There’s been a great deal of nationwide interest in the issue of bullying lately, with good reason since about one-quarter of our nation’s students report being bullied regularly. Despite the intensified focus, many well-meaning parents, educators, and leaders are left wondering what exactly they should do to stop peer cruelty and prevent possible tragedies. Zero tolerance? Anti-bullying coordinators? Legislation? Assemblies? Curriculum? What really works? Where can educators get the most bang for their buck and make the biggest positive impact on the young people in their care?
From working with National Schools of Character (NSOC), I think I know the answer. In climate surveys, 87% of the students attending schools named NSOC in 2011 reported feeling safe at school or that bullying was rare. This is the direct result of intentional efforts in these schools to create caring school cultures where all students feel safe and connected to those around them.
How do schools of character do it? There is no one way or single set of steps – but there are some common strategies we see in place in these schools that any school can employ, regardless of resources.
Almost 100% of students attending NSOC participate in opportunities to serve their community – inside the school and out. They help care for their school, serve as buddies to younger or disabled peers, and organize aid for the needy, for example. Service projects not only make learning more relevant to students, but they build leadership skills and empathy. The motto at John A. Carusi Middle School (Cherry Hill, NJ), Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve is much more than words on a poster. Once seventh grader who wears a hijab reports that she has never been made fun of and says that the “school teaches us to accept all people for who they are and what they enjoy.” Students at Carusi report in surveys that they are rarely bullied.
Students attending NSOC are given many opportunities to practice conflict resolution and build caring relationships with one another. They do so in class meetings, as peer mediators, and through cooperative learning activities, for example. An Advocacy program put in place at Muskogee High School (Muskogee, OK) has become a powerful connector that supports a sense of security and belonging among the highly diverse student population. Students have not only become connected to one another but they feel more connected to their teachers as well: 99% of the over 1,000 student participants in the program report appreciating their teacher advocate. As Mayor John Tyler Hammons notes, “There are so many different lifestyles, cultures, and opportunities in one special place. The kids are exposed to so many differences but still feel loved and accepted.”
Schools of character go beyond teaching tolerance – they embrace and celebrate the diversity in their communities. Researchers such as UCLA’s Jaana Juvonen have actually found “safety in diversity,” meaning that students in more ethnically diverse schools feel safer and less bullied. Schools can harness the protective power of diversity. 2011 National District of Character Fort Bend ISD (Sugar Land, TX) celebrates its diversity with an annual Diversity Conference for students and by fully embracing programs such as the Anti-Defamation League’s No Place for Hate. Josh, a student in the district, says, “I have been so fortunate to grow up in a community and go to schools that are so accepting of diversity.”
Schools of character listen to all the members of their community. They gather data, reflect on it, and make necessary changes. They are constantly learning and growing – and they empower all members of the community to be leaders. Students who feel heard and who feel they can make a difference do not bully others, nor do they stand for it in their school. Bell’s Crossing (Simpsonville, SC), a large elementary school of over 1200 students empowers students to take on leadership roles by teaching them to set and track their own goals and develop essential workplace skills. As a result, few students get in trouble and 92% report feeling safe at school.
By working together as a community to improve school climate, schools can drastically decrease bullying and other forms of peer cruelty. To find out more, contact a school of character near you. Visit www.character.org for more information.