The Bullying ConundrumBy newseditor
Schools need to do something, but what?
High school student Zachary Kerr didn’t know what to do.
As a sophomore transitioning from female to male, he was met with comments in the classroom from whom one might least expect it: a teacher who voiced his disapproval of Kerr’s gender change.
“It was hard to figure out what to do because it was a teacher,” Kerr, now 18, says about his experience. “Do I complain about it? This teacher was responsible for grading me, and [his] was one of my favorite classes. Do I let it go and be uncomfortable? My decision was to let it go.”
He spent the rest of the year not speaking in the class about his transition.
Every day, students face the decision of what to do about being bullied, whether by peers or adults. According to 2010 U.S. Department of Education data, 32 percent of students report being bullied at some point during the school year and 8 percent avoid places at school out of fear. And bullying can happen in different ways, as Kerr’s experience demonstrates. In fact, the types of bullying are just as diverse as solutions proposed to stop it.
And that’s a big problem for schools. Bullying has received an unprecedented amount of attention lately. From documentary films about the issue hitting the mainstream, to celebrities talking about their experiences being tormented, to the endless media coverage, the message is loud but not necessarily clear: Do something!
Educators trying to create safer learning environments grapple with that “something,” especially as more student reactions to being bullied turn tragic, like with 15-year-old Phoebe Prince from South Hadley, Mass., who, after months of torment, hanged herself.
The increased attention on the topic really provides a glimpse into all the “somethings” we should be concerned about, says Lecturer Richard Weissbourd, Ed.D.’87, a child and family psychologist.
“It’s a window into our failure to develop empathy in kids, or caring and responsibility in kids,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to talk about social-emotional learning, moral development, responsibility for others, standing up and having courage, and also an opportunity to talk about the way schools function and what we are doing and not doing to prepare adults to connect to students and to be helpful to them around peer troubles. You can’t prevent bullying without doing most of those things.”
Something’s Gotta Give
In the era of standardized testing, incorporating these aforementioned lessons in the classroom isn’t easy. Across the board, experts and educators agree that with an increased focus on academic achievement comes an inadvertent decreased focus on social-emotional learning — the process for recognizing and managing emotion and how to develop concern for others.
“If schools are to address bullying, and if the nation sees the schools as the ones to take this on, then there has to be time for it,” says Manjula Karamcheti, Ed.M.’01, director of guidance for Malden (Mass.) Public Schools. “Educators are being held at such a high-stakes level with testing, MCAS [state standards-based assessment], and growth models. If we are saying schools are in charge of these things, but also social-emotional development for students, then it really needs to be incorporated in the classroom on regular basis. You can’t do it in a one-shot deal. They need to be empowered to do it and do it right.”
But what is the right way to empower schools to teach these lessons? There is no one answer. Some educators swear by teaching empathy — the practice of sharing another’s feelings. Others mention the power of social perspective-taking, in which a student may not necessarily share a person’s view but can understand another’s perspective. There’s also the practice of mindfulness — living in the present and being self-aware. Most often these options are touted as “life skills,” even though, like bullying, their definitions are subjective depending on whom you ask.
“When we talk about empathy, perspective-taking, and mindfulness, those things are circulating around a broader framework of social-emotional learning,” says Associate Professor Stephanie Jones, who researches the developmental impact of school-based interventions targeting children’s social-emotional skills and aggressive behavior. “I think these siloed terms are everybody’s favorite representation of the ‘important’ thing, when in fact it is a whole array of related skills that support kids’ positive interactions with each other.”
Building the Best Curriculum
To date, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of options in the antibullying curriculum market for schools, and many incorporate aspects of empathy, perspective-taking, and mindfulness. But as Weissbourd points out, it’s still not enough.
“We can do a lot better than we are doing,” he says. “A lot [of students] are not being reached with these programs.”
Logic tells us that in order for kids to become better people, Weissbourd says, educators need to teach them to become more self-aware, empathetic, and kind. But that’s not easy to do.
“It is a challenge to teach emotional regulating skills,” says Associate Professor Hunter Gehlbach, an educational psychologist whose work has focused on social perspective-taking. “I don’t know that we have good techniques for people to turn on a dime and feel a different set of emotions.”
Social-emotional learning encourages students to better understand themselves by becoming more aware of their feelings and identifying those feelings in others. As a result, this type of learning creates better interpersonal communication and relationships. Jones says that although it may not be easy, educators and parents can play important roles in “practicing” these life skills. She recommends that parents model this behavior and take opportunities to demonstrate how to reflect and respond in situations. For example, when a child grabs a toy from another child, this is an opportunity for parents to intervene and ask a child how he or she feels when that happens to him or her.
“My 5-year-old isn’t great at putting himself in other shoes, but there are times when he is great about it,” Jones says. “We need to practice it in more situations. It’s a constant job of highlighting moments where you can take another’s view or share the experience for young kids. They need practice and they need people to show them those moments.”
This is important because these moments teach children how to live in the world with other people.
Jones also urges schools to collect data by surveying students and teachers in order to gauge school climate. Do they feel safe? Is there an adult they can confide in? Schools can then identify where there might be a problem and enact targeted strategies. She says there isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach, but rather schools can tailor their own social-emotional learning programs to fit the needs of the school.
It’s also critical, Karamcheti says, for schools not to view a student’s behaviors in isolation.
“It’s a conundrum. It’s important to keep having conversations about what all of this means. … If a kid is being bullied at school, then they may not [be] attending school and accessing the curriculum, and [they are] not going to succeed academically. It’s all connected.”
Minding the Disconnect
At the heart of the issue is what Weissbourd calls a “rhetoric reality gap,” where a school’s mission states that it is a caring environment and the school adopts an antibullying curriculum, but a walk down the hall reveals a different story: a student saying, “That’s so gay.” A boy harassing a girl. Someone getting beat on.
At the J. Erik Jonsson Community School in Dallas, for example, Associate Director of Education Heather Bryant and staff were shocked to hear that some of the younger Latino and African American students — as young as three years old — were engaged in bullying. In one situation, a young Latino female encouraged other students to exclude an African American girl from basic classroom activities. This pushed the school, which Bryant says was already a caring and kind community, to engage students and parents in new ways.
“This was a catalyst for us to be even more overt and led us to trying out [new] socio-emotional activities,” Bryant says.
To combat the bullying, the school turned to teaching self-reflection through mindfulness using the Hawn Foundation’s MindUP Curriculum and Susan Greenland’s book, The Mindful Child: How to Help Your Kid Manage Stress and Become Happier, Kinder, and More Compassionate. But they didn’t stop with just the students. They also partnered with parents in the community.
“I was prepared for parents to say, ‘What are you doing with the chimes and breathing?’” Bryant says. “We invited them to coffee with the principal and explained what was happening, especially in the brain when a child gets upset. We also did exercises with them. I cannot tell you how many parents later asked, ‘Where did you get those chimes?’”
The difference also seems to have affected the students by bringing many aspects of social-emotional learning together. Bryant says their early data shows students doing better in areas like emotional control, empathy, perspective- taking, and optimism, as well as peer acceptance.
“It’s not like we have perfect angels and we are living in bliss,” Bryant says. “We still have stuff going on and we still are working on it. But I do think we are able to have better discussions about choices and we can all use the same vocabulary. It’s a process, and we have to keep at it.”
Karamcheti shares similar experiences and says that in Malden, they decided to get creative. Instead of using just one approach to stop bullying and better handle conflict, they are using several methods, including teaching elementary-aged students about tolerance and empathy through antibullying, curriculum-based programs sold to schools such as Side By Side and Second Step, and using the Step to Respect program in middle school. They also offer parent workshops and use the community’s diversity to foster empathy and understanding, as opposed to just focusing on bullying. In her three years as director, Karamcheti discovered that students, especially middle school students, were craving these programs.
“Our kids were hungry for it,” she says. “I was surprised by how much students wanted to do this work and talk about issues in the school setting, though they often don’t get the opportunity because things are so structured. They don’t often have the time to talk about what is going on in their lives and talk about their feelings.”
Of course, teachers still report conflict among students and difficulty in applying these skills in the heat of the moment, even though the programs have also created student self-awareness and a common vocabulary to use when problems arise.
“I think that can be tricky for young kids,” Bryant says. “I think you can have a respectful classroom and teachers. You can talk the talk but have to walk the walk. I think there is disconnect with kids for that.”
This isn’t a surprise to Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Ed.M.’98, Ed.D.’05, a neuroscientist and human development psychologist studying social and emotional functioning of children and how it relates to the development of self and empathy. Our brains may hold clues to that disconnect and also may provide answers as to what an ideal curriculum would look like to target bullying and other violence issues facing children and schools. After all, the brain is naturally wired to be empathic, she says. This is, in effect, how we share each other’s emotions and understandings in order to learn and engage in meaningful relationships. Unfortunately, brain researchers are just now coming to understand how this process can be undermined in our action-oriented societies. Early research suggests that when we are actively engaging in bullying or being bullied, we have a hard time empathizing with the other’s emotional experiences of the situation.
This suggests that there isn’t necessarily one magic bullet or program that will solve the puzzle of bullying.
“Instead, teachers need to find ways to tap into and awaken students’ abilities,” Immordino-Yang says, “to take others’ perspectives and feel what they are subjectively experiencing.
“Empathy programs tend to focus on how does so-and-so feel right now,” she says. “It’s a great start, but we need to move beyond that so a person not only recognizes another person’s emotion, but also has the opportunity to reflect on that emotion by connecting to their own personal experience, emotions, and memories. And, how do we do that? By becoming more reflective and mindful. What does that curriculum look like? We are working on that, but it will involve supporting students in reflecting deeply on the emotional implications of others’ situations and interpretations.”
Putting Kindness in the Water
In February, pop icon Lady Gaga launched her antibullying, youth empowerment–focused Born This Way Foundation at the Ed School, with the help of her friend Oprah Winfrey. Perhaps her call at the event for little acts of kindness and working “from the ground up” — starting with young people — to create a new culture is the answer. As researchers and educators often point out, it isn’t necessarily the formal lessons that matter as much as creating a culture where students value differences and become tolerant of varying viewpoints and cultural practices. And it only really works, says Weissbourd, if it’s “in the water.”
“The powerful stuff is in the water, not those 20-minute empathy lessons,” he says. “It’s how people treat each other every day. What the expectations are and people’s behavior.”
In other words, the only way to teach children to be empathetic, to take other people’s perspectives, to be mindful, and, in turn, to be good citizens, is to reflect those attitudes every day in all aspects of school environment. This means that not only do the students need to treat each other respectfully and value one another, but adults must also model this behavior in and out of the classroom.
But even if all of this is done, can school culture really change? Marya Levenson, Ed.D.’84, coauthor of the 2004 article “Can School Culture Change?” and director of the education program at Brandeis University, believes it is possible.
“It’s easier to create a culture if you are starting from new, like a small school or charter school, because everyone is saying the kind of learning community that they want to have,” Levenson says. But, even in a school with an existing culture, “I believe that culture can also change. I think it needs to be more than just the principal who believes that culture can change. … It can be done. It has been done. Is it challenging? Yes.”
As of January, 48 states had antibullying laws. Early research suggests that the outcomes of these antibullying policies depend explicitly on a school’s culture. Those with a respectful and responsive school culture usually fare better than those schools that have yet to establish such an environment.
As Levenson says, changing school culture requires more than just a principal who believes in change or a mission statement declaring a new caring and loving environment with zero tolerance. Real change requires strategies, both short- and long-term, and unwavering commitment to making change. Without buy-in from the entire school community — top leaders all the way to parents and students — it can be difficult to tackle issues linked to bullying.
And even with a changed school culture focused on caring, Levenson warns that bullying still can and likely will exist.
“Schools are not a vacuum from the larger culture . . . but schools do have the ability to try to create a learning community where students feel safe to share information about what has happened to them and others,” she says. “We can’t prevent everything that’s happening, but if we have a community where students can go to a trusted adult, then that is the minimum a school should be able to deliver.”
Kerr, the student bullied by a teacher during his gender transformation, knows this from firsthand experience.
“The hardest thing is thinking that you are going through it alone,” he says. “No child should ever have to deal with it alone.”
Ultimately, at the end of the school year, Kerr confided in a guidance counselor, who told him it was not okay for his teacher to bully him. The counselor worked with administration to talk to the teacher, who apologized to Kerr.
“There should always be someone,” Kerr says. “It’s the school’s job to care.”
As educators try to tackle bullying head on, the problem must be faced with optimism, as Dean Kathleen McCartney noted in her recent Commencement address, which focused on bullying.
When asked by a friend if she thought bullying could really be stopped, McCartney said, “Yes, I do, along with committed educators, parents, policymakers, entertainers, and especially young people. My mother taught me that whenever you are given a choice between optimism and pessimism, choose optimism.”
In doing so, the ultimate resolve may be as simple as each of us looking inside ourselves.
“We are the school culture. The culture is the norms and expectations of relationships,” Immordino-Yang says. “We are the skilled orchestrators of those relationships. We have to change ourselves if we want to change school culture.”