A distraught parent calls the Prepare (Violence Prevention Education) office and relates a familiar and heartbreaking story — their middle school-aged child has been the target of serious and prolonged verbal bullying from a classmate.
They tell me that school administrators responded to the incidents by advising the bullied child to ignore it and to steer clear of the bully. The aggressive child has been told to stop but doesn’t – and hasn’t been given tools or support to develop alternative behaviors. The aggressor’s parents passed the buck back to the school to “handle it” because they haven’t observed that type of behavior at home. Classmates witness the incidents but feel powerless to help and fearful of social retaliation if they do. Events repeatedly happen outside the watchful gaze of the teachers who never seem to “catch them in the act” so as to intervene.
In response to continued demands for a safer environment, school administrators said, “We’re doing everything we can” and stopped taking meetings. Anxiety levels rose for everyone. The targeted student is now “school avoidant” and options to resolve the problematic behavior run scarce. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Peer-to-peer challenges tend to peak in the middle school years, and more than one out of every five students report being bullied during their K-12 years (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2016 ). The scope of the issue demands a modern solution to an age-old problem.
The idea behind an anti-bias lens to prevention for bullying and peer aggression is to (1) create a community wide understanding that many acts of peer aggression are based in race, class, gender and ability, (2) provide young people with skills and tools to talk through difference and use pro-social behavior to intercept peer aggression, and (3) find parents and adults who will do more than provide platitudes or — worse — ignore the issue.
- Teach students how to identify bias, stereotypes and discrimination to shift their beliefs about difference.
- Give space for young people to bring their lived experience into the classroom along with their understanding of history and current events.
- Help them make the connection between history and current events and what happens in the lunchroom and playground.
- Replace personal labels like “bully” with labels that describe the behavior: direct aggression, indirect aggression, micro-aggression.
- Create definitions for bystanders, allies and targets.
- Expand students’ understanding of how to access help and support from adults and identify the adults in their life who are safe and supportive.
- Teach students how to find an adult and report using specific language and scripts.
- Offer and rehearse skills to manage aggression in real time by co-developing scripts to address mean, exclusive or cruel behavior.
- Use surveys to discover what has gone on in their lives and create role-plays based on those true stories while maintaining anonymity.
- Create space for students to identify as allies and build the confidence to advocate for themselves and others.
- Frame peer aggression as educational moments and train adults to see, hear and believe young people.
- Encourage parents to refrain from reacting with platitudes such as “they are just jealous of you” and replace those with open-ended questions such as “how can I help you” and positive reinforcement such as “thank you for trusting me with this story.”
- Support educators so they have the time to listen, to help reinforce the skills learned, and to provide the classroom culture that encourages young people to try their new skills for self-advocacy and allyship.
Here is an example of how this works after students, faculty and family have participated in an anti-bias, anti-bullying program with a social justice lens.
A handful of 5th grade students are in the recess yard playing. Within this larger group are a few leaders who write scripts and then cast people in their mini-play. These leaders fit dominant norms of beauty, are typical learners/score well on tests, and are older (their families held them back when entering kindergarten). They have been part of a solid peer group since pre-kindergarten, live near each other, and have regular play dates. Getting cast in one of their plays is a BIG deal.
One student gets cast as a pony in one of the plays and says “no thank you” to the role. This student is a non-typical learner and struggles with language. One of the leaders says that “it is the perfect role because you don’t have to speak that much.”
First — even though this student is hurting — they hold onto their self-esteem while calmly and confidently walking away. They don’t yell or scream or call the social group out with labels.
Second, they walk to an adult and use language that reflects what happened without adding anything or leaving anything out. They know what happened (peer aggression) and label it as social exclusion and a micro-aggression.
Third, the recess monitor knows that the leaders have been creating mini-plays, casting some and not others, and understands that the behavior does not fit typical definitions of “bullying” but is deeply problematic so they are poised to hear the student complaining. They have been at a loss to create a more pro-social recess environment.
Fourth, the principal is told what has happened and asks the student who was left out if it would be okay if they spoke to the leaders of this social group and the bystanders. Permission is granted.
Here is the new part. The leaders of this social group come into the principal’s office and they already know what they did that wasn’t in line with the values of the class. The principal barely has to open the conversation when the students all agree they “did not behave as allies.” They understood that they marginalized someone based on difference, who could have been more equitably included in so many different ways. Their acknowledgment of how their behavior affected another person was genuine. They also understood that – even though there was no intention to be mean – telling someone who struggles with language that they won’t have to speak isn’t helpful at all.
There was no drama, no talking about the incident to others, no forced apology, and the meeting with the principal was honest, thoughtful, and reflective. No punishment was given to the leaders. They already agreed to figure out ways to be more inclusive of others who want to be in their plays.
The bystanders also brainstormed ways they could have supported the student being left out. They generated scripts such as:
- Asking the person directly, “What role would you want?”
- Going up to the person after and asking, “How could I have supported you?”
- Suggesting a new game to play.
Further, because the recess yard incident was handled as an educational moment, the families felt like their children learned from the experience. Everyone was heard, everyone reflected on their behavior, and everyone participated in figuring out solutions — all without drama, shame or punishment.
In short, this type of prevention education cultivates pro-social behaviors by giving students a framework for understanding difference, the emotional vocabulary to describe what they are feeling and observing, and the courage to enact allied behaviors.
By incorporating tools for self-advocacy in the face of negative treatment, aggressive peer behavior is diffused by examining the underlying causes of the aggression. A social justice lens helps students build empathy for difference. They develop the ability to notice when bias, stereotypes and discrimination are the basis for how someone is treated and to be creative about ways to change that. Allied behavior on behalf of those being targeted is the natural evolution from this education.
Prepare has been teaching this model for more than 10 years and has expanded the social-emotional vocabulary of more than 50,000 young people and adults through these and other programs. True shifts in social interactions — the kind that yields life-long returns of empathy and respect — require a comprehensive approach. Our experience has taught us that starting well before the middle school years and including all students in a grade helps to build a solid foundation for safe and healthy relationships.
Donna Chaiet, President, Prepare Inc