End Peer Cruelty, Build Empathy: A Q&A with Michele Borba, Ed.D.

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

End Peer Cruelty, Build Empathy: A Q&A with Michele Borba, Ed.D.Bullying, alienation, and self-doubt should not—and need not—plague any students in our classrooms. In April, Dr. Michele Borba offered proven, practical teaching practices that mobilize student empathy in an edWebinar. She shared proactive, no-cost strategies you can use the very next day in your classroom and can weave into existing lesson plans. Watch the recording of “End Peer Cruelty, Build Empathy: Create Safe, Caring, Inclusive Learning Climates,” then read on for a bonus Q&A with Dr. Michele Borba.

1. Is it far easier to care for the wounds of a bullying target than it is to rehabilitate a student who bullies?
“It all depends” sounds too simplistic, but it is the truth when it comes to the time of recovery for a target versus rehabilitating a student who bullies. Educators can provide extraordinary care, counseling, and help to children, but much of recovery or rehabilitation relies on measures outside of our control. That’s why the medical model should be applied. There are a few variables: How long has the bullying been going on? How much of a support system does the child have? Are parents offering help, love, and assurance at home? Do the recovery or rehabilitation strategies match the problem? Is the child monitored and in a safe, trusting environment? Does the child have a relationship with the counselor and staff? How intense was the bullying? What is the resilience makeup of the child? Phew! Bullying is learned, and it can be unlearned. Targets can bounce back. Children who bully can be rehabilitated. But their success “all depends” on several factors. Let’s never give up!

2. How do you get your administration to practice these empathy traits?
Behavior change always starts with why the new practice is important. A big part of implementing empathy-based skills is educators (and parents, community members, and students, as well) understanding the enormous benefits for students and that empathy can be cultivated and is not “soft and fluffy” but transformational. Only then will adults recognize that change must start with them—not students. A couple of ideas:

  • Suggest that your colleagues hold Brave Staff Chats in your staff meetings (five minutes max) about empathy building. End Peer Cruelty, Build Empathy offers dozens of Brave Chats topics. The trick is not to intimidate the administrator, but to begin to have conversations about how the way adults treat each other trickles down to students.
  • The best way to teach empathy to students is through modeling. Try modeling how to hold a dialogue, disagree respectfully, or listen for the feelings or thoughts behind the other person’s idea. You might consider discussing strategies for this at a staff meeting.

3. Is the 3″ x 5″ red card used only to identify adult allies, or could students also list another student who might be their go-to person?
Great question, and the answer is yes—please use the 3″ x 5″ card not only to identify adult allies students can go to for safety, but to identify another student as a go-to person as well. In fact, using the 3″ x 5″ red card for kids to list a peer (or peers) as an ally is a great way to determine your school’s “social influencers.” Those are the students who could be trained to be peer counselors or peer mentors. They are also great people to enlist for help on Kindness Committees and can mobilize their peers to be upstanders. Remember, when you use the 3″ x 5″ card strategy, always remind students that they can remain anonymous and that they do not have to include their names on the cards.

4. What can we do about teacher colleagues who disrespect or bully students when administration will not intervene?
The fact that certain colleagues disrespect and/or bully students is sad. And we all know adults who lack empathy and civility. If the administration does not intervene, then you have a few options. The first is to verbalize your concerns to the administrator. Bullying usually happens when other adults are not present, so don’t assume the administrator is aware of the situation. Writing up the concern is another option. (If the school has reporting procedures for bullying, such as an anonymous report box, phone number, email, or electronic website, consider that.) The administrator needs evidence of the bullying, and reporting would be one option. Finally, keep a watchful eye out for the student. You could mobilize other colleagues to do the same. Some teachers suggest that a bullied child (whether the child is being bullied by an adult or another student) use these teachers’ rooms as a safe zone. Every child needs safety.

5. Do you run into kids who see “kindness as weakness” and who don’t reciprocate the concepts of empathy and respect? What happens to them?
I don’t run into kids who see “kindness as weakness,” but I encounter many students who don’t know how to be kind, don’t see themselves as a “caring person,” or don’t have adults in their lives who acknowledge the value of kindness. Not reciprocating the concepts of empathy and respect can have several ramifications. Here are three concerns:

  • The child won’t develop a caring mindset. Kids who have caring mindsets are more likely to act in a caring manner with prosocial behaviors.
  • The child may not stretch his or her capacity for empathy, so character development is truncated.
  • Since empathy plays a key role in the development of healthy relationships, social development and/or healthy relationships could be curtailed.

6. How do you answer parents who think kindness might make their kids “wimpy”?
We must help parents recognize that empathy and kindness are strengths, not weaknesses. The first step might be to start parenting book clubs. UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World by yours truly or How to Raise Kind Kids by Thomas Lickona are two choices that strongly lay the case that kindness is crucial and not soft and fluffy. You could also look for current news articles online that explain the value of empathy.

7. Just wondering how to get teachers to buy in to these ideas about empathy?
The goal is to help teachers recognize how essential empathy building is to their students’ success both in the classroom and in life. The key is to help teachers recognize that the best empathy practices are not tacked on but woven into content. Empathy building starts with teachers modeling empathy, creating relationships with students, and gently weaving empathy into existing lessons and curriculum. That approach helps teachers realize empathy building is doable and that it is not a program but a process.

  • Appoint yourself “staff researcher” to get information about empathy into the hands of staff and administrators.
  • Encourage your staff to do a book discussion about using End Peer Cruelty, Build Empathy. The discussion may start a buzz about empathy and how we should treat one another.
  • Help teachers recognize that many existing best practices support empathy building as well as academic achievement. Classroom meetings, cooperative learning, jigsaw learning, restorative justice, and conflict resolution are a few.
  • Set a Google alert for news articles and research about empathy, and then distribute this information to staff members (including administrators).
  • Create a table or bulletin board to share and display resources and lessons on empathy building. Some administrators do a five-minute “whip” at each faculty meeting where all staff members share a simple way that they’ve woven empathy-building practices into their classrooms.

8. Which preventive bullying programs do you recommend?
Thanks for that question! I’m convinced that no single program provides a one-stop shop for preventing bullying and improving school climate. All programs have blind spots, biases, and flaws. Bullying prevention is not a program, but a process to reduce peer cruelty through an inside-out approach that relies on those who have the best pulse on the issue—the actual stakeholders. Our big mistake is overlooking this part of effective bullying prevention: creating a safe and positive learning community to support all students’ cognitive, social, moral, and emotional development.

The best research-based approaches to bullying prevention are PBIS, Olweus, Second Step, and Responsive Classroom because these approaches have solid research supporting them. But that said, students must develop new skills to replace aggression or victimization, and the approach must also mobilize other students—the bystanders—to step in. That’s why I wrote End Peer Cruelty, Build Empathy. It shows the best proven practices to reduce bullying and teaches the crucial 6Rs of bullying prevention: establish the right rules, help students recognize bullying, create procedures for students to report bullying, teach student witnesses how to respond to bullying, help targets refuse provocation and cope with victimization, and help students replace aggression with acceptable skills.

Doing so will not only prevent bullying and other forms of aggression, but, according to research from the National School Climate Center, will also increase student achievement, enhance school connectedness, and reduce potential drop-out rates—all because you’re developing an environment where students want to “drop in.”

9. How do you deal with students (and parents) who say that this is Trump’s America now and kindness doesn’t matter?
Kindness, empathy, and civility breed in kind, empathetic, and civil environments, and we’re currently witnessing a watershed moment in character that is disturbing. An annual poll conducted by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate with KRC Research found that 75 percent of Americans agree incivility in America has risen to crisis levels and is impacting our children’s behavior and values. I work in hundreds of schools, and a common concern for educators across zip codes is exactly what you stated: “Kids say kindness doesn’t matter.” The result: Bullying, aggression, and racism are increasing. And as empathy dips and self-absorption increases, people don’t feel that values and rules apply to them.

But don’t despair: Adults who cultivate caring, kind children don’t do so by accident. In today’s toxic character climate, we must be far more intentional in our empathy-building efforts. It starts by modeling empathy ourselves and setting clear boundaries: “When you walk through that school or classroom door, I expect respectful behavior and you will be held accountable.” We need to step up, not back, when it comes to exposing our values. I’d suggest you start a bulletin board and display real stories about kind, caring people and how they are making a difference in the world. Today’s kids hear and see a lot of doom and gloom about our world, and this creates “compassion fatigue.” They see they world as a mean and bad place. Let’s show them that empathy and character matter!

10. What was the percentage increase of narcissistic children in the past 40 years?
A University of Michigan study led by Sara Konrath analyzed over 72 studies and found that American teens’ narcissism rates increased 58 percent in 30 years while their empathy levels dropped 40 percent. Narcissists are interested only in getting what they can for themselves. “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place.” “I always know what I am doing.” “I will never be satisfied until I get all that I deserve.” The current self-admiration craze wouldn’t be as worrisome if a focus on others was increasing at the same time, but that isn’t happening. Other studies have had similar findings.

michele-borbaMichele 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 Michele to work on eighteen US 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.

Follow Michele on Twitter @micheleborba. Or visit her website at micheleborba.com

EndPeerCrueltyBuildEmpathyMichele 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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