For decades, people have argued that bullying is just a part of growing up, that parent – and educators – shouldn’t worry too much about kids harassing other kids. “Stop panicking about bullies,” read an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal a few years ago.
Certainly this was my view as a kid, and I remember being bullied, and bullying, as a normal part of what happened in schools. But a growing body of research shows that schools can prevent bullying – and ensure that all kids go to school each day without fear of being physically hurt or socially targeted.
The research on bullying builds on a substantial body of evidence around the importance of helping students develop social-emotional skills, and studies increasingly shows just how important these abilities are for a child’s success. This is true for bullying and in many other aspects of life. Indeed, many scholars now believe that showing empathy for others is just important as learning algebra.
But helping students develop social-emotional skills can be challenging for some schools. For one, school leaders are under significant pressure to improve academic progress, and so many schools neglect the social and emotional side of learning. Plus, social-emotional skills may seem a little vague, and so educators do not get much guidance on what to teach or even how to teach it.
Some years ago, a team at the University of Virginia lead by Catherine Bradshaw decided to help educators understand how to help students develop better social-emotional skills in an effort to address bullying. After all, bullying can have very negative effects. In an extreme example, a teen stabbed and killed another teen in a New York City school over bullying last year.
So the UVA team leveraged the widely used school-wide prevention framework known as “Schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports,” which aims to improve school climate and student behavior across a range of outcomes like discipline and academics.
This framework is innovative for a number of reasons. First, it targets the entire school, and so all of the staff are involved in its implementation, developing a shared sense of norms around things like student engagement in the classroom and positive reinforcement for good behavior.
Second, the framework focuses on setting clear expectations for behavior around daily school interactions, and staff provide help to students who have trouble following the norms around everything from safety to teasing. This means that efforts are put in place to stop bullying before it even starts, catching it early instead of being allowed to fester.
Finally, the framework also provides tailored support for the both victims and bullies in each school. Specifically, the victims and bullies both get small group or individual counseling to develop stronger social-emotional skills and develop a richer sense of empathy, and alternative methods of coping with challenges.
This sort of targeted approach works, and schools that this framework had better climates and fewer student discipline issues. There were also much lower incidents of bullying.
Of course, there’s no way to address every form of bullying in school. Because technology is so widespread, lots of bullying incidents happen privately on smart phones, far away from adults, and while this program might help even with technology, it simply can’t address every issue. Plus, such approaches take time to implement well, and it can be difficult to get enough buy-in from the entire staff around key issues.
But what’s clear is that bullying can be stopped. By learning better social-emotional skills and norms, students are far kinder to each other. In other words, when we understand and care about bullying, we begin to understand that there are actually strategies to stop bullying.