A New 21st Century Approach for Battling Bullying
How We Can Empower Our Kids By Nancy Willard
In 2011, close to 1.2 million students in the U.S. reported that someone was hurtful to them at school once a week or more—a rate that has not significantly declined since 2005. Of this number, over 540,000 students say they are bullied “almost daily,” and more than 700,000 students report they are “fearful of attack or harm” at school “sometimes” or “most of the time” (Robers, Zhang, Truman & Snyder, 2012). Students most typically targeted are those who are obese, have a minority sexual orientation or identity, or have disabilities (Bradshaw, Waasdorp, O’Brennan & Gulemetova, 2011; Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, 2011; Puhl, Peterson & Luedicke, 2013). Others targeted are of racial, national origin, and religious minorities. Then there are the kids who simply “walk to a different beat.” These include those who are gifted, have unusual or unique interests, or reject the values and behaviors of “social climbers” in their school.
Ineffective 20th Century “Rules and- Punishment” Approach Schools generally comply with state bullying prevention statutes and follow common bullying prevention guidelines. School staff members believe they are effectively managing bullying and harassment, but there is a more pervasive issue at hand. I believe that the traditional 20th-century “adult control, rules-and punishment” approach simply does not work in preventing bullying and harassment because:
• Most bullying is motivated by a desire to achieve social dominance among peers.
• The hurtful acts generally occur outside of adult presence.
• Telling students to “tell an adult” if they are bullied isn’t effective when they believe that telling an adult could cause serious damage to their reputation or lead to retaliation.
• The common prevention approach typically focuses on only the socially marginalized student who faces multiple risks. Schools tend to ignore the hurtful acts of the “socially motivated” students, the “social climbers” who are well integrated, and are considered “popular” and “cool.” These students are often highly skilled in being hurtful but behave appropriately in the presence of staff.
• In addition to addressing the challenges of more one directional bullying, schools need to address the more complicated situation of “teen drama” that may involve many more players, all of whom are being hurtful. Social media appears to have increased these kinds of hurtful situations.
• The “Just say ‘no’” messages did not reduce drug abuse (West & O’Neill, 2004), so why should we think students will be responsive to adult-dictated rules like, “Don’t bully others?”
A New 21st Century Approach Clearly, U.S. schools must prepare students with the academic insights and skills necessary for success in work and life in the 21st century. But they also must ensure that students gain responsible social relationship skills. These social competencies are equally important for success in work and life. By focusing on such social competencies, academic performance also improves.
Parents can encourage schools to shift to a 21st-century approach in addressing bullying and harassment. A 21st-century approach addresses the age-old problem of bullying by ensuring a positive school climate, engaging students as full participants in the effort, and resolving negative incidents in a positive and restorative manner.
Schools incorporating a 21st century approach should:
• Place a high priority on addressing these issues through dedicated staffing at the district and school level, with broad-based committees that include school, student, parent, and community representatives.
• Measure what is happening locally to be able to assess the local concerns and evaluate progress. Use approaches that are research-based and have a likelihood of success.
• Review all policies and practices including school security, mental health plans, disciplinary policies, and incident reporting and tracking.
• Focus on the schoolwide positive management of student behavior and implement a comprehensive approach to increase students’ social, emotional, and cultural competencies.
• Engage students in leadership roles to provide insight and recommendations and to implement student-led programs and activities.
• Specifically address the concerns of those students who are more typically targeted by assessing school practices, involving those students in planning, and in creating diversity support groups. Also address personal relationship issues, bullying associated with athletics and groups, and workplace bullying.
• Shift from punitive responses to an approach that addresses the challenges faced by all students involved and holds those students being hurtful accountable in a manner that remedies the harm and stops the continuation of the problem.
• Evaluate the effectiveness of every school intervention.
One of the most important steps parents can take is to start the conversation and initiate efforts to ensure that student voices are better heard and that students assume a greater leadership role in setting and implementing anti-bullying policies and programs.
If You Think Your Child is Being Bullied… Document the Situation Parents who believe their child or teen is being bullied or harassed need to document what is happening. Ask yourself the following questions and prepare your documentation accordingly:
1. Has your child or teen been the target of hurtful acts by another student or students? If so, describe the situations that have occurred.
2. Have the hurtful acts been pervasive (widely spread), or persistent (continuing)? If so, how significant have the acts been? How many people have been involved? How many times has this happened?
3. As a result of these hurtful acts:
• Is your child or teen emotionally distressed? Is this distress reasonable under the circumstances? Key indicators of emotional distress would include: feeling anxious, scared, or really sad; wanting to Create a Resiliency Plan Parents who feel their child is being bullied will need to approach the school or a higher administrative level to address this concern. In addition to determining ways for eliminating the harassment, part of the discussion should focus on developing a supportive “resiliency” plan to help their child or teen:
• Establish a support system that includes adults and peers, both in and out of school.
• Help the child or teen learn to hold him or herself in a position that demonstrates strength and confidence and to walk with power and pride.
• Identify “heroes” to emulate who have successfully met life challenges.
• Focus on positive happenings and activities, especially activities involving friendly peers, and thinking about possibilities for his or her future.
• Decide to build on the insight he or she has gained to make a positive difference in the lives of others.