What message are we spreading?

Do you ever get the feeling that the more you talk about something, harp on it, and ask it to stop, that it seems like that something tends to become more of an issue? We know that being proactive in what we do, to be intentional, and to seek out solutions to our problems in schools is what leads to success.

But do anti-bullying programs seem to be more of a reactive measure? Yes, there is no arguing that bullying is a serious issue that affects growing numbers of students on a daily basis. My school is a small one compared to the others in our district, and because of that it seems like we view bullying as almost a non-issue. This has all changed this year with a group of heartbreaking stories that are opening many peoples’ eyes.

Our district adopted the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program last school year, and we have been using class meetings and discussions on a weekly basis. We discuss various situations and emotions in order to help students to feel comfortable, build trust, and feel confident in standing up to bullying or helping a victim out.

What scares me is that bullying is always on the minds of our students. I hear the word “bullying” all of the time, and even though a goal of the Olweus program is to clarify what bullying truly is, it is still a word that is thrown around much more than ever before. It could often be compared to the boy who cried, “Bully!”

After reading this article from the Huffington Post, my skepticism and concern about bullying programs grew. Are we teaching students the ins and outs of bullying? Do we give kids the tools to know what to say to get out of trouble and shift blame for their behavior? Do we help them to know how to sound depressed in order to have an excuse for what they do or gain attention that is so desperately needed?

We recently watched Bully with our 7th and 8th graders in a large group. Throughout the rest of the day we had individual class discussions that lasted over an hour. The discussions were incredibly enlightening to many of the issues that are going on in our school, the depths of which were unknown to many of our teachers. It truly was a moment that I will never forget as I heard students open up about their feelings and struggles at a place where they are supposed to feel safe.

I couldn’t help but think as we left the meetings that yes, these students just got a lot off of their collective chest, but what does that mean for the rest of the day? Next week? Will there be repercussions for their words? Will reliving those negative experiences make their sadness build up?

What if we took a proactive measure in bullying prevention? Instead of dwelling on the negative things and reacting to them, we build on the positives and increase everyone’s awareness of the good in our lives. We tell our students that they need to stand up, help others, and be a good person, but if we aren’t giving them confidence to do that, will it ever happen? Just by telling a child in a classroom that the right thing is to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves does not make it easy for that child to do so on the playground or when everyone else is watching and judging them.

If we were to help students to relive happy experiences and positive relationship moments, we could help to create an atmosphere of hope instead of the gloom of what I heard in one of our meetings: “Bullying is always there, and it will never go away.” But what if we helped teach our students to be positive, helpful, and selfless and did this through their entire time in our schools?

In my previous post I shared some of the things that I am doing at the start of class to encourage students to be positive and relive experiences that bring a smile to their faces. This is a contrast to journaling and thinking about things that ask students to consider the negative things that are going on. If we dwell on those parts of life, we are going to be much less likely to smile, help each other, or hope that things are going to get better.

But if we encourage our students to participate in service learning where we are helping others, pass on a positive message to friends, or thank someone who had a positive impact on them, we are much more likely to see a change. Those activities are ones that change lives because of how they make us feel and how they intrinsically motivate us.

Happiness can be contagious. Unfortunately, so can unhappiness.


Real-world bullying

Take a look at this fantastic and inspiring example for students to stand up to bullying from Jennifer Livingston of WKBT News in La Crosse, Wisconsin:


Bullying has been a focus in our school district and in the state of North Dakota.  We continue to develop and implement new programs into our schools.  It continues to put positivity and belonging into the forefront of our minds as educators.

What really hit home for me in the video above was that this behavior is learned.  It is not something that children are born with.  We do not come into this world with the sense that skinny is attractive, tall is manly, and being different is worthy of hatred or criticism.  These things come from examples.

Children at home hear how parents and adults talk about people on TV, at work, or in the drive-thru line at McDonald’s.  These may be unintentional messages to children, but does that make it OK?  It is time to start being intentional with our actions and words.  How will your example live on in the next generation?

As a teacher who has been given more direction and education in the area of bullying, I feel that it is something that deserves our focus.  It is our job as teachers to be examples and take responsibility for what is learned.

As people, it is time to become the examples that are becoming less common.  When a young person sees you, what will he or she take from your example of how to treat people?