There is no assembly topic more appealing to a majority of schools than bullying prevention. The reasons why are, sadly, obvious. Equally sad, however, is that schools so often approach this topic in a blunt, moralistic manner that alienates young people, rather than motivating them. For example, a speaker who talks over students, or who thinks that a few lame jokes will help kids relate to him.
Another mistake: saying the same old thing about “standing up to bullies.” Who doesn’t already know this is what he or she is supposed to do? Why not talk to kids about why a person doesn’t always make the right choice? I believe students want to understand the psychology of their own generation.Confronting a bully often requires a person to overcome fear and doubt. For many, these are super-human attributes. A person needs practice getting in touch with those kinds of feelings. .
For schools, and student life leaders, it comes down to reframing the challenge at hand. If we want students to join the momentum to stop bullying, it is imperative to associate that effort with positive attributes. We should spend more time talking about empathy, citizenship, and civility, than bullying. It’s better and more effective to teach with a clear image of the ideal, than repeated warnings about the problem.
It’s also important to know and tell the truth. For example, we like to say that “no one likes bullies.” But that’s not true. Research has established that bullies can be quite popular – in no small part because they often confront adults, which impresses other kids. I also worry that the incessant focus on bullying, gives cruel behavior an undeserved degree of status.
Talking to kids over and over about “responsibility” is a snooze, if not condescending. They already get it! Almost every student knows that bullying is wrong. The great majority know bullying when they see it. The reason people do not enact a positive behavior when they see bullying is not because they don’t understand the right choice. It’s because deep down inside they don’t feel right about acting on that choice. That is the supreme challenge of bullying intervention programs. How do we make it easier for students to feel strong, confident, and capable at the critical moment?
Hint: The stories we tell kids about those situations have to be linked to community ideals about love, respect, and shared responsibility for one another.
And it’s also about practice, and an ongoing dialogue with students. Even a great annual school assembly is not nearly so valuable as a dozen short conversations throughout the school year. At present, most anti-bullying programs get way too moralistic, with an ominous tone of condemnation. Let’s save those talks for individual perpetrators – in the principal’s office. The tone for the larger student body should be more joyous, more affirmative, and more instructive with respect to community standards. The intensity and prevalence of bullying fades, when it becomes cooler and more satisfying to live differently.