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A Bully-Free Culture

Three actions that will make a difference
Young girl sits with head in hands. Another girl in a backpack walks toward her

These three steps — to counter bullying or begin to change a bullying cultureare offered by Gretchen Brion-Meisels, a researcher and lecturer in prevention science and practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A onetime elementary and middle school teacher, Brion-Meisels now works to explore holistic student support processes that build on the local knowledge of students and communities.

  • First, build strong relationships between adults and young people. Make time for people to build relationships and get to know each other as human beings. Allow students to learn about each other’s histories and to connect across lines of difference. Teach adults to build strong relationships with young people by treating them as full human beings with wisdom to share. Make space to recognize the complexity of young peoples’ lives, such that young people feel valued.
  • Second, focus on repairing harm and teaching social and emotional skills, not administering consequences. When developing policies around interpersonal interactions, think about formative consequences. Schools need to have policies that explicitly state that students and adults cannot engage in bullying, discrimination, and harassment, and these policies are most useful when they explicitly protect marginalized groups. But educators also need to have a process in place so when harm does occur, there is a way to repair that harm. Restorative practices can offer much insight into the process of reversing harm; however, even more traditional consequences should be formative and aim to support students’ growth.
  • Finally, model the behavior you want to see. Always reflect on yourself, as an adult. Ask how you are modeling this behavior, as well as when you are modeling it. Use your curriculum to provide opportunities for students to grapple with challenging ethical questions, to develop empathy across difference, and to develop tools for civic and community engagement.

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