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Using Schools to Stop School Bullying

At a national bullying summit held at Teachers College, educators learned that anti-bullying efforts must be embedded in teaching

By Patricia Lamiell

Kirk Smalley, a Perkins, Oklahoma construction worker, was on the job on May 13, 2010 when his phone rang at 2:39 p.m. It was his wife, Laura, screaming uncontrollably. Their son Ty had been sent home from middle school for fighting with a chronic bully who had picked on him before. But instead of doing his household chores and homework, as his mother had told him to do, Ty, 11, had gone into the couple’s bedroom, shot himself and died. In response to Ty’s death, 68 high school students in Oklahoma City, who didn’t even know Ty, created Stand for the Silent (SFS), an international campaign to stop bullying. Smalley serves as a spokesman for the group. He has traveled to 605 schools and as far as Australia to hear about children who committed suicide as a result of being bullied online or in school.

Smalley told his powerful story on January 14 to a rapt audience of about 275 educators in TC’s Cowin Conference Center for “Beyond Bullying: Safe Schools, Successful Students.” The full-day event, co-sponsored by the academic publishing firm Zaner-Bloser, and TC’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME), sought to equip educators with effective strategies, for use in their daily instruction, for teaching children to respect themselves and one another, to reach out to intervene when they see bullying, and to stop in-school and online bullying before it happens.

“Nowadays,” Smalley told the audience, “more than reading and writing and arithmetic, I think it’s time we all learned respect for others, tolerance of our differences. You guys out in the trenches, you’ve got to be the ones to go up to that kid and offer a hand of friendship. You can be someone’s hero. You can literally save someone’s life.”

Schoolhouse bullying – ranging from verbal taunting to physical assault – has been a problem since schools were invented, but the advent of cell phones, texting and the Internet have made it more common. In a poll conducted by Saperstein Associates, bullying was cited as a top-five concern by 46 percent of middle-school principals 29 percent of elementary principals and 35 percent of high school principals.

While bullying doesn’t always lead to suicide, it often manifests in higher absentee rates and lower grades and test scores. Victims may suffer from lowered self-esteem well into adulthood.

Teachers are well aware of the problem, but many say that with the workload already on their plates, they cannot assume responsibility for teaching basic social skills and civility. Yet conference speakers repeatedly argued that a programmatic approach called “Social-Emotional-Learning,” or SEL, can and must be embedded in daily instruction and become central to a school culture in which bullying is unacceptable.

“This is not adding to the plate, this is the plate,” Ed Dunkelblau, a TC graduate and Director of the Institute for Emotionally Intelligent Learning. Dunkelblau was one of a half-dozen conference speakers that morning who said good SEL programs also provide structure and a process through which students can work out conflicts and misunderstandings.  

“Our job is not only to understand bullying and to stop it, but to reach out to everyone in the school, adult and child alike, and help build the skills that allow them to create a culture and a climate where everyone is safe, everyone will learn,” Dunkelblau said.

Buy-in from the entire school community is critical, said Marc Brackett, Deputy Director of the Health, Emotion, and Behavior Laboratory at Yale – which means that Social-Emotional Learning should be taught to everyone, including parents for use at home.

Sonya Whitaker, Superintendent of Fairmont School District 89 in Lockport, Illinois, agreed, saying schools in her district brought parents in and “taught them explicitly what they could do at home” to promote social intelligence. The effort resulted in a 47 percent reduction in disciplinary infractions.

The benefits of SEL are not just emotional. Dunkelblau and others pointed to research suggesting that thorough integration of SEL into a school’s curriculum and culture can lower absentee rates, raise test scores and graduation rates, improve the social climate and “ultimately rebuild confidence in public education,” said Sheldon Berman, Superintendent of Schools in Eugene, Oregon, adding that “the social-emotional curriculum is as important as the academic curriculum.” Still to get those results, anti-bullying programs require policy support in the form of professional development for teachers, curriculum planning, teacher and student leadership development, administrative mandate and supports, school board support, and recognition of success.

Several school districts represented at the conference offered dramatic examples to support Berman’s contention. Eric Gordon, Chief Executive of the Cleveland, Ohio Public School District, said that, using a research-based program, Cleveland has turned its in-school suspension rooms into planning centers to improve intervention and support. School leaders  have instituted “Not On Our Watch” teams of faculty and students who call out bullying when they see it, and student support teams to intervene if necessary. Gordon said that, according to a recent study, the city has improved learning conditions. Social competence and attentiveness are improving, incident reports, including reports of violence, have decreased, and out-of-school suspensions have fallen as well, Gordon said.

 Gale Reeves, Superintendent of New York City’s Community School District 5, said in her district, much of the bullying in her district focuses on students’ appearance. So P.S. 154 sought and received a grant to promote total wellness for students and teachers that is aimed at slowing obesity rates. Suspensions have declined there by more than 60 percent, Reeves said. Middle School 186 focuses on leadership development, relationship and communication skills, “so that students know to seek help not only from adults but from each other,” Reeves said.

Other speakers focused on specific academic programs – all aligned with national core curriculum standards – that draw from and, in turn, support Social-Emotional Learning. In this regard, helping students develop their own voice is critical. Catherine Snow and Bob Selman, both professors of education at Harvard, described the “Readers Theatre” technique, in which students write and act out plays about socially challenging topics like bullying. The approach promotes civic engagement as well as literacy development, prompting students to flesh out their own thoughts on an issue, in part by seeing things from others’ points of view.  

 IUME’s Director, Ernest Morrell, amplified the idea that using literacy instruction can develop social-emotional skills in young students, particularly those in schools that serve largely minority populations who are often disinterested and feel disconnected from school. For children to be invested in school and in learning to read and write, they must value themselves and come to believe they have something valuable to say, that school is a safe place to say it, and that they have secure attachments to other people and some social awareness, Morrell said. Reading and writing can help reinforce those beliefs. “Helping kids understand and like themselves is a precursor to understanding others. We can do these things in the common core curriculum, in social studies, science and math class.”

By subjecting SEL programs to the rigors of academic research, academics and teachers can discover what works and demystify the process of implementing it in their schools. They can begin to view bullying not as a sad fact of contemporary life, but as a social problem that can be addressed with education. “You’re not born to hate,” Smalley likes to tell audiences. “You have to be taught.”

Link: An edited video of the conference.
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