Schoolwide SEL to Prevent Bullying

Developing a school culture that prioritizes the social-emotional wellbeing of every student (and adult)

By Leah Shafer, on March 21, 2017 3:27 PM
Schoolwide SEL to Prevent Bullying: Developing a school culture that prioritizes the social-emotional wellbeing of every student (and adult) #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

What are the social-emotional skills that can that work against the impulse to harass or exclude? What about the skills that build a predisposition toward empathy and compromise?

Developmental psychologist Stephanie Jones, whose lab explores the impact of high-quality social-emotional interventions, helped us trace the connections between SEL and bullying prevention.

Which social-emotional skills help children accept peers who are different from them?

They need empathy and perspective-taking skills, but those begin with a basic understanding of the emotions of self and others. This basic understanding of their emotions will enable children to think about a situation from multiple sides and imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes.

Which skills do children need to recognize and stand up to harassment or teasing?

Children need several things: awareness, knowledge, and skills that enable them to recognize hurtful words and actions or to identify unfairness and conflict; and strategies that help them identify what they see and resolve arguments or discriminatory situations. Basic awareness and practice with conflict resolution strategies can help children know what to do when they see these situations.

Schools can help develop both of these skills by creating a schoolwide culture that has clear norms and expectations. For example, a school should be very explicit and concrete about (1) what bullying behavior and discrimination looks like, (2) that it is not allowed in the building, and (3) what children should do when they see it.

What are some classroom practices that can help build these skills?

To build awareness of emotions: Have a “Feelings Tree” in the classroom (or in a more public place, such as the cafeteria or playground). Encourage kids to talk about the complex feelings that can arise during the day such as jealousy, frustration, anger, prejudice and injustice.

To build empathy and perspective-taking: Engage in simple exercises like asking children what it might be like to stand in another person’s shoes. These questions can help them understand, appreciate, and respect the perspectives, beliefs, needs, wants, and feelings of other people. Encourage kids to be “feelings detectives” and try to figure out how a character in a book is feeling.

To build conflict-resolution skills: Teach young children (as early as preschool) simple ways to share and take turns. These lessons help create a basic toolbox for responding to conflict in proactive and positive ways. Older children (first- to fourth-graders) can learn a larger set of conflict resolution strategies, such as how to compromise, how to decide when to walk away, and how to communicate through conflict. In our SECURe project, we teach elementary students a process called the Peace Path, which involves students telling each other how they feel, brainstorming solutions, and together choosing a strategy, trying it out, and reflecting on the outcome.

Your research suggests that SEL must be a collective responsibility, shared by all the adults in the building and reinforced by schoolwide practice. Why?  

A basic principle of development is that in order to build or learn something, children need exposure to it. Children need exposure to people who represent different cultures, religions, ethnicities, abilities, sexual orientations, gender expressions, and other characteristics that can be the basis of discrimination. Schools have an important role in this — are we fostering exposure and relationship-building across divides in the classroom, hallways, and lunchrooms? In how discipline is enforced? In how students are grouped or "tracked" academically?

Children also need exposure to methods of addressing conflict. If we want children to know how to treat all people fairly, we need to provide children with opportunities to interact and build relationships with all kinds of people. And we need to model this behavior ourselves as adults — early and frequently.

This is especially critical in times that are characterized by open hatred, violence, and discrimination. Children are picking up the messages around them, so as educators, we need to be exposing children to productive forms of conflict resolution all the time.

Can these skills and this schoolwide approach help the students who are doing the harassing or bullying?

We need to remember that acts of targeted bullying, discrimination, or harassment are often signs that the perpetrator feels unsafe or unaccepted in the community. For both the bully and the bully victim, an environment that prioritizes the safety and wellbeing of all students, that provides supportive routines and predictability, and that has clear expectations and norms around social behavior, is of utmost importance. 

This goes beyond teaching explicit skills and asks us to critically rethink the work of schools. There is an opportunity for schools to be not just places of math and literacy instruction, but places that provide the essential conditions for healthy development: safety, predictability, respect for all persons, and learning how to navigate complex social identities and relationships. This will require specific training and knowledge-building on the part of teachers and other school staff. A community where all students feel free from bias, discrimination, and harassment is a place where bullying is less likely to occur, where it will be handled in ways that seek to understand and address students' real needs, and where children's cognitive and psychological resources are freed up to focus on learning.

Researchers Rebecca Bailey and Sophie Barnes also contributed to these responses.

Additional Resources

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Topics in this article

Curriculum, Learning, One and All, Schools, Teaching, Wellness

Faculty in this article

Stephanie M. Jones

Stephanie Jones researches social-emotional problems and competencies in childhood and adolescence focusing on issues related to inequality and stressed, vulnerable contexts. She also designs, implements and evaluates strategies and programs that integrate social-emotional and academic learning.