inherent absurdity to the idea that these teenagers will turn around their behavior based upon the exhortations of this outrageous motivational speaker.  Even the actors playing the teenagers in the skit have trouble containing their laughter.  We all laugh at this motivational speaker but isn't it pretty much the same as what many school districts do to combat bullying.

Somehow many adults still think that saying the right things in the right way will somehow change or motivate kids to see the light and act differently.  In addition, just like the SNL skit, schools like the parents in the skit are pretty much signaling that they are at a loss for what to do when it comes to their kids.  They need some outside person to come in and inspire their own children to act differently.  To be fair to schools, bringing in motivational speakers does show that they want to do something about the problem, but it doesn't do much more than only that.  Are there other ways to connect to students, other ways to change how they act or what they say?

The answer is a definite YES but it will mean that adults need to accept the responsibility of becoming trustworthy.  The adults much change what they do and say before there can be any possibility of reasonably expecting kids to change.  (This is perhaps the hardest part of change.  Most people especially people in positions of authority have to function in the world assuming they are right about most things and if that is true why should they change.) 

 Motivational speakers are not going to make much difference.  (They could even make the situation worse by even lowering adult creditability in the eyes of students.)  They are two essential things that adults can do that can start to make the necessary connection with students: acknowledge certain realities and change the language we use to reflect those realities.

Acknowledge the social world:  Adults must acknowledge the fact the social world of school is important and not just incidental to the academic world.  What we don't say and do communicates who we are and what we value, so when we don't acknowledge the social world and its importance in our lives, we give the mistaken impression that kids are in school primarily for adults to pour academic knowledge into them and then test them to see if they got it.  The best teachers ironically are the ones who acknowledge the social world and integrate it with the academic. 

Acknowledge the differences between the adult world and the student world:  Adults need to remember what it was like when they were young and try to empathize with students.  This empathy should help adults see and understand how kids as they grow need to separate and have their own world.  The more conversation we can have about the differences the better.  I remember my wife once having a conversation with my then teenage son about how kids need to separate from their adults.  His response was "That helps me understand why I am do some of the things I do."

Acknowledge the limits of the adult world in controlling the student world.  This is where adults have to be humble.  We have to overcome our fear of being vulnerable or weak in the eyes of others especially students.  The irony of this is that when people in perceived positions of authority are humble and acknowledge their limitations and their needs, they gain respect and trust for those they lead. When leading a Peaceful School Bus group as principal I make a point of saying to the kids that I couldn't really control what they did on the bus and that they could and should  take collective  responsibility for the type of school they wanted to have-it was up to them to decide if they wanted everyone on the bus to be safe.  When I followed up this message with practical strategies for them to use, they were ready to see how and why they should use them.  We can't just say "it's up to you"we need to follow up with support, resources and reassurance of "back up" when they needed it.

Acknowledge how the student world is needed in not just stopping something negative, but in meeting a common aspiration goal.  When a leader acknowledges the need for the whole team to work together toward a common goal where everyone benefits, people are more likely to help than when they are told just to stopping doing a negative behavior. I would say to the bus route group, "I need your help in doing my job and my job is to keep everyone safe and able to learn."  I would then humbly ask them, "Will you help me?'  Kids want to say Yes.  When we humbly ask we are also showing our trust and our belief that they are trustworthy and capable.  When we do that they are more likely to trust us and come to us when they need help.

These acknowledgements are so necessary for connecting to students.   We need to have a different set of words to use with kids.  Words do matter for they shape how we think and then act.  Here are some the "replacements' we need to make:

Replace the mindset of "doing to kids" to "doing with kids"

Replace telling kids with asking kids

Replace saying NO and Don't with Do and dare (take a risk for doing good)

Replace seeing kids as the source of the problem with seeing them as the solution to the problem

Replace YOU with WE

If we start to make these shifts based on our trust in kids, we become trustworthy.  When we become trustworthy the lines of communication open and kids will be open to the wisdom we do have to offer them.   When we recognize the limits of our control and stop trying to manipulate kids into doing what we want them to do, a strange thing actually happens: we end  up actually having a influence on how they think and act.  Kids start to see us as people who want to help them not just as people who want to control them.  We have opened up the "life lines" between our two worlds.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Another "NOT"-Not my WORD

“While teen conflict will never go away, networked publics have changed how it operates. “Drama” is a very messy process, full of contradictions and blurred boundaries. But it opens up spaces for teens. As a concept, drama lets teens conceptualize and understand how their social dynamics have changed with the emergence of social media. Technology allows teens to carve out agented identities for themselves even when embroiled in social conflict. And it lets them save face when confronted with adult-defined dynamics, which their peers see as childish and irrelevant.

Understanding how “drama” operates is necessary to recognize teens’ own defenses against the realities of aggression, gossip, and bullying in networked publics. Most teens do not recognize themselves in the “bullying” rhetoric used by parents, teen advocates, and mental health professionals. Even the pop cultural depictions in television shows like Glee feel irrelevant to many teens. They do not want to see themselves as victims or as aggressors, but as mature individuals navigating their world competently.”

an excerpt from the article: The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics by Dr. Alice Marwick and Dr. dana boyd

Whenever I get the opportunity to talk to a teenager, I ask them about their perception and assessment of the bullying in their high school.  Invariably, I get the same response: it is not much of a problem.  I realize that this is dependent upon the status of the student in the school.  And contrary to what the media portrays especially when it comes to cyber bullying, the reality is that most students do not experience bullying.  This response shouldn’t be a surprise but it has always made me scratch my head a bit since all students are bystanders and I figured that most kids would have witnessed bullying on some level.

Reading the complete article by Marwick and boyd helped me understand the response I got from my limited sample of high school students.  Bullying for me was drama for them.  Bullying is a word from the adult world.  It is breaking a rule, a no-no, something mean spirited, done by bad kids, something that the media gets all hyped up about.  At best bullying is something that younger kids, immature kids do that most high school kids have outgrown.  Who could admit to doing such a thing or that such a thing even occurs in their world? 

 To most high school students, bullying is not a reality-it is from another world-not theirs.  It is from a world-the adult world-that they developmentally need to separate from, a world by its very nature that is “out of it”, a world that cannot understand their world.  Too often it is a world that they perceive that is not interested in understanding their world because it is too busy trying to police and control their world. 

Teenagers need to create an “identity” separate from the adult world.  A big part of any separate identity is the developing a new language-one that the world from which they are separating cannot understand.  This is part of the developmental process of leaving the nest so to speak.  Kids can’t continue to depend upon only doing what they are told to do if they are going at some point in their lives become independent from the adult world. 

This is why anyone who has raised a child into adulthood knows how difficult a job it is.  Adults are in a “no-win” situation, because kids almost have to rebel, reject their parents to certain degree in order to establish an identity apart from just being a member of the family or a creation of their parents.  The irony is that this is impossible and kids needs adult guidance and support and cannot function totally independently from adults.  I think there was a book title that said something to like: “Mom I hate you but can you drive me to the mall.”

Wise adults recognize this as a developmental process and accept this inherent paradox that adolescents find themselves in: they can’t live with us or without us.  From my own observations and experience, I believe that the greatest mistake adults can make is to increase the degree of control they exert over adolescents especially when kids push the limits of that control.  The more adults push and exert control the more adolescents with push back and away.  Some will do it overtly and some covertly and some in both ways.  Kids can become very clever in giving adults the surface compliance that they know will satisfy them and then pursue their own agenda. 

What does all of this have to do with bullying prevention?  It means that all of our efforts to control adolescents will only discredit us and push kids away from the ‘wisdom’ that they need from adults in order to navigate the world from teenage years to adulthood.   The more kids see adults as merely people who are trying to tell them what to do, how to do it or just as people who have create a series of hoops for them to jump through, the less they will listen to them. 

This is tragic because one of the benefits of family and community is passing of wisdom from generation to generation.  If kids only take their cues or advice from other kids (those without sufficient life experiences) they are more apt to make not only stupid and avoidable mistakes, but also tragic and harmful ones.  Sadly, the more they feel the need to cut themselves off from adults, the less they will learn from those mistakes because they will deny that they were mistakes. Admitting they were mistakes would be admitting that adults were right and they were wrong-they would be losing their newfound identity.

Ironically the more adults emphasize the dangers of bullying and use scare tactics as a means to control kids the more likely bullying will be denied and labeled as drama by teenagers.  The more adults try to police and criminalize bullying, the more teenagers will refuse to ever admit to doing it.  The more adults try to impose their will upon kids, the more they will turn off any message we try to give. 

Returning to the mining collapse analogy from my previous posting, adults have to accept the fact that kids are in a different world that is separate from the adult world.  Adults need to accept the fact that this world wants and needs to be separate and cannot be expected to conform to the adult world.  This very acknowledgement and understanding of the existence of two worlds is the first step in opening up lifelines of not just communication but crucial and essential resources.

There are many NOTS that make it difficult for bystanders to intervene and report bullying.  The “NOT my word (drama vs. bullying)” is one that requires us to enter into real dialogue with students:  a dialogue where we acknowledge that we don’t speak the same language.  This is an essential first step in learning about each other, respecting each other and learning from each other.  

It is pretty simple, when we realize that kids have a lot to teach us and that we need them, then they will be more likely to be open to learn from us-to let us support them.  When we truly respect them we become trustworthy. They can see us not as people who want to control them but people who love them and truly want to help them.  We, as adults, need to make sure that the true message of love and support doesn’t get overwhelmed and drowned out by our controlling actions borne of our fear of them being out of  our control.