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How to Develop a School Culture That Helps Curb Bullying

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After years of dealing with school bullying through traditional punishments, Carolyne Quintana, the principal of Bronxdale High School in New York City, introduced restorative justice approaches at her school because she wanted students to feel trusted and cared for.

“It wasn’t just about bullying incidents, it was about the whole school culture,” she said.

To build community and handle “instances of harm” among the students, teachers bring the kids together to talk in “restorative circles,” where everyone has an opportunity to listen and be heard. Bronxdale uses circles for most of its group communications, including parent meetings and ninth-grade orientation. The circles are a natural outgrowth of the Socratic method teachers use in class, Quintana said.

What’s crucial in building the right culture is the twice-weekly advisory sessions—“the hub for restorative circles,” Quintana said—and the distributed guidance system at Bronxdale, which calls on all adults to look out for the social and emotional well-being of the students.

Bronxdale doesn’t track bullying rates, but Quintana said that students are now more conscious of the forms bullying takes, and are more apt to express concern for their peers and to sign agreements with one another. Some students who didn’t like to come to school because of bullying now do, she said. Further, students who misbehave are still held accountable.


“Restorative practices don’t get rid of discipline,” Quintana added. Rather, they supplement other discipline, so that kids who are suspended, for example, learn what they did wrong and why it matters. “It’s the restorative practices that will prepare kids for the world beyond high school,” she said.

Treating bullying as a hurtful act that violates shared values, rather than as a character defect, encourages kids to understand why their behavior was wrong, and to apologize and make amends, according to James Dillon, a retired school principal and author of Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities.

“Bullying shouldn’t ever be acceptable, and students should be held accountable—but also learn how and why what they did is wrong, and not just suffer the pain of consequences,” Dillon says.

This restorative justice model, where kids are coaxed to accept responsibility, figure out ways to remedy the harm and restore the damaged relationship, helps them learn from their actions and internalize a moral code.

“Punishment makes things worse,” said danah boyd, author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. “Schools have to start from a place of empathy. Why is a student doing something harmful to other students?” she added. Zero-tolerance policies toward student misbehavior have been shown to have the opposite effect of what was intended by their adoption: A task force set up by the American Psychological Association to study the issue found that zero-tolerance policies in schools worsened school climates, provoked more student misbehavior and led to higher expulsion and suspension rates for minorities. And no-questions-asked penalties against kids who mistreat their peers stunts the growth of personal conscience; the punished child will instead fixate on his “unfair” penalty rather than the harm he committed.

And when it comes to social media, ugly exchanges among kids can feel like a scourge to school administrators. But the customary ways schools have responded, including some variation of assemblies, lectures, and disciplinary action, seem to have had little effect.

“The current rules and punishment-based approach that schools are using is not working to address the concerns of bullying in school,” says Nancy Willard, director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age. “And it certainly will not be effective in addressing hurtful acts via social media, because schools are not making the rules for social media.”

What can schools do to reduce bullying among students on school grounds and online?

Drawing from social science research and experience in schools, some experts on bullying, learning and social media have fresh ways of thinking about and responding to the problem.

Build the right culture. “It is easier to think that the problem is because of character flaws in a few students or to blame parents for not doing a better job of raising their kids,” says Dillon.

In fact, to reduce aggression among kids, school leaders need to start with the climate within the building. Schools with an authoritarian and hierarchical ethos teach kids that obeying rules as decreed by the grown-ups in power is what counts; this only exacerbates jockeying for status among the students, which inspires bullying. A better approach would have school officials and teachers talk with students about what matters and then rally around the collective values and beliefs on which they agree. When adults try to influence rather than control kids, the grown-ups are more likely to be heard. “Real accountability should be toward those commonly held and articulated values of the school community,” Dillon said.

Encourage influential kids to take the lead in changing the culture. In an ambitious yearlong study of 24,191 middle school students during 2012 and 2013, social scientists Betsy Levy Paluck, Hana Shepherd and Peter Aronow found that kids with abundant social connections were effective in changing school norms. Anti-bullying messages created and propagated by these influential students reduced conflict in school by a statistically significant margin. Notably, the student body, rather than the teachers, identified the well-connected kids.

Introduce social and emotional learning for students and teachers. “What’s been missing from school is the affective dimension of learning,” says Janice Toben, who heads up the Institute for Social and Emotional Learning in Menlo Park, California. For 27 years, Toben taught elementary and middle school children how to self-regulate and handle conflict, and now educates teachers on best practices for social and emotional learning.

“We challenge teachers to engage in the social and emotional dynamic of their students, because learning is social and emotional,” she said.

Schools could make space for more face-to-face interactions among students, and encourage all teachers to ask reflective questions and focus on students’ personal or social insights. Sharing responses like these builds empathy and develops emotional skills in children; they learn how to construct an emotional vocabulary, communicate honestly and directly, and resist online retaliation.

One method she designed is called “Open Session,” where adolescents share their worries and challenges with one another; in return, they receive support and real-life wisdom from their peers, and clarify for themselves the real source of worry. Regular meetings like this, along with mindfulness practices and even improvisation, can give kids the tools to understand themselves better, react less impulsively, and show more compassion for others. Teachers, too, need social and emotional support, Toben adds, and would benefit from Open Sessions with their colleagues. What’s essential to making this kind of learning work? “Time,” Toben said.

Work with the majority of kids who don’t bully and don’t approve of it. Fellow students are well-situated to deflate a bully’s barbs, but few kids intervene when they see abusive behavior directed at their peers. Student witnesses to bullying are more likely to stand up for peers in schools with caring and inclusive climates because bullying violates school norms. But how can school leaders get those kids to step up? First, don’t alienate them with language that seems to blame them for a behavior — bullying —t hat they didn’t commit. Instead, tell them how important they are in building a stronger school; they are leaders and allies in constructing a better school environment, and should be told so repeatedly. “The most important belief driving positive change and reframing bullying prevention,” Dillon writes, “is that students are the solution to the problem not the cause of it.”


Ensure that teachers, coaches and school administrators aren’t modeling bullying. When kids see adults at school mistreat one another, they can’t help but conclude that such conduct is actually OK, regardless of what they’re told. Of even greater harm is when teachers and coaches oppress the kids they’re instructing; screaming at athletes for making mistakes, for example, or humiliating kids in the classroom, underscores a message that harsh interpersonal behavior is the way of the world.

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