By Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of End Peer Cruelty, Build Empathy: The Proven 6Rs of Bullying Prevention That Create Inclusive, Safe, and Caring Schools
“I don’t know why I bother,” the student told me. “Nobody at this school cares about me. Do you know how hard it is to sit by yourself and know the rest of the kids think you’re invisible?”
Oh, the pain of not fitting in or feeling excluded! After all, friends play an enormous role in our students’ lives. It’s tough to tune in to our lessons when kids are wondering: “Why won’t anyone sit next to me or choose me for their team?”
If peer exclusion continues, it not only diminishes self-esteem, but can also diminish academic achievement and be emotionally debilitating. Children who are bullied often lack social networks. And those who bully often realize which kids are less likely to have peers come to their aid. All this is why identifying and supporting marginalized students is part of effective bullying prevention and crucial to creating a safe school climate.
Here are a few strategies from my book, The 6Rs of Bullying Prevention, to help marginalized students feel less like outsiders and more like insiders.
Step 1. Identify Marginalized Students
Marginalized kids are easy to overlook. They often work quietly and hold in their pain. Here are three ways to discover which students may be prone to peer exclusion. Important: Kids must know that their responses will be kept confidential. Never share these findings with students.
- Use an index card sociogram. Ask each student to write the names of two to four peers they hope to play, work, or sit with in a cooperative learning group, during recess, for a game, or in the lunchroom. Collect the cards and identify names of students who appear on few or no cards. You will have a quick index of marginalized students.
- Map social networks. Provide a map of the school cafeteria or playground (or other locations where students congregate in large groups with few adults) and ask students to privately mark: “Where do you sit in the cafeteria (or play on the playground)?” “Who sits (or plays) around you?” Watch for students who have limited or no peers around them.
- Do a quick test. Suppose the bell is about to ring for lunch or recess and students are completing a worksheet. Ask one final question: “Write the name or names of peers you plan to play with or sit next to at lunch.” Then collect the papers. Which names are missing?
Once you identify your marginalized students, become their ally. Reach out and befriend them. Let them know you care, are available, and that your room can always be their safety net.
Step 2. Create Inclusiveness and Caring Peer Connections
Fact: Peer rejection and bullying are reduced in environments where respect and inclusiveness breed. Here are ways to nurture caring peer relationships so students are less likely to be bullied or rejected and more likely to feel welcomed and included.
- Try Mix It Up at Lunch Days. The cafeteria is often identified by students as a place where rejection is frequent. So once a month or week, encourage students to move out of their cliques and to eat with someone new at lunch. Or suggest that your staff implement “Mix It Up at Lunch Day,” a great way for all students to be more inclusive.
- Find one pal. Every child needs a buddy, so be on the lookout for peers who a marginalized student might befriend. School-age kids are more likely to choose friends with similar values or interests. So identify activities or interests that the student enjoys (like chess, art, guitar, skateboarding, basketball) and find a peer who shares one or more of those passions. Create ways to encourage their connection (like putting them on the same team or sitting near one another).
- Form clubs and hold class meetings. School clubs are opportunities for students to connect. Tune in to marginalized kids’ interests or passions and form clubs that address them. Hold class meetings, which help create a feeling of inclusiveness and caring. They can also set an expectation that “in this room, we support one another,” so students are more likely to include peers.
Step 3. Help Marginalized Students Fit In
Always being left out is downright painful and humiliating. Help kids be less likely to be rejected by coaching them to learn a few crucial social-emotional skills.
- Teach social skills. Some kids are rejected because they lack social skills. So watch the student in a social setting, such as in a cooperative group or on the playground. Would learning some friendship skills help him be rejected less? Taking turns, listening, losing gracefully, and using conversation openers are just a few. Friendship skills are learned best by seeing others exhibit them: “Watch. Jim is asking that group if he can play the game. See how he waits until there’s a break and doesn’t barge in? Now he asks the friendliest kid if he can play. That’s how you join a group.” Teach one skill at a time by modeling it yourself. Encourage the student to practice it until he can use it with peers, then teach him the next skill.
- Offer feedback. One long-term study of 400 students found that those who are frequently rejected often have no idea why peers won’t play with them. Help the child learn what she does that turns kids off by tactfully explaining her misstep. For example: “You shoved your way in line. How do you suppose it made the other kids feel? Will they want to play with you if you do that? What can you do instead?” Then help the student develop a healthy behavior alternative. Focus on one behavior at a time so the student won’t feel overwhelmed, and always give your feedback privately.
- Work with the parent. Have you figured out what is working to help a student fit in? Pass on your information to the parent. Are you practicing a social skill with a child? Let parents know how they can reinforce it at home. Do you feel that a student might need the help of a counselor or psychological services? Set up a parent conference. Working with parents is crucial to helping marginalized kids fit in.
Caring adults always play a pivotal role in creating the safe and welcoming environment that all students deserve. It’s up to us to ensure that all students feel as though they belong and know that they have our support.
Michele Borba, Ed.D., is an internationally renowned educator, award-winning author, and parenting, child, and bullying prevention expert. She appears frequently in national media, including on the Today show, Dr. Phil, Dateline, Anderson Cooper, and Dr. Drew, and in TIME, Washington Post, Newsweek, People, The New York Times, and many others. A sought-after motivational speaker, she has presented workshops and keynote addresses throughout the world and has served as a consultant to hundreds of schools and organizations including the Pentagon, who hired Borba to work on eighteen U.S. Army bases to train educators and counselors on bullying prevention. She offers realistic, research-based advice culled from a career of working with over 1 million parents and educators worldwide.
Her proposal “Ending School Violence and Bullying” (SB1667) was signed into California law in 2002. She was awarded the 2016 National Child Safety Award by the Child Safety Network. She lives in Palm Springs, California.
Michele Borba is the author of End Peer Cruelty, Build Empathy: The Proven 6Rs of Bullying Prevention That Create Inclusive, Safe, and Caring Schools
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