How Our Nation’s Schools Could Help Students in an Era of Political Incivility and Bullying

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I don’t start fights, but if I get punched first, I will punch back harder to defend myself.

If someone calls me names, I’ll verbally humiliate him in public.

The whole world is against me. Everyone picks on me more than others—the world is not fair to me. No one will respect me if I don’t get them back.

These statements that justify bullying should be from a bygone era, when norms about retaliation were different than today. Some of our current politicians were likely educated to think and behave this way. By contrast, few, if any, preschool, kindergarten, elementary school, secondary school teachers or administrators in the U.S. would now accept these types of justifications from a student for bullying. In fact, in today’s schools, students are actively taught communication skills, social emotional learning skills, and supportive bystander procedures so they can effectively and positively work through conflicts without retribution.

Today, students who justify retribution for bullying are disciplined and often encouraged to do restorative justice. And their peer groups are educated to support positive responses to prevent bullying when they see it. At least these are the current overt goals of American public schools. The way we treat each other, what we say, how we say it, and the community we create socially and emotionally is a microcosm that should mirror a future better society.

A half a century ago, it may have been more common to hear adults say to children, “if they hit you, hit them back harder so they will never do it again” or “don’t let them bully you around like that, stand up for yourself and hit them back.” Historically, generations of American youth were raised with this strategy as the accepted way of dealing with bullies. Give the provocateur a taste of their own medicine and the bullying will stop. The schools, the teachers, and the bystanders were not held responsible for educating students about or stopping the bullying.

In 2017, schools do not allow preschoolers, elementary, middle school or high school students to take matters into their own hands and strike back if they are provoked. Schools are teaching research supported bullying prevention strategies and using positive behavioral approaches to deal with bullying behaviors. And for good reason-research and common-sense show that everyone loses in a retribution mindset. To paraphrase M.K. Ghandi, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves the whole world blind and toothless.

This year the airwaves, social media and the cultural discourse are filled with bullying words and behaviors from our nation’s highest leaders. If students exhibited these same behaviors in schools, they would experience intervention, education, and disciplinary measures. Behaviors portrayed daily by politicians are the stark opposite of the social and emotional learning (SEL), mindfulness, positive school climate, and bullying prevention interventions now being implemented in schools.

However, we know that children are influenced by what they see, and use our societal leaders as models for their own behavior. There is surprisingly strong consensus for this among public figures as diverse as Melania Trump, Michelle Obama, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, Congressman Bob Corker, and many others, that children are watching cultural figures. In fact, a new University of California Los Angeles study supports widely held belief by showing that the vast majority of teachers feel the national discourse is negatively impacting students’ behaviors and words in their classes. Teachers are reporting more incivility, bullying, sense of privilege, and outright group prejudice from their students since last year’s elections. Another report earlier this year from the Southern Poverty Law Center reported similar findings.

So what should our nation’s schools do to prevent bullying in this social climate?

Double down. Don’t avoid talking about it or reinforcing the goals set by our nation’s schools for a civil society. Stay on track with teaching SEL, creating positive school climates, and bullying prevention.

1. Use the national dialogue on incivility as a teaching moment. This should not be political. But it can be an opportunity to demonstrate skills and methods that foster respect and civic discussion. Students are hearing and watching the discourse anyway, and educators can demonstrate very vividly how problems cannot be solved using those bullying behaviors, how conflict escalates when people engage in bullying, and how verbal retribution creates unnecessary pain, anger, gossip, prejudice, and wasted energy for everyone involved.

2. Make sure students do not use the national dialogue as an excuse to ignore SEL and anti-bullying practices in schools—even if they say that’s what the President, Congress, Governors, wealthy people, celebrities, or other public figures would do.

3. Create nurturing, bully-free, welcoming, and respectful classrooms so students can live and experience a different way of being, in contrast to what they see in the media.

4. Remind students that they are learning more effective ways to communicate and solve conflicts than what they currently see in the world.

5. Teach students to be involved in the democratic process. As Americans if we do not like what leaders are saying we can respectfully speak up! These are part of our civic rights and responsibilities. Teach students how to send letters and pictures, expressing what they think and feel about bullying, in all shapes and forms.

We are all bystanders to these bullying behaviors on the national political stage. Let’s teach our students how democracy works when they see someone demonstrating bullying behaviors. Let’s ask the politicians to support—in their words and actions-- what today’s students are learning about bullying prevention. If schools are successful, in 20 years we will have more public servants who can communicate, show respect, and negotiate constructively—based on what they learned from their teachers and schools today.

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