Bullying is front and center for many administrators, teachers, parents and students. It’s a complex issue that requires strong partnerships, ongoing education and a willingness to change established “cultures of denial” that have held school communities captive for decades. Let me be clear, my school is not free from bullying. Those kinds of claims may sound reassuring but are not based in reality. What I can state with certainty is that the teaching and support staff at my school are committed to engaging in deliberate strategies to prevent bullying from occurring. We are learning how to distinguish bullying from conflict and how to respond appropriately. What exactly are we doing? The list below is purposely absent from the standard recommendations of having a code of conduct and clear discipline policy. Those are non-negotiable and are what I consider to be “passive strategies.” They exist in a vacuum and may amount to no more than paper on a shelf unless they are put into action. Here are five ways (by no means an exhaustive list) that my school is actively and proactively working to prevent bullying:
- Weekly Assemblies. Every Monday morning, our entire school community gathers for a fifteen minute assembly. We sing O Canada and then I (or a teacher) lead the assembled students in a mini-lesson related to behaviour expectations, character education, learning strategies, or self-regulation tips. The discussion is interactive and engages students and staff. Teaching is about reminding and this forum provides all of us with a vehicle to teach and learn together – every week. Everyone hears the same message and teachers often return to classes to continue the dialogue with students. Added benefits of the weekly assemblies are the positive climate that is created when we start each week as a community and the safety benefit of practicing moving in a safe and orderly fashion to assemble as a large group.
- Communication. How can a school staff be expected to identify, resolve and diffuse escalating conflict among students if they are unaware of pre-existing behaviours? Schools have not always been effective with respect to internal communications regarding escalating student behaviour concerns. Within the Response To Intervention (RTI) framework, a commitment to a shared responsibility for student learning (and behaviour) is inherent. To address this issue, I prepare (and distribute electronically to all staff) what I call Response To Behaviour summaries. These reports summarize incidents that involve conflict between students. These one page, point form reports identify who was involved, who reported the incident, when and where the incident occurred, my follow up to the situation and arguably the most important part: recommendations for preventing re-occurrence or escalation. Hard copies are housed in a binder at the office for staff review. These reports often come out daily (or more often if needed) and serve a clear purpose – keeping staff informed. A lack of reporting does not equal a bullying free school. Rather, it more often indicates a culture of closed communication.
- Visible Supervision. Bullying behaviour thrives in an environment lacking appropriate supervision. A visible adult presence is critical in order to mediate disputes, identify conflict “hot spots” and to aid in establishing a safe environment for all students. Supervision is not limited to the playground. It extends to the classroom, computer lab and home. Access to the internet and student usage requires careful monitoring. As a principal I schedule myself to be an extra supervisor on the playground every lunch break. Does it happen five days per week? No. However, I believe that the more visible the principal is, in addition to teachers and support staff, during unstructured time, the greater opportunity to engage students in positive interactions and curb bullying behaviour.
- Create An Engaging Learning And Play Environment. I am convinced that positively engaged students (both in the classroom and outside) are less prone to bullying. It’s partly supervision but it’s more about building a positive school climate. Intramural sports, lunch time clubs and an engaging classroom learning environment are approaches that go a long way to proactively prevent bullying. My hat is off to the teachers at my school this year for their ongoing commitment to providing students with so many in-curricular and extracurricular opportunities. These experiences create positive connections between staff and students; connections that build relationships of trust and respect.
- Engage the Experts. Bullying prevention is not a solo effort. School based, district, provincial and third party resources are available to support students in schools. Our school based team, comprised of teachers, school psychologist, speech pathologist and others meet weekly to discuss learning and behaviour challenges. At the district level, a Learning Services Support Team (LSST) can be assembled to address serious and escalating behaviour (or learning) issues. Additionally, the BC Ministry of Education website, EraseBullying.ca provides tips, advice and a reporting tool for students, parents and teachers. Communicating the availability of these resources to the parents and students within the school community is critical. Private sector resources also exist. Theresa Campbell from Safer Schools Together provides outstanding training in the areas of developing safer school climates and cultures. Also, internationally recognized expert and Victoria Police Staff Sergeant Darren Laur of Personal Protection Systems Inc. offers engaging and educational workshops for students, staff and parents in the area of digital citizenship and cyber bullying prevention. This year I coordinated with area school principals for Darren to deliver age-specific presentations to all students in grades 6-12, school staffs and parents from our four area Ladysmith area schools.
Countering bullying requires ongoing education, communication, collaboration, and positive student engagement. Our school and many others within our district and across the province are doing many positive things to meet the challenge. Home and school communication must always remain positive and solution oriented if progress is to be made. Parents play a key role in each of the communication and intervention strategies we employ. We are all in this together.
Cathal Walsh is a former school principal. He is an education consultant and co-founder of SKILLZ Canada Martial Arts with locations in Victoria, Langford, Duncan, Ladysmith & Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. You can contact Cathal or by email at Cathal.Walsh@icloud.com or follow on twitter @CathalPWalsh.