Community-building: Stopping Bullying Before It Starts
Students as Stakeholders
As the top suggestion on its list of best practices to prevent bullying, the International Bullying Prevention Association says, “Focus on the social environment of the school. In order to reduce bullying, it is important to change the social climate of the school and the social norms with regards to bullying.” The Association goes on to say, “This requires the efforts of everyone in the school environment—teachers, administrators, counselors, school nurses, other non-teaching staff (such as bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers, and/or school librarians, parents, and students.” Not to quibble with the IBPA, because they are right about social climate being at the heart of the bullying problem, but shouldn’t students be first on the list of “stakeholders” who need to address the problem of bullying?
Not that the others aren’t important, but shouldn’t we ensure that students are part of this dialogue and by involving them in the dialogue help them to understand that a school’s climate is something that they themselves help to create and have the power to affect? Shouldn’t we invite students to accept the responsibility of seeing that no one is mistreated or harmed? Shouldn’t we invite students to discuss what they view as acceptable/desirable interpersonal behavior, what social/ethical values are important to them, and how they can support these values through their actions during the school day? Shouldn’t we send kids a message that this is your school and you can help make it place in which everyone feels that they “belong”?
Learning Values by Building Relationships
A sense of belonging is a critical human need, and a sense of belonging is also critical to a child’s ability to focus on learning. Almost all learning occurs in a social context—within a web of relationships. And the quality of these relationships is crucial. What if kids had opportunities, especially at the beginning of the year, to engage in team builders, partner interviews, or small-group and whole-group discussions to get to know each other and find ways in which they connect? What if kids had opportunities to work together as learning partners to share some of their interests, viewpoints, and ideas? What if kids had a chance to talk about their values and share ideas about “ways we want our class to be”—i.e., put the values of “respect,” “responsibility,” and “trust” on the table for discussion and invite kids to talk about why these values are important to them personally and how they can incorporate these values in their work during the school day?
One Goal, Many Strategies
DSC’s research-based Caring School Community (CSC) program provides a comprehensive set of strategies to transform a school’s climate. Central to the CSC program are strategies and techniques that are integrated into the fabric of the school day and help students learn to respect differences and appreciate others’ viewpoints, build their capacities to work together cooperatively and solve problems in ways that are fair and caring, and build their understanding of, and commitment to, values such as fairness, helpfulness, respect, and personal responsibility.
Through the program’s class meeting and buddies components, for example, students learn and practice the skills of respectful listening, explaining one’s thinking, confirming that one understands another person’s thinking, asking clarifying questions, and supporting one’s opinion—a process that helps foster students’ understanding of and commitment to respectful interaction and responsible behavior. During regular class meetings, students discuss and establish norms for behavior, periodically reflect on their progress in upholding those norms, and work together to solve problems related to classroom life.
Why Community Matters
As multiple evaluations have shown, students who participate in the CSC program and experience a strong “sense of community” have higher academic motivation and achievement, exhibit fewer problem behaviors, such as bullying and fighting, and engage in less use of alcohol and drugs. As the principal of Junipero Serra Elementary School in San Francisco states: “In our fourth year [of implementing the Caring School Community program], we have removed the goal of [preventing] fighting from our site plan because it doesn’t happen here anymore.”