Takeaways from premier US anti-bullying conference

This Thanksgiving week in the US, I’m thankful to have heard the following from two outstanding researchers and a well-known author in the bullying prevention field speaking at the just-ended International Bullying Prevention Association’s (IBPA’s) annual conference in San Diego:

“We don’t talk enough about the ecosystem around kids,” said educational psychology professor Dorothy Espelage at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, a leading US scholar on bullying. “Everybody’s coming to the table – schools, parents, pastors, coaches. That’s great. We have to take a socio-ecological approach.” That’s the climate of a whole-school “ecosystem” referred to in the title of this year’s IBPA, “Building Supportive Relationships to Create a Positive School Climate.”

SEL will ‘move the needle’

“Bullying is extremely intergenerational. It’s very complex,” Dr. Espelage said. “We’re still struggling to move this needle, and social-emotional learning is one way to move it. The programs that promote social competence and acceptance of others are the ones that work.”
As for that acceptance, in another session, Stan Davis, co-creator of the Youth Voice Project (which surveyed more than 13,000 students in 31 schools nationwide), spoke of lower rates of suicidal ideation among gay as well as straight students in schools where people feel they can be themselves – another outcome of positive school climates and SEL.

“SEL focuses on systematic development of a core set of social skills, Espelage said. “A meta-analysis of 213 SEL programs found an 11% increase in test scores and better student behavior.” It spells a more competent workforce, she added, which helps persuade policymakers and other community leaders to support implementation. It also “meets the developmental needs of young adolescents,” she said.

Other changes needed too

But schools need SEL plus, Espelage said. We need “non-punitive methods” [restorative justice and other restorative practices for example, where youth are respectfully, kindly helped to see the impact of their actions on others], parent training, teacher training, classroom rules [but no more “don’t do this”], whole-school anti-bullying policy, and cooperative group work among students [there’s an example at the end of this talk about restorative practice in Sierra Leone, given to students in a Philadelphia school by Libby Hoffman, co-founder of the Fambol Talk program in that country (treat yourself to the whole amazing talk to see why students were moved to restore justice in their own school] – a greater number of elements for a longer duration.

Davis said in his presentation, “Let’s not focus on what we can’t change and focus on what we can do to make the lives of kids with tough home experiences better [which includes aggressors as well]…. Not everything can be changed,” Davis said, “but everyone can be comforted.”

The Youth Voice Project found that, when asked what helped, 91% of students who’d experienced bullying said positive comments did. Because – as keynote speaker Rosalind Wiseman pointed out – “bullying is about stripping someone of their dignity and their worth.” Tangible support in the form of positive comments aimed at restoring dignity and self-worth can be expressed privately offline and anonymously online.

Anonymity’s important

“Anonymity is a very important piece of helping someone else. Anonymous kindness spells efficacy, positive power,” Davis said at IBPA, explaining that anonymous support empowers both the helper and the helped (here are some examples).

“What youth told us indicates that isolation and ostracism is the core wound in peer mistreatment, and that we can best help many mistreated youth when we restore and enhance relationships, connection, and alliance from both adults and peers,” according to the Youth Voice Project page in the US government’s bullying prevention site, StopBullyingNow.gov.

“This comment from a student in the Youth Voice Project summarizes what many of the students described. When asked what she did that helped her the most when she was mistreated, she emphasized the effects of peer support in this way: ‘[I] just forgot about it and told myself that I have great friends who do respect me and didn’t listen to what other people thought of me.’”

Related links

  • IBPA’s final keynote by East Oakland high school English teacher, Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade, was amazing. He spoke of the impact of stress on students in our urban schools, saying “one in three display symptoms of mild to severe PTSD” – except that they’re not post-trauma. Many are experiencing it at school every day. He also said that “the single most important stress reducer in kids is a caring adult.” We can’t script who that adult is going to be for the child, he added, so all adults need to care. Here is his talk, given at the Harvard School of Education. I hope you have time to be inspired by it, as I was.
  • Anonymous kindness & self-efficacy: In his IBPA presentation, Youth Voice Project co-author Stan Davis asked the question, “How can we increase acts of kindness?” He quoted educator Kurt Hahn (1886-1974), founder of Outward Bound, saying there are three ways: “You can preach at them; that is a hook without a worm. You can say ‘you must volunteer.’ That is the devil. You can tell them, ‘you are needed.’ That hardly ever fails [emphasis mine].” The real reward for kindness (especially the anonymous kind) is not external but internal: self-efficacy, which Davis defines as “young people’s [anybody’s] knowledge that their actions make a difference in their and others’ lives.” I asked a similar question in a 2012 post about similar findings by Syracuse University Prof. Scott Nicholson at the Games Learning & Society conference that year: “What satisfies, motivates, and increases efficacy?” A sense of competence [again, efficacy], autonomy or agency, and relevance were what Nicholson found to do so. [Davis’s whole presentation is worth a read.]
  • For more on whole-school solutions, see the 2012 book School Climate 2.0 by Profs. Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin
  • My ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid on the good side of anonymity, echoing what student leaders said about anonymity at our 2014 Safer Internet Day event in Washington
  • My own post on teens & anonymity last spring: “The anonymity trend & self-presentation fatigue”
  • “Powerful lessons for preventing bullying & cyberbullying”
  • More on bullying at NetFamilyNews