Bullying prevention, climate and culture
The purpose of this article is to show how bullying and other forms of antisocial behavior in schools can be prevented by looking at school culture and climate.
There are many programs and materials for schools and schools to “stop bullying”. These programs are useful for raising awareness and providing new skills to students, yet many ignore the deeper and more needed improvements to prevent antisocial behavior in schools.
The purpose of this article is to go a little deeper and look at some of the intricacies of adjusting the school climate and culture as a means to long-term change.
What is school culture?
A school culture is a pattern or way of thinking about how actions are taken in a district, building, or classroom. This action model is based on the county’s past experience. In this way, new employees or new students are introduced to the culture by learning “how we do it here”. This is the nature of any culture, and this explains why it is so common, but hard to see. It just seems like the right way to do things.
Any school culture can be viewed in at least three contexts: 1) the design and maintenance of physical spaces, 2) the values expressed (intentionally or unintentionally) by adults in the school, and 3) beliefs that are taken for granted about human nature. .
It’s hard to tell if any part of school culture is good or bad, but some elements can contribute to or reinforce antisocial behavior. For example, tight physical spaces with too many students are ideal for aggressive behavior. The target cannot escape, and the bully can go unnoticed.
Teachers who eschew antisocial behavior or simply stay in their rooms when trouble hovers around the door are expressing—perhaps unintentionally—the value of how students should be treated in this school.
What is a school climate?
While there is no consensus on the meaning of school climate, many definitions focus on the “feel” of the school and the human/social atmosphere. With respect to climate, four components are commonly discussed: 1) the physical environment, 2) the social environment, 3) the affective environment, and 4) the academic environment.
Like culture, climate can influence or even be the root cause of antisocial behavior such as bullying. Each of the four components below can either hinder or help. Problems that can contribute to bullying are…
o A physical environment that is crowded, some places are hidden from view and places where people congregate are poorly guarded.
o A social environment where interaction is limited, students self-isolate, and harassment and other forms of domination are ignored.
o An affective environment where students are favoritized, most feedback is negative or punitive, and families are excluded from the school community.
o An academic environment where expectations are low, learning styles are not taken into account, and a sense of community is not part of the learning process.
These climate components are interrelated. Social interactions are either enhanced or suppressed by the environment. An emotional environment helps the academic environment because students and families feel like they are part of the school.
The concepts of culture and climate are critical to preventing antisocial behavior in the school. Learning-oriented activities such as posters, slogans, and rallies are helpful but do not outweigh the strength of the school culture and climate. These forces will overwhelm most programs, even those that work on social skills or language.
If bullying is a problem in your school, and if you want to end it, there must be some change in the school climate or culture. And the tricky part is that it’s the adults, not just the kids, who have to make some changes.
Changes to Prevent Bullying
We know many of the solutions needed to change the school climate. However, they seem too big, too expensive, or just hard to believe that these types of changes will make a big difference (after all, our belief system is a core element of school culture).
If we look at culture and climate as key mechanisms for prevention, we see some clear opportunities for improvement:
o Leadership from administrators and site management teams. Culture and climate change is the work of the adult collective in the school. Change is more likely to occur as efforts are coordinated towards certain improvements.
o Regain control of student-run areas of the school. School buses, playgrounds, lunch lines, lunch tables, and hallways are just a few places where kids make the rules. Who goes first, who sits at this table, who plays and so on. It is a breeding ground for hierarchy and control. Improvement requires more teaching and supervision from adults, less standing and waiting from students, and a better understanding of the child’s time and personal space.
o Support for student feedback and reports. Subtle elements of school culture hinder reporting. Concepts like chatter teach young people that adults don’t want to be disturbed. Repeated surveys of students show that the majority of children believe that adults will not help to cope with bullying. And over 65% of bullying happens when adults don’t see it. Reporting is critical.
o Work on community building. A community of people is united by the desire for common goals. All too often, schools are cliques and subgroups—adults and children alike—vying to rise up the hierarchy. People need to see and feel the community of the school community. We see it unite around tragedies or sports teams from time to time, but it needs a more uniform presence.
School districts and buildings are truly complex societies in which bullying is one of a number of potential anti-social acts. Bullying is related to hierarchy, and when children (or adults) form a hierarchy. Sometimes these hierarchies are favorable, and sometimes they are positive. Unfortunately, all too often hierarchies within student groups are negative and harmful to some.
To bring about change in these societies, we need to act at a deeper level, at the level of culture and climate. Understanding how bullying works with concepts like victim, bullying, and witness, or helping students be more assertive in the face of this aggression, is important but not enough. These strategies place the burden of change on children, when in fact only adults can make significant improvements.
After the tragedy at Columbine in 1999, bullying began to receive more attention. This attention has raised awareness but, unfortunately, has not reduced bullying in schools or eased the pain of many American schoolchildren.
What can be done?
What can be frustrating about the school climate or school culture for any teacher or parent is that it seems too big to be influenced. However, change can happen if you put in the effort. Here are some suggestions:
o Do some research by asking students where bullying usually occurs. The results are always convincing and clearly show that “location” is key. Make these places safer.
o Organize other interested adults to speak with either the principal, the local management team, or the school board. Help them understand the role of climate and culture.
o Get into the habit of listening, but not necessarily responding to all student complaints and concerns. School staff inadvertently create buffers around themselves because they are often too busy to deal with student problems. Instead of pushing them away, develop a repertoire of simple answers to minor problems so that the major problems reach your ears.
o Avoid creating a dominance hierarchy. This includes public embarrassment, clearly defining people’s skills or intelligence (or lack) in comparison to others, or simply using derogatory terms.