Life's Tool Box – A Guide for Parents and Educators

October 4, 2012

Beyond Balloons, Buttons and Rallies

  I am glad the bullied bus monitor Karen Klein received such support and so many donations that she is starting a foundation to battle bullying.  I am thrilled that Lady Gaga, Madonna, Justin Bieber and other celebrities are using their fame to raise awareness.  I think it is amazing that the Bully Movie received such widespread attention.  At the same time, and perhaps very un-popularly, I am so distressed and disappointed every time I hear of a new “campaign against bullying” that consists of big events and large foundation efforts.   It just happens too often that parents, educators and the general public voice their beliefs and hopes that campaigns, movies and star power will be the answer to this complex, devastating, and sometimes deadly problem.

I spend a good part of my professional time working with schools and communities to address bullying, using the rapidly published research on effective strategies to design and support programs that work.  Programs like WITS, in Canada and KiVa in Scandinavia are having impressive impacts.  My experience, echoed in solid research, finds bullying a behavior embedded in a school or community culture that either fosters it, or at least allows it to take root.  Much the same way that campaigns against drug use are useless if the underlying causes that lead people to drugs are left unchanged, bullying cannot be decreased in schools and communities until we examine and change how our schools work.  We know that adult behavior sets the tone, that children need well-developed tool kits filled with social skills, empathy, and old-fashioned manners, and that modeling and reinforcement of positive behavior in the context of a belief in the rights and value of every individual is critical.

Every component of this approach takes time, effort and commitment.   In many cases, it requires a careful and somewhat painful challenging of our beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors.  Is it okay to tell our children that they don’t need to play with anyone they don’t like?  Do we set a reasonable example when we pull rank on other adults, or use our power to demean co-workers, friends, staff, in front of our children?  Are we open to a democratic process that allows multiple voices and opinions to be shared, and that truly celebrates diversity?  Do our school bulletin boards, our refrigerator doors, our trophies, communicate that good sportsmanship and strong effort is a win?

Beyond scrutinizing our behavior and beliefs, we need to be ready to teach pro-social behavior with the same effort and conviction in its critical role in children’s lives as we approach literacy.  We need to bring every tool to bear, learning what works and who needs what to develop empathy, social-problem solving, and self-control.  We need educational standards and educational environments that make it clear to adults and children that creating caring, socially competent human beings is as much a part of schools’ and communities’ mandates as are the traditional 3R’s of reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.

Mostly, we need patience and endurance.  To really make a difference in the epidemic of bullying we need to commit to running the marathon, not a flashy sprint.  We need to be ready for infinitesimal changes rather than grand epiphanies, and to stick with it, no matter what.  We need to recognize that the Race for the Cure, National Reading Week, other large scale events and approaches, do not fix problems.  They raise the funds and the awareness that allows diligent scientists to plug away, noting microscopic changes that hopefully lead to something more.  They get teachers and parents fired up to start small but new reading habits, that when joined with learned skills can make for better readers.

There is no need for us to halt the screen printers making the stop bullying tee shirts.  Lady Gaga and others . . . keep writing the songs that inspire.  Foundations, continue raising and distributing money to help address bullying.  Just realize, all of us, that none of that will change bullying without each and every family and school thinking, believing, doing, concrete and specific things to help make our  communities places where treating someone as less than, deliberating excluding someone, physically harming another, suing your power to dominate or demean is just not done.  As such behavior is not only routinely seen, but even celebrated in today’s mass media, this seems an impossible dream.  Like the dream of a cure for cancer, an end to pollution, the elimination of world hunger, I know making this dream a reality will take years of serious effort.  The cost of discouragement is deadly.  But neither can we afford the delusion that  races, slogans, campaigns, star power or foundation monies are enough.  The real hard work is in our schools and homes and communities, in our daily lives with our children, in what we choose to teach them, in how they see us live in the world.  The real hard work is making the dream ours, and bit by bit, helping it happen.

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