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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Tied up in NOTS

"I think that much of what goes in American schools is based on the fundamental lack of trust in children, which manifests itself in controlling them."-Alfie Kohn

If you have read this blog, you would know that I agree wholeheartedly with Alfie Kohn,  however bullying and the damage it does to kids, can really put "trust" to the test.  When it comes to protecting students, it  becomes too difficult for adults to resist taking control usually by the default approach of rules and consequences. Trusting kids does not mean taking a laissez-faire approach.   Advocates for trust instead call for involving kids in the process of governing their own environments and communities.  Kids learn by doing and learn how to be responsible to each other when adults guide the process of community building. 

One could make the case that since bullying is to a large extent determined by how bystanders respond to it, that kids have shown that they can't be trusted since they don't consistently report or intervene when they observe bullying.  Ironically, Kohn would probably argue (and I would also) that after years of being controlled by adults kids end up living "down" to our expectations, or adults get what they expect from kids.  If we don't trust kids and control them, they come to view themselves as passive recipients of adult direction and defer responsibility for governing to the those who are in control-the adults.  It is clearly up to the adults to take the first step to break this cycle.  How can adults make this "leap of trust" and still feel like they are meeting their basic responsibility for keeping kids safe?

Adults need  to first avoid making the "fundamental attribution error", i.e. thinking that the problem lies within kids - that they can't be trusted. Adults have to attribute the problem of bullying to the circumstance, conditions that exist within the social world that kids face every day.  It can be hard to trust kids who have a history of bullying.  When adults are  in a position of protecting kids from bullying, they cannot trust that these kids are going to just learn their lesson after a kind talk with an adult.

Since many of the kids who bully never even get caught doing it, adults for the most part of"'out of the loop" any way and have no direct control over what happens.  Shifting away from the fundamental attribution error, adults need to see bullying as a social action that serves a purpose for the kids that bully.  That social purpose is to impress and establish the audience of bystanders thereby raising the social status of the kid who bullies.  If adults want to "control" bullying they need to realize that they can't directly control the kid who bullies and instead address the social environment that can either support bullying or deter it. To put the challenge into a simple phrase: Stop bullying, Change the Audience.

This shift in thinking leads to the next questions: What affects how the audience (bystanders) respond to the bullying? Why don't bystanders intervene or report bullying?  Avoiding the fundamental attribution error the answer to that question is that it's NOT because they don't care or are heartless, apathetic individuals.  We need to explore why it is hard for kids to be responsible bystanders and have empathy for them.  We need to understand how easy it is for bystanders to be tied up in NOTS when it comes to bullying.  I used the term NOTS as a pun for two reasons-it is easy  to remember and to show that most kids want to help but their are many constraining forces in their world that keep them from doing what they want to do.  Here are some of the NOTS that keep kids from intervening and reporting.  In future posts I will elaborate on several of them at a time, but for now I will just list them and leave them for you figure out (hint they are the same ones that we face as adults when it comes to helping our neighbor).

NOT wrong. Kids don't see that what is happening is bullying or that it is wrong.

NOT harmful. Kids may think that what is happening is wrong but no one is really getting hurt-the victim should be able to handle it.

NOT like me.  The victim of bullying is very different from the bystander.  It is harder to help someone who we think is very different from us.

NOT my "tribe".  The victim is from a different class or group of people usually a group that the bystander; a group that the bystander doesn't want to be associated with.

NOT worthy of help.  The victim might even deserve the bullying. The victim might not be someone the teachers like.

NOT sure of what the crowd thinks.  Bystanders might wrongly think that most kids approve of bullying. It is scary for a lot of kids to step outside of the what they perceive the majority thinks.

NOT sure.  Bystanders might just be very unsure of what to do or say to stop bullying or even if it is bullying to begin with.  Uncertainty usually freezes people into inaction.

NOT clear.  Sometimes it just isn't clear about what is happening and before bystanders can decide what to do the situation is over.

NOT my job.  A bystander might think that the bullying should stop but thinks someone else should do it or that it is the adults job to do something about it.

NOT my decision.  This is the opposite of being unsure of what the crowd thinks.  A bystander interprets the inaction of others to be a sign that what is happening is not a problem. They let the behavior of others decide for them.

NOT against the rules.  The bullying might not technically be against the rules and bystanders decide right or wrong based on following or not following the rules.

NOT worth the risk.  The need for protecting the self (me) is greater than the need to help others.
NOT sure if adults will handle the situation well.  Bystanders might think that the bullying is wrong but think that telling adults will only make the situation worse.

NOT confident in their own skills and abilities.  Bystanders might want to help but figure that their efforts will be ineffective especially when matched up against a popular socially supported kid who bullies.

NOT sure of back up.  Bystanders are unsure that if they take the risk and go to an adult that the adult will support  them.  They might even get in trouble themselves.

NOT what it means to be a "good student".  Many times being an effective bystander might mean breaking some rules of the school.  It could also mean breaking the main rule of not deferring to adult authority.

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