Educators, Students, and Conversations about Technology Misuse
During the last several years, school staff have become well aware that what happens online often significantly impacts the environment at school and the ability of students to learn. It is also true that what goes on at school influences the nature and content of student interactions while away from school. That means that a lack of connectedness, belongingness, peer respect, school pride, and other climate components may very well increase the likelihood of technology misuse off-campus by teens.
We are huge on the importance of creating and maintaining a positive school climate, and so we wanted to study this relationship through our research. We’ve done this in part in a blog entry late last year which demonstrated that in schools where students reported a better climate, students also reported fewer cyberbullying and sexting incidents. To reiterate, schools that were rated by students to have relatively “low” school climate had more reports of cyberbullying and sexting than those rated as “medium” or “high.”
Here are some other important findings worth mentioning:
Educators’ Efforts Matter
We also found that teachers who talk about these issues with their students are making a difference. Even though almost half (46 percent) of students said their teacher never talked to them about being safe on the computer and 69 percent of students said their teacher never talked to them about using a cell phone responsibly, when these conversations happen, they seem to have a positive impact. Students who told us that a teacher had talked to them about being safe on the computer were significantly less likely to report cyberbullying others.
Also, those who told us that a teacher had recently talked to them about using their cell phone responsibly were significantly less likely to say that they had sent a sext to another student. Of course the content of those conversations is also important. Once again, we call for more research to clarify what works in terms of teachers talking with students about safely and responsibly using computers and cell phones.
Students Remain Reluctant to Report
It is also noteworthy that fewer than 10 percent of targets of cyberbullying told a teacher or other adult at school about their experience (about 19 percent of the targets of traditional bullying told an adult at school). Much of the reluctance of students to report these kinds of behaviors stems from their skepticism that the teacher will actually do anything useful to stop the behavior. In fact, most students we speak to suggest that telling a teacher (or other adult) will often make matters worse.
Interestingly, 75 percent of students in our study felt that the teachers at their school took bullying seriously, but fewer (66 percent) felt that the teachers at their school took cyberbullying seriously. So clearly, adults in school have some work to do to convince students that these problems can be resolved effectively. How can a school or classroom hope to have a positive climate if students are afraid or hesitant to talk to adults about these issues? This is just one aspect of school climate that must be corrected if school administrators hope to develop and maintain an environment where youth can freely learn and thrive.
Expectation of Discipline
In our most recent research, we asked students to tell us how likely it would be for someone at their school to be caught and punished for cyberbullying. In general, about half (51 percent) of the students said that it was likely that a student from their school would be punished for cyberbullying. To note, this number dropped to less than 40 percent among the students who had actually been victims of cyberbullying.
When we examined this question from the perspective of different school climates, we found that students from the schools with more positive climates reported a higher likelihood of a response. Specifically, 65 percent of the students at the schools that scored “high” on our scale said that cyberbullies would be punished at their school compared to only 35 percent of the students at the “low-scoring” schools. Here again, the quality of the climate at school shapes student perceptions of accountability for behaviors online.
What is the take home point of this research?
Basically, there are fewer behavioral problems and higher academic performance in schools with a positive climate, the influence of climate extends beyond the school walls. Students who feel they are part of a welcoming environment will largely refrain from engaging in behaviors that could risk damaging the positive relationships they have at school.
You can’t separate climate from instruction. You can’t separate climate from leadership. You can’t separate climate from the purposeful things you do to build a relationship with students. If a school is doing great on one thing, it tends to all fall in line.
~ John Shindler, director of the Western Alliance for the Study of School Climate
Now that we better understand the online experiences of our students, and know that the climate at school is related to those experiences, the next step is to work to transform your classroom and school into a place where students feel safe, respected, involved, and connected. The resources on this site, and our latest book School Climate 2.0 can provide you with a road map for doing just that. Even though it is not an easy path to travel, we are confident that you will not be disappointed when your efforts materialize into happier students and staff and an overall better place to learn and teach.
There is a definite link between school climate and student online behavior. Without question, problems that occur between students in an online environment become issues at school. These issues often include a large number of students, as they can quickly share their opinions online with many of their classmates. Usually, the concern is brought to my attention by a student who reports being bullied or a parent who wants to know “What are YOU going to do about it?”
We have worked hard to educate our students and parents regarding online safety. Recently, we added a curricular unit at the seventh-grade level (soon to start in fifth grade). Each grade level participates in activities regarding cyberbullying. Additionally, we have had experts come in and talk to our students, staff, and parents about how to be more aware of online issues and how to respond appropriately. We are currently working on steps to communicate and practice online behavior expectations as part of the overall system of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) at our school.
We try to assist students in resolving cyberbullying issues even if the behaviors did not occur at school. We have had our counselor or trained peer mediators meet with students who are involved in online conflicts to work toward a resolution. As the principal, I have met with several parents to inform (and often educate) them about their child’s online behavior. By confronting the issue, I believe our school climate has improved. Students (and parents) know that we care about them beyond the school walls. They know we believe a safe, bully-free environment is critical to providing the best education possible.
~ Dr. Barry Kamrath, Principal, Bloomer Middle School, Bloomer, Wisconsin
Anti-Bullying Youth Rally at Schools
Pep rallies for our middle and high school athletic teams have been going on for decades, and are always great ways to get fired up about the sports season, or the next big game. They serve multiple purposes, all of which are quite important. For one, it really heightens school spirit – and if I am a student I want to be excited about my school, and believe in its chance and ability for success and victory. Second, it’s related to our identity, and our desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves. In this case, if you are a student, you belong to a group – whether you are the Rams, or the Fighting Owls, or the Blugolds, or the Vikings. You’re not alone; you are supporting something and working towards something together, with your peers – people you know and hopefully care about. Third, pep rallies break up the monotony of the school routine, and provide a fun, energetic, and inspiring outlet for everyone. This matters – students need this, on a regular basis.
In recent years, some schools are starting to hold pep rallies to promote academic success (instead of only athletic success), and figure out a creative way to recognize those on the Dean’s List, or Honor Roll, or otherwise doing awesome things towards their academic goals or for the betterment of the community. Well, we are also starting to see a trend where some schools – as spearheaded by motivated and passionate teens – decide to put on an anti-bullying pep rally. Now, this is a bit tricky because everyone will be like, “Why are we being called into the gymnasium (or auditorium)?” “What is going on here?” “Man I hope this doesn’t suck!” And so it will be up to interested students and faculty/staff to come up with a really enjoyable, meaningful experience where you:
1) Talk about how bullying, drama, and other conflicts are specifically affecting your school and the students in it (be real, be honest, and speak from the heart!).
2) Share about how in order for everyone to have a great school year, it has got to stop.
3) Tie it into the fact that everyone is a Greyhound, or Dolphin, or Chippewa (etc.), and how being a part of this group means that we all should act in a certain way (and not be jerks towards others). There is a responsibility to do the right thing, and that most ARE doing the right thing, and we just need everyone else to get on board.
4) Invite a speaker who can do a great job getting everyone to truly understand the pain that bullying/cyberbullying causes, and how we have got to put a stop to it at our school.
5) Invite a DJ who can create a party atmosphere and once again get everyone pumped up about belonging to the school, being a Yankee or Titan or Warrior, and doing the right thing (even when it’s hard).
The objective isn’t to preach, or lecture, or drone on and on with a furrowed brow about how kids shouldn’t bully each other. They know that. The objective is to create a formal event at your school where everyone can get together and rally around a cause and honestly, have a fun and memorable time (with some thought-provoking built in). This requires a delicate balance to the contents, and a strategic approach to the event’s structure, but it is very doable.
Have you done this, or anything like this? Has it been successful? Did it fall short? What did you learn from the experience, and what do you think about the idea and its value in your specific school environment? We really look forward to hearing your thoughts on this.
Student Plays to Combat Bullying
We are always interested in sharing cool ideas that schools are doing to promote positive climates and reduce peer conflict and bullying. One idea that has worked very well in some communities is the creation and performance of a school play with social norming messages interwoven in the fabric of its storyline. It can include one or several different skits to deliver the actual social norms message of positive online behavior to students in a creative, relatable, and hard-hitting manner. This production can travel to classrooms within the school, be presented to the entire student body or community, or be shown as part of after-school and/or extracurricular youth programming.
A skit might include one character who is sexting a boy she has a crush on while another character, who is her friend, explains that the behavior is not “cool.” The mere mention that other students do not sext may be sufficient motivation to refrain from the behavior. Additionally, the play can be made interactive as the actors can solicit suggestions from the audience and then improvise on these to convey the appropriate social norming message. The skits should be fun and interesting to watch, but they should also be direct and to the point and focus mostly on positive uses of technology among the student body. It is up to the creative talent of the drama department to determine how best to present it with props, acting, and a script. If done well, a theatrical production involving fellow students has the potential to have a positive and lasting impact on the entire student body.
Our colleague Nathan Jeffrey, director of education and outreach for Taproot Theatre Company in Seattle, Washington, recently shared his passion about the value of these anti-bullying plays with us. We hope that his words foster some related ideas as to what you can do. Also know that you can purchase scripts for these plays from his Theatre to use at your school if you feel that is best for your situation.
Using Stage Productions to Enhance School Climate
Taproot Theatre has been touring social-issue plays to schools in the Northwest for over 25 years, and the Taproot Road Company serves over 90,000 students in the Northwest each year. We began with drug and alcohol prevention plays in the 1980s, and our hope is to be relevant to whatever issues students are facing. One reason we feel cyberbullying has become such an important topic is that students are now unable to escape bullying when they go home from school. Students can be bullied via text messaging and social media sites 24 hours of every day. Telling students not to visit certain sites isn’t working—wouldn’t you want to know what’s being said about you? As we’ve interviewed school administrators, they’ve expressed the recurring theme that a growing number of school violence incidents begin online and culminate when the students see each other on campus.
In an effort to change the culture of schools, Taproot Theatre premiered the show “New Girl” in 2008. It was a five-character drama in which Rachel, a new student at Clements High School, is pressured into participating in the cyberbullying of one of her classmates. The show dealt with harassment via text messaging, Facebook, and MySpace.
New Girl became one of the most popular secondary school shows in Taproot’s history with over 210 performances from 2008 to 2011. As national tragedies involving cyberbullying took the spotlight in 2010, New Girl was featured on local news shows and in newspapers around the greater Seattle area. Typically, Road Company shows are retired after two years when new material is written, but in the case of New Girl, the production was brought back for a third year due to high demand. Following the success of New Girl and the response from schools, we commissioned “Don’t Tell Jessica,” a play that specifically addresses student interactions via Facebook.
Our plays are designed to spark discussion at a schoolwide level and create a common frame of reference for members of the school community to talk about the problem. Our shows can empower students who are targeted by bullying to find an ally who can assist them in addressing the problem. Students who exhibit bullying behavior get the much-needed opportunity to see the face of the person getting bullied and can begin to empathize with that person’s pain. We provide teachers with pre- and postshow discussion questions to help students continue to explore the themes of the plays and ask penetrating questions. These cumulatively contribute to the creation and maintenance of a positive climate at school, with the play serving as one of the major catalysts. We’re trying to help these students find hope. Specifically, it’s the hope that we can all live and work together in a community and school environment where everyone is safe, respected, and valued.
A Positive School Climate Makes Everything Possible
We have a lot of really great anecdotes and ideas from educators included in our latest book School Climate 2.0:Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Classroom at a Time. Below is one example from our friend Steve Bollar, who is a principal in New Jersey. He is an “in-the-trenches” expert when it comes to developing and maintaining a positive school climate. We highly recommend that you sign up for his regular “Ideas, Ideas, Ideas” newsletter which you can learn more about on his website. Here are his thoughts on why a positive climate at school is so important:
“The climate in a school can either make everything possible or not make everything possible.” That quote is one of the most profound statements about schools that I have ever heard. It is true that instruction and curriculum are important, but neither can be effective unless the climate of the school/classroom is centered on respect, clear expectations, personal responsibility, and recognition. Every school has a climate that is developed through the actions of the school leader. Therefore, it is vitally important that the school leader purposefully works to establish the climate in the way that he or she knows will best benefit the students and staff. The other option is for the school leader to do nothing, thus leaving it up to others to set the tone and develop the climate. That climate may not be positive, empowering, or productive. Instead, it may be demeaning, unclear, and non–student focused.
A school that has a positive climate rooted in clear expectations, and supported with recognition and respect, leads to students and staff making decisions that are in the best interest of not only the school but also themselves. Roy Disney once said, “When your vision is clear, decisions are easy.” It is so true within a school. When your climate, vision, and expectations are clear, deciding whether or not to do the right thing is easy. It leads to the thought process of “that’s the way we do it here.” When students are faced with a choice of going onto a website that is inappropriate or not, whether at home or school, the climate they are most exposed to at school comes into play. Therefore, making the right decision is easier to make.
True, it doesn’t work all the time. Within my building are many students who get into “trouble” with social networks, inappropriate websites, connecting with dangerous people online, and making poor choices in the photos they post on the Internet. Two years ago, we had a large spike in the number of issues and disciplinary action related to Internet behavior. Approximately 25 to 35 percent of discipline during the school year was Internet related. The following year, we implemented a morning homeroom meeting. During this 30 minutes once a week, two adults in each classroom would lead an activity or discussion that focused on the vision and expectations of the school. This practice, once a week, continued consistently throughout the school year. The results were amazing! The number of Internet-related disciplinary issues decreased significantly, and as did the number of overall discipline issues. Problems were either handled more often at the classroom level through discussion and guidance of the teachers, or the lessons learned and reinforced during those morning meeting times guided the thought processes of the students when opportunities to behave inappropriately came up.
At the end of each marking period, my administrative team would look at the discipline report and say, “Wow!” We did not start an anti-Internet campaign or increase the amount of Internet safety training. All we did was connect with students and purposefully strengthen the climate within our building around positive clear expectations and recognition. The end result was students making better life decisions. “The climate in a school can either make everything possible or not make everything possible.”
School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Classroom at a Time
We’ve been discussing the importance of school climate as it relates to bullying and cyberbullying quite a bit on this blog (see here and here for examples). Well, we just published a whole book on the topic! School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting is now in print and available from the publisher, on Amazon, or many other online bookstores. This is the first book on the topic of cyberbullying and sexting that focuses primarily on what can be done to prevent the behaviors from happening in the first place. We argue that “educators who establish a nurturing and caring classroom and school climate will make great strides in preventing a whole host of problematic behaviors, both at school and online.” The book provides concrete examples of how to do just that.
Here is an excerpt from the Preface:
This book seeks to explain and promote the importance of school climate in preventing teen technology misuse. Most of books and articles in print today simply describe the nature of cyberbullying or sexting (e.g., what it looks like, how much of it is occurring, and among whom). While this is an important first step, we seek to meaningfully build on the knowledge base and more explicitly connect the high-tech behaviors of teens to the school environment.
Much of what you will read is based on information we have learned through our decade-long exploration of the ways teens are using and misusing technology. We have completed seven formal independent studies involving over 12,000 students from over 80 middle and high schools from different regions of the United States. To guide the discussion, this book specifically features information from our most recent study, a random sample of over 4,400 middle and high school students (11 to 18 years old) from one of the largest school districts in the United States. Surveys were administered to students in 2010, and the information gathered represents some of the most recent and comprehensive data on these topics. We will also refer to the work of many others who have labored to better understand how adolescents use, misuse, and abuse these technologies.
In addition to the quantitative data collected, we have also informally spoken to thousands of teens, parents, educators, law enforcement officers, and countless other adults who work directly with youth. Our observations are essentially a reflection of their experiences. During these interactions, we have been fortunate to learn from those on the front lines about what they are dealing with, what is working, and what problems they are running into. The stories we hear are largely consistent with the data we and others have collected that will be presented throughout this text. We also receive numerous emails and phone calls on a weekly basis from educators, mental health professionals, parents, and other youth-serving adults looking for help with specific issues. These conversations help us to understand and consider the problem from a variety of angles and perspectives. All of the stories included in this book are real. In some cases the language has been modified slightly to fix spelling and grammar mistakes and improve readability, but the overall messages have not been changed.
In Chapter 1 we begin the discussion by focusing on the intersection of teens and technology and how the inseparability of adolescents from their high-tech devices affects, and is influenced by, what is going on at school. In Chapter 2, we outline the characteristics of a positive school climate along with some of the beneficial outcomes associated with such an environment.
In Chapter 3 we detail the nature of bullying in the 21st century. In many ways the bullying of today is very similar to the way it was when we were growing up. But technology has enabled would-be bullies to extend their reach, resulting in many significant challenges for educators, parents, and others who are working to resolve relationship problems. Cyberbullying, which we define as willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices, typically refers to incidents in which students threaten, humiliate, or otherwise hassle their peers through malicious text messages, web pages, or postings on Facebook or YouTube. It is clear that peer harassment that occurs on school grounds is a significant threat to a positive school climate. That said, online bullying also disrupts the ability of students to feel safe and secure at school. The vast majority of the time, targets of cyberbullying know the person doing the bullying (85 percent of the time in our research), and most of the time the bully is someone from their school. If students regularly post hurtful, embarrassing, or threatening messages to a fellow classmate’s Facebook page, for example, it unquestionably affects that student’s ability to feel comfortable, free, and safe to focus on learning at school.
Chapter 4 describes sexting, which we define as the sending or receiving of sexually explicit or sexually suggestive nude or seminude images or video that generally occurs via cell phone (although it can also occur via the Web). Some have described this problem in dismissive ways, calling it this generation’s way of “flirting” or characterizing it as a safer way to experiment sexually and come to terms with one’s own sexuality. While this may be true in part, engaging in sexting can lead to some significant social and legal consequences. We begin to tie everything together in Chapter 5, where we explicitly link school climate to online misbehaviors. Here again we argue that schools with better climates will see fewer cyberbullying, sexting, or other online problems among students. Ancillary benefits for educators who harness the power of a positive climate at school may include better attendance, higher school achievement, and more cooperative attitudes across the student body and among staff. A school with a positive climate is definitely more enjoyable to work and learn in, and can therefore lead to many other beneficial outcomes for students and staff alike. The remaining chapters of the book focus on providing you with strategies to establish and maintain a positive climate (Chapter 6) through peer mentoring and social norming (Chapter 7), assessment (Chapter 8), and appropriate response strategies (Chapter 9).
You can learn more about the book, including a full table of contents and reviews from folks who have read it, on our companion website, www.schoolclimate20.com. You can also like us on Facebook, and follow us on twitter. Let us know what you think!