Preventing Bullying through Kindness
I’ve been working with Adam Sherman of the To Be Kind movement over the last few years, as he is an award-winning educator here in my home state of Florida (and also worked in the county where I went to school while growing up!). He is passionate about creating positive climates within schools to reduce violence, harassment, and hate, and his enthusiasm is contagious and so refreshing to see. While teaching Leadership classes at school, he spearheaded a curriculum to encourage a peer environment that helps (and not hurts) others, and it has gained significant traction around Florida.
I’ve asked him and a few of his students to share some of their thoughts below. My hope is that it inspires teachers and counselors to identify a cadre on campus that can take this idea and run with it! With the new academic year upon us, I think it is essential to enlist teens to set the right tone early on regarding bullying and cyberbullying. With effort and follow-through, it has the potential to truly transform the school community.
The educator (Adam Sherman):
Kindness is difficult for students. The hard part with kindness is that our collective society has made it easier to be mean. It is easier, and often more comfortable, to laugh at others, to judge them, to talk negatively behind their back, etc. For lack of a better description, hurting others is sometimes a socially acceptable norm. So when students, or anyone for that matter, go out of their way to do/say something with kindness, they are actually looked at in a negative light. It often means they are going against their peers and that opens them up to be hurt negatively. That means students are quick to give up. As an educator, and quite simply as an adult, I have to help show them that they must continue to persevere despite the nay-sayers.
It can be difficult to imagine teaching young people to be kind. After all, when one thinks of bullying, they automatically think of it as a “rite-of-passage” and that all students do it. But for me, it is easy to help them learn a different way through life because I try to look to my own actions first. Just as anyone else, I make mistakes and say things I don’t mean, but I have to set the example for the students. I have to live my life kindly so that they can learn the behavior. We aren’t born to be mean, we learn to be that way.
When it comes to how we divy up the responsibilities of keeping this program moving, the students are tasked with influencing their peers. They take care of the school operations as well as helping me to design the materials we will use. I handle basically everything else. I monitor paperwork, social media (Facebook and Twitter), community involvement, inquiries, expansion, etc. I want the students to focus on their peers.
That is one of the reasons the program has become so successful. While we have created a model, it can be uniquely individualized for each school that takes it on. We have standards that we like to keep up and basic principles for schools to follow, but anyone who is familiar with education knows that every school is different. What one school needs may not be needed elsewhere. So the hope is that a strong group of students, with a strong adult role model, can create a culture of kindness and make school a place that students want to be. And the students certainly do that.
Since our program has begun three years ago, much has changed in physicality. My original students have moved on (except for one who remains on the Board of Directors), I have changed school districts (where of course I have already laid the groundwork to continue TBK), and though we have grown beyond what we ever thought we would, much remains the same. The message of TBK remains so simple, and also drives its growing popularity. Our pledge, “Bullying ends where kindness begins; it begins with me,” is something that people of all ages can easily remember. We can’t change the behaviors of others, but we can certainly control the behaviors of ourselves. If we practice kindness, we will be surrounded by kindness. And when we are faced with negativity, we can either let it get to us, or we can respond to it by being kind. Sometimes that’s all it takes to turn that negative into a positive.
The students (Quinn Solomon, Joshua Sanchez, Danielle Soltren of Lake Brantley High School):
Over the past few years, social media has boomed. But as its popularity grows, so does the ability to mistreat others through the Internet. Often, there’s a feeling of hopelessness when it comes to bullying. Some people assume that it’s a problem that will always exist. We seek to destroy that mentality by showing the power of kindness, both in person and online. We’re optimistic that we can eliminate bullying step-by-step. After a terrifying experience when an online hit list threatened our students and faculty, our Leadership class knew they wanted to make a change.
After a long class discussion, someone suggested using social media as a way to help solve the bullying problem rather than make it worse. We decided to use the already trending idea of “tbh” (to be honest), where users on Facebook can like someone’s status and then receive an honest statement from him or her. Using the same format, we changed the idea to “to be kind.” Users still take part by liking a post on someone’s page. Then the original poster is supposed to give a compliment or write words of kindness on the wall of whoever liked the status. To Be Kind, or TBK, is a simple idea: Treat others as you would wish to be treated. Every one of us possesses the ability to be kind. This simplicity is the answer to preventing bullying.
The impact on our school was instantaneous. TBK turned into a buzz overnight. The very next day after we launched our idea, students were talking and trying to figure out what TBK was and where it came from. Using follow-up actions such as putting positive messages in lockers, we quickly turned it into a movement that lots of people wanted to be part of.
Like many new things, our idea hasn’t always been met with positivity. Many of the kind posts that students make on social media are rejected. Many people aren’t used to kindness anymore. We’re used to ridicule rather than compliments. So sometimes people post negativity in response. When that happens, we just thank them for expressing their feelings, or we ignore the comment. The purpose of TBK isn’t to instigate fighting or rumors, or to provide an outlet for people to criticize others. Its purpose is to show that social media and other everyday interactions can be improved with a few thoughtful words. Anyone, of any age, can spread a few extra smiles in a day. And TBK isn’t focused solely on students. We encourage parents and community members to get involved and to support our project at work and at home. We’ve also included the school faculty and staff by sharing words of kindness with them.
We take huge pride in TBK. It has grown into a symbol of anti-bullying not only at our school, but in many schools around our district, country, and beyond. For example, our school participates in a German exchange program. We’ve helped our partner school establish a TBK program, as well. The world wants kindness. People want to be treated as if they matter. That’s the ultimate purpose of the program. We know that kindness will continue to spread and bullying will continue to diminish. Remember: Bullying ends where kindness begins, and it begins with you.
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.”