By Mariam MacGregor, M.S., author of Building Everyday Leadership in All Kids
A tremendous amount of time and energy is dedicated throughout the school year to teaching and practicing bullying prevention. While well-intentioned, the emphasis on bully-proofing kids overshadows other important steps we can take to prepare kids and teens with skills to appropriately confront peers, resolve conflict, self-advocate, and demonstrate resourcefulness in social situations.
This raises the question: Is bullying education helping or hurting the majority of our kids?
As a long-time leadership educator, I have consistently encouraged teachers and school administrators to address bullying behavior in their schools by building a culture of leadership instead. When we prepare every child to be a leader, and expect every child to act like a leader, many perceived bullying situations can be resolved appropriately (and in socially healthy ways) without having adults step in to manage or control the outcome.
Children who are given opportunities to learn and practice leadership skills such as communication, problem solving, ethical decision-making, conflict resolution, tolerance, and creative thinking, are less likely to refer to petty grievances as bullying. They become more skilled at standing up and speaking out, without seeking the approval of or needing to turn to an adult.
Widespread criticism that kids and teens lack the ability to advocate for themselves is fair. We have a generation that is being taught to ask their parents to complain to teachers or work managers or coaches. Leadership education offers a way to dramatically shift the paradigm of school-based social-emotional education. By emphasizing leadership education to address bullying, a natural shift of student and adult attitudes toward misbehavior occurs. Suddenly, we are no longer looking for all the ways others “wrongly treat us,” we are paying attention to how others are leading and making good decisions. Kids learn to mitigate bullying as part of a larger group—as a social collective, so to speak—rather than with secrecy or individual suffering.
Consider a child with sensory processing disorder who attends school in an everyday classroom. This student may look the same as typically developing kids, and peers may not know about his disorder. When a culture of leadership has been established in that school and classroom, students will act with greater patience and understanding because everyone is expected to be a leader. So instead of that child being picked on because he or she lacks appropriate social skills or runs slower in P.E. or has unexplainable quirks or behavior, his peers rally around him because the group norms of leadership sets a classroom standard where bullying would be deemed unacceptable.
When everyone in a school or community is expected to act as a leader, kids experience reinvigorated personal power because they know others around them have heard the same message to speak up and do something. And there’s power in numbers. Bullying behavior becomes the outlier, relegated to minority status in a school culture where leadership is expected, because this positive social norm takes over.
Current bully prevention models address various roles (bully, bystander or witness, target) in bullying scenarios. Leadership education, on the other hand, addresses personal responsibility and accountability, encouraging all kids and teens to take action to make a difference in their lives and the lives of others, while identifying ways to use their leadership talents in all situations. When everyone is expected to be a leader, there are no victims.
Have you had school or classroom experiences in which leadership education helped address bullying issues? What other ways do leadership and bullying education intersect? Please comment below.
Mariam G. MacGregor, M.S., founded and runs Youthleadership.com, an online clearinghouse and resource center for individuals working with youth leaders. A former school counselor and coordinator of leadership programs at an alternative high school, she consults with organizations, writes, and presents workshops about youth leadership. Her curriculum, Building Everyday Leadership in All Teens, received the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Association of Educational Publishers. She lives in Morrison, Colorado.
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