With research suggesting as many as one in three U.S. students are bullied at school, many educators are eager to find ways to make their buildings safe. Bullying affects not only the person being bullied but also the bully and bystanders, creating an environment in which it’s difficult to learn and succeed.
When setting up a bullying prevention program, experts say it’s important to have strong leadership from the top along with grassroots buy-in. Programs don’t have to cost a lot of money. It can take time and personnel to set up policies and reporting mechanisms, but a committed team can make progress and the effort is worth it.
Here are eight things to consider when embarking on a bullying prevention program:
1. Be comprehensive.
Bullying is a complex issue that emerges in homes, schools and communities as kids model adult behavior. Efforts to address it should be developmentally appropriate and include all invested parties. Jessica Toste, assistant professor in the college of education at the University of Texas in Austin, suggests asking for input from teachers from different grade levels and content areas, administrators, mental health professionals, students, other school staff members and perhaps a parent or community member. It may start with a big assembly, but the conversation needs to continue in the classroom with teachers, among student groups, and at home with families to build trusting relationships at all levels.
2. Accentuate the positive.
Rather than anti-bullying, frame the effort as one that promotes a positive school culture and acceptance. “The majority of teachers and administrators want their schools to be environments that are safe and positive and affirming for their students,” says Toste. In addition to academic skills, schools are increasingly seeing the value of promoting social-emotional learning – teaching kids how to regulate their emotions, demonstrate compassion, and accept people from different backgrounds and cultures. With that climate as the foundation, bullying can become less of an issue.
3. Commit to the long term.
Research shows that for bullying prevention efforts to work, schools should commit to programs for the long-term. “It’s something that needs to be in place regularly because these aren’t issue that we clean up and then everything is better. They are issues with humans interacting and kids learning,” says Toste. One example of an ongoing effort is the Reaching Out with Character and Kindness—or ROCK—program at Keller Independent School District in northern Texas, now entering its fourth year. ROCK is both proactive, with staff and student training, as well as reactive, with a process to report and investigate bullying incidents, says Laura Lockhart, coordinator of student services at Keller. The steering committee is a standing committee that recognizes the importance of committing to the long-term culture. “Bullying is not going away after doing one exciting assembly. It’s something that is deeper than that,” says Lockhart. “Reaching out with character and kindness is just part of who we want to be.”
4. Customize to fit your needs.
The committee at Keller worked together to come up with a mission and vision for ROCK. Students helped come up with the acronym and logo. “Whenever you get something out of a box, it doesn’t meet all of the unique needs of your community,” says Lockhart. “It was very important that it was designed with Keller ISD in mind … getting as many voices involved was crucial.”
5. Get buy-in from the cool kids.
Bullying is often linked to social status and is perpetrated by some of the most popular kids in school. Paul Coughlin, who speaks about bullying in schools and is the founder of Medford, Oregon-based nonprofit The Protectors, says any efforts to stem bullying need to include kids who are in positions of power and hold up a mirror to show the reality of what they are doing. “Many of these kids are aware they are being cruel, but many are not aware of the extent of their cruelty,” says Coughlin. “Unfortunately, they don’t have the necessary empathy and sympathy for the child that they are bullying.” Sometimes showing bullies a video of another bullying incident and explaining that what they are doing is similar can resonate, suggests Coughlin.
6. Make a splash.
Messages that promote a positive school culture need to be visible in classes, hallways and in the community. At Keller ISD, a special merchandise committee sells fun items, such as bracelets and T-shirts, with the ROCK logo to promote the brand and program, says Lockhart. The communications committee makes sure ROCK is talked about on Twitter and through newsletters. Experts add that free materials are available to distribute from websites such as StopBullying.gov.
7. Get a handle on the problem.
Consider surveys of students to truly evaluate the school climate and effectiveness of programs, suggests Toste of the University of Texas. Ask how students feel about safety and if they have someone in the building they feel they can go to if they are in need. Compare results before and after initiatives have been launched to fine-tune the work.
8. Set up a good reporting system.
Setting up a process to report and track bullying can be a powerful tool, experts suggest. To make sure the response to bullying is appropriate, Keller ISD set up an investigation process aimed at getting the entire story so the solution can be informed and keep everyone safe, says Lockhart. Schools also may want to consider an anonymous reporting system, suggest Coughlin.
As for the future, Coughlin predicts the bullying landscape will get worse with the lack of civility in broader society and with negative politics this campaign season. Still, it will get better in pockets of resistance and with support from concerned parents, he says. Schools that get it right and become known for taking the issue seriously can find it’s an opportunity to attract students, adds Coughlin.
“You can’t educate well with the presence of bullying,” says Coughlin. “Having the presence of bullying in the classroom and trying to teach is like having a gas leak. There are going to be a few kids who can do it, but they are going to be surviving, not thriving. They are just trying to make it through the day.”