Sometimes the most effective tools to reduce bullying in schools are as simple as a sincere hello.
What happens when a student or parent first walks in to a new school? What welcoming practices occur during the initial registration process, when parents first complete a set of forms, when they hear the first hello, or when students are first introduced to teachers and classmates? Are students and parents greeted with warmth, guidance, and understanding, or is it a cold administrative process?
We know that the welcoming process is vitally important to vulnerable groups who are often highly mobile. Vulnerable groups such as homeless students, students in foster care, or group homes, students who have been involved in the juvenile justice system, LGBTQ students, military-connected students, and documented and undocumented students from immigrant families are at a higher risk for bullying if schools don’t welcome them with a process that acknowledges their culture, demonstrates their value as part of the school community, and celebrates their diversity in a positive way. How students are welcomed into new schools can affect their feelings of connectedness, their relationships with students and teachers, attendance, whether they drift into risk-taking peer groups, if they are bullied, and even their academic trajectory. Efforts as straight-forward as training student ambassadors to welcome new students before they enter the school make a world of difference.
Many schools naturally have a welcoming environment due to their philosophy, mission, and staff, and there is much to be learned from them. With the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in 2015 by President Obama, now urging states to integrate school climate metrics into their accountability and survey systems, using welcoming practices and other strategies to create a positive school climate as a way to prevent bullying victimization has become a high priority for our nation’s schools.
There are challenges associated with a more data-driven approach to school programs, however. Given how many schools there are in each state (California alone has approximately 10,000 schools) how can we ensure our nation’s schools all have high-quality welcoming, school climate, social-emotional learning and bullying prevention approaches that avoid a one-size-fits-all approach? Each school has its own academic profile, demographics, culture, climate, types of bullying, and ways of welcoming. Historically, data collection in schools has been used to reinforce a high-stakes atmosphere, and punish schools who underperform. This approach of using data needs to be changed so that data is seen as a democratic form of voice. This way student, teacher, and parent voices are heard and shared at each school. When this is achieved schools can adopt both a ground-up and top-down approach to implementation.
If states generate accurate and meaningful metrics that each school, district, region, and state can jointly use, schools will be liberated to learn from other schools that have created optimal and model environments. A specific school will know exactly the types of bullying problems they are facing and can arrive at potential solutions based on the voices of the students, teachers, and parents from their school. A school may discover they have a significant problem of bullying through social exclusion and create responses specifically focused on the lunch area and during recess. Another school from the same neighborhood and community may identify problems around fighting in the boy’s bathroom which would require a different approach entirely. Having regional data also allows schools to find and learn from others similar to them that have been successful at creating welcoming, positive climates. Certain evidence-based programs may work better for some schools and regions but not others. An excellent regional monitoring system that gauges school climate and bullying, such as the one used in Israel, provides schools with a local data-driven, and locally led way to strategize about specific problems in ways that make sense for each school. This approach, however, also allows each school to compare progress with local schools and with schools across the state.
If we are serious about preventing bullying, improving school climate, welcoming students, and giving students social-emotional skills, then we need a data infrastructure and a process that allows schools to use the information to improve. Each school will be slightly different, with different solutions that change year to year based on changing demographics, teaching staff, and community needs. Students, parents, and teachers will become participants in the change process rather than objects of the change process. Their ideas, solutions, and strategies that work will be included in the school improvement process. There are many ways to welcome new families, many ways to celebrate our students and teachers, and myriad ways to prevent bullying from occurring in schools. Putting students’ and teachers’ voices at the center of the process can build positive climates to prevent bullying nationwide.
Featured image credit: school lockers by lindahicks. Public domain via pixabay.