By JESSICA WODATCH
A new documentary hits the nation’s movie theaters today. “Bully” tells the story of five brave families and challenges viewers to move from shock and resignation about bullying to action, the movie’s promotional website thebullyproject.com reports. Recent surveys indicate that about 13 million U.S. children are bullied each year and 3 million are absent from school each month because they feel unsafe.
Across the country, adults’ awareness of bullying, willingness to treat it as a serious issue, and take action about it is on the rise. Last year, a celebrity-led campaign, “It Gets Better,” reached out to children who are being bullied to offer encouragement and support. Even President Obama recorded a video. Recently, New Jersey announced $1 million would be added to the state’s Bullying Prevention Fund to help school districts meet the requirements of the state’s anti-bullying law, following the lead of many other states. Such investment is an improvement on ignoring the problem. But spending such vast sums begs a question: what if bullying could be prevented before it starts?
In 2004, a group of Capitol Hill parents and myself founded a new public charter school. We believed that creating a safe, caring environment that taught children social skills and gave them opportunities to practice them would prevent bullying before it starts. As a result, while I welcome any effort to try to stop bullying where it has taken hold, I also am convinced that investing in children early and often works best.
At the heart of our educational program is a commitment to teach students how to learn, and use the knowledge they have acquired to solve problems. Accordingly, we view behavior as an opportunity to learn, rather than simply assigning students a consequence when they make a mistake. We help our students to understand the impact of their behavior, so that they will want to change it in the future.
Of course, negative behavior can be observed, criticized, and punished. But that doesn’t address the root cause of the behavior. We engage our students to help them understand and internalize why what they did is wrong, and how they can act better in the future. When a student is able to fully understand why behavior like name-calling or bullying is wrong and the impact it has on their peers, they are more likely to want to not repeat it in the future.
Why does bullying persist? Adult complicity or indifference is part of the story—as is the idea that it is just a rite of passage—but does not totally explain its prevalence. The failure to engage students to learn and internalize positive behavior is another important factor. It’s easy to scare children, or entice them with rewards to get them to behave, but we want students to choose good behavior and make good decisions on their own, when adults aren’t around.
We teach our preschool through eighth grade students social and emotional problem-solving strategies through example and instruction. Skills such as advocating for oneself, peaceably resolving disputes, and understanding and communicating with one another are essential for success in life, as well as school. Students are encouraged to request opportunities to talk through their disagreements and resolve them. While our youngest students often need teacher facilitation to solve problems in this way, students who have been at Two Rivers for many years do this with ease. After years of practice, many Two Rivers’ students are more adept at problem solving with their peers than most adults I know. This approach helps address conflicts before they escalate and develops skills that will serve children well throughout their lives.
Our school also sweats the small stuff. Big problems like fear arise when seemingly innocent activities such as name-calling go unchecked, injuring children’s sense of well being. By intervening early and teaching our students how to talk to one another and support each other, we are able to create a climate of mutual trust and respect, in which everyone feels welcome. This way, students can flourish socially, emotionally and academically.
Preventing bullying before it starts isn’t easy – it takes determination, thoughtfulness, and hard work. But it isn’t impossible, and it’s critical for all our students.
Jessica Wodatch is executive director of Two Rivers Public Charter School. She grew up on Capitol Hill in D.C., and lives on the Hill with her partner, Liz, and their three children — all proud Two Rivers students.
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