As we begin the start of another school year I have been reflecting on something one of my colleagues asked, “Why don’t we have any training programs on bullying? Nothing in our We Have Skills! or We Have Choices! courses mentions bullying, kids who bully or kids who are being bullied or anything about interrupting bullying,” he observed.
“There is a reason for that,” I said. For the last 15 years, we have worked with world-renowned educators and researchers developing media trainings for teachers with a focus on supervision and positive student behavior. Our subject matter is exactly the right field to address bullying in schools, but we have always avoided using the label. We use the Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) approach and we have seen our products make a positive impact on school climate all over the world. Every single one of our courses helps prevent bullying, we don’t need to produce one specifically dealing with bullying, and for the same reason Sheryl Sandberg wants us to ban “bossy”, promoting the word “bully” would be a disservice.
Here is what can happen when kids are exposed to a curriculum specifically geared towards anti-bullying. My son came home from school one day when he was in the 2nd grade. He sat down and proceeded to consume a tasty snack.
“How goes everything?” I said. “What were the top five things you learned today?”
“Well…,” he thought a bit. “Trevor is a bully.”*
“What?” with my dad instinct firing on all cylinders. “Did Trevor do something to you or one of your friends today?” My finger was ready to speed dial the principal, teacher, and the National Guard.
“No,” he said. “We watched a video about what bullies are and how not to be bullied.” Relief washed over me. “All of my friends decided that Trevor is the bully because he is kinda mean sometimes,” he said.
After a lengthy debrief with my son, he decided that, although Trevor was mean sometimes, the bully label for “Trevor the Terrible” was disrespectful.
I had to ask myself, was the point of the bully prevention curriculum to make sure the kids knew which of their classmates needed to be avoided and ostracized? Would this label last for the rest of the day, week, school year, or a lifetime?
It was at this point I realized how important and powerful a label can be and how important it is to remember the objective of the lesson. It isn’t about identifying bullies, it is about teaching students the importance of respecting differences. When educators approach teaching a concept, we need to be careful that we don’t load it down with easy to manipulate words and hot button scare tactics. The media needs something they can sell us like the nicely packaged label “bully”, but as educators, we aren’t selling things, we are exploring and expanding on things. We need to focus on the positive and not the negative.
The best approach to help children get along is to shine a light on building positive relationships. We need to teach children how to get along and reward them for doing it well. They will learn over time that getting along with others is how to make friends and that having friends is part of having a happy life.
Now let’s sing a song and learn some skills!
*Names have been changed to protect the innocent