By Christa M. Tinari, coauthor of Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School: 48 Character-Building Lessons to Foster Respect and Prevent Bullying
October is National Bullying Prevention Month, a nationwide campaign intending to “unite communities around the world to educate and raise awareness of bullying prevention.” Schools across the nation mark this month with poster contests, assemblies, and pledge-signing ceremonies. These activities often involve the whole school community and bring attention to an important issue.
However, in order to implement effective bullying prevention, your efforts must extend beyond October. Here are ten actions you can take to sustain your bullying prevention efforts throughout the year.
- Recognize that bullying impacts your students. Sometimes I work with a school administrator who says, “We don’t have a bullying problem here. The kids are basically nice to one another.” Yet according to the National Center for Education Statistics, research shows that approximately 20 percent of students are victimized by bullying. That means that if your school has 500 students, 100 of them have likely been targeted at some point during their schooling. That’s 100 too many.
- Ask the students. The best way to find out what kinds of bullying behaviors are happening at school is to ask your students. In order to get clear data on their experiences, administer an anonymous school climate survey. Additionally, you can facilitate focus groups of students to hear their concerns and suggestions. Focus groups should be facilitated by someone who can maintain the confidentiality of the students, such as a school counselor. I also recommend surveying your staff and parents, if possible. It’s interesting and often surprising to see how perceptions of school climate differ among staff, students, and parents. A school climate survey that has been scientifically validated for middle school students is available from PeacePraxis upon request. A compendium of other instruments is available on the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments web page.
- Create a plan and take action. Once you have gathered clear data through surveys and focus groups, report the findings to your staff, students, and parents. Use the data to start a conversation on what must be addressed so all students feel safe and connected to school. Then assemble a team of staff and students to set measurable annual goals for improvement. For example, if students report that name-calling is a common issue, brainstorm ideas to reduce it and create a plan to put those ideas in action. Including students in this process ensures that you’ll come up with realistic solutions. This team should also focus on ways to increase safety and positive interactions between all members of the school community. The most effective bullying prevention efforts focus on building a positive school climate rather than simply addressing individual incidents of bullying.
- Train your staff. Your staff needs to be equipped with current, research-based information on bullying prevention and intervention tactics. Be sure your staff training includes a review of your school’s bullying policies and reporting procedures. Staff will also need to know legal requirements that pertain to bullying prevention at school; these requirements are often updated by state law. Educators must also be equipped with concrete steps they can take to prevent bullying and to intervene when needed. The best training includes information on current trends in social media and cyberbullying. Provide opportunities for your staff to attend local and national trainings and conferences to learn about new research and resources that can help your school.
- Engage in anti-bias work. Students who are in a perceived minority group may be at an increased risk of being bullied. Students who bully will often use bias-based remarks and actions to increase the social power they have over their target and the harm they inflict. Some studies suggest that bias-based harassment has a more detrimental impact on students’ emotional and mental health than general harassment. Additionally, when educators act on their own unconscious biases, they can harm students, as evidenced in research around disproportionate minority representation in suspensions and expulsions. Educators must therefore be prepared to identify and respond to bias-based bullying, as well as be aware of their own biases. Your staff must know how to create classroom environments that welcome students of any race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, ability, and so on. To ensure that your staff are learning the skills they need to support and educate all students, include anti-bias work as a required part of your bullying prevention efforts. For additional tips on addressing bias-based bullying, see this blog post on creating a culture of respect.
- Teach students how to be upstanders. Many students who are not directly targets of bullying are bystanders to bullying behaviors. Although bystanders often want to intervene in a bullying situation, they often do not know what to do. We must go beyond telling our students to “walk away” or to “tell the child who is bullying to stop.” We must teach bystanders how to discourage bullying behaviors among their peers, intervene in safe ways, and support students who are targeted. These upstander strategies can be taught to students through stand-alone lessons or integrated into your social studies, language arts, or health curricula. Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School includes several lessons on upstander skills. Here is another upstander skills activity for fourth- through twelfth-grade students. Providing opportunities for older students to teach upstander skills to younger students can be particularly effective. Upstander education will help your students develop social-emotional skills that will empower them to create a school culture of empathy, kindness, courage, and respect.
- Develop a clear system for reporting and investigating bullying. Do your staff, students, and parents know what to do when they become aware of bullying? Do they know how to get help and how to report situations of concern? Provide anonymous ways to report bullying, and be sure to communicate a point person to contact. Include the bullying prevention policy and reporting and investigating procedures on your website and in materials sent home for review. It is incredibly important to take action on reports of bullying and to clearly communicate your findings and the actions taken to address the situation. Finally, be sure to educate yourself and to follow your district’s and state’s requirements on reporting, investigating, and addressing bullying. To access the laws in your state, visit stopbullying.gov. If you’re seeking to improve your policies, ask your state board of education or school board association for examples of a model policy. Policies should include clear definitions, legal requirements, a reporting procedure, and suggestions for prevention and intervention strategies.
- Involve parents and the community. Educate your parents about your school’s bullying policies and procedures. Communicate with parents proactively about everything you are doing to prevent bullying at school. Let them know exactly how they can partner with you in your efforts. Reach out to community leaders, such as the mayor, as well as local businesses and social service agencies like the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Club. They may want to join your efforts or plan something together that will make an even bigger impact on the community. Be sure to spread the word to get some good press for your school and community’s collaborative efforts!
- Plan for the future. Bullying prevention efforts take time, resources, and energy! Implement a sustainability plan to ensure that bullying prevention will continue to get the attention it deserves. Ideally, your bullying prevention efforts should be included in the school district’s annual budget as a regular line item. Human resources are just as important. Is there a staff person whose job description includes the coordination of bullying prevention efforts? If that person retires, are others ready to continue the work? Finally, plan to evaluate your bullying prevention outcomes to demonstrate the impact of your actions. Pre- and post-school climate surveys and other indicators (such as the number of reported incidents of bullying) can be useful in measuring change. Anecdotal evidence, including real stories about positive change, can also make a compelling case for continuing your efforts.
- Celebrate and appreciate! Be sure to acknowledge the contributions of everyone—students, staff, parents, community members—who is involved in your ongoing bullying prevention efforts. Those involved are passionate about the cause and work hard (often unpaid) to ensure that your school climate is safe and welcoming to all. People are less likely to burn out when their work is appreciated. Host a thank-you breakfast, dinner, or bowling party. Gift them with small pins or another visible acknowledgment. Write a thank-you letter and submit it to the local paper. Send handwritten cards to each individual. Whatever you do, be sure to celebrate the team effort and acknowledge your collective accomplishments!
Apply these ten steps and you will surely sustain your bullying prevention efforts long after National Bullying Prevention Month has come and gone.
Christa M. Tinari, M.A., is a bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, and school climate specialist. She speaks at educational conferences and provides training and consulting to schools across the country. Visit www.peacepraxis.com to learn more about her work.
Christa is coauthor of Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School: 48 Character-Building Lessons to Foster Respect and Prevent Bullying.
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