The Systems Approach

headshotbw1If there is one thing that the relatively recent and intense focus on school bullying has taught us, it is the need for a systems approach. The best way to reduce mean behavior is to improve peer relations throughout a school, and to do so everyone must be engaged. The problem should be measured and discussed, policies made clear, and skills taught. Getting everyone on the same page—students, teachers, administrators and parents—is essential.  The days of approaching bullying as simply a problem between a “bad kid” and a “victim” are over. We now know that for change to occur, the school community must be involved.

Having said this, the truth is that SYSTEMS ARE HARD TO CHANGE!  I learned this firsthand while counseling children in a private practice. The family dynamic often undoes a young client’s progress. Sometimes the very parent who brings their son or daughter into therapy seeking change undermines the child’s growth. So, unless the whole family is on board, kids make some progress, then “snap back” into old familiar patterns. Old habits, even when they are negative, are comfortable. Change can be scary. And sometimes people form their personal identity as a reaction to the system:

“She’s the black sheep; I’m the little angel.” (or vice versa)

“My son has so many problems; I’m the tortured parent.”

“He is weak; I am his protector.” (“If he gets stronger, who will I be?”)

Sometimes, family members have a vested interest in their child or sibling continuing a problem behavior, whether they know it or not.

The same kind of  “snapping back” can happen at schools. All schools have policies and rules to prevent bullying. No matter how wonderful the message, however, the trick is getting it to “stick.”

If a child effectively learns to employ the WALK-TALK-SQUAWK technique to deal with mean behavior, but is told by a parent to “never walk away from a fight” or “stand their ground,” then chances are the technique will be lost.

If a student makes a mean joke in class and everyone laughs, lessons about empathy will be cancelled by the positive feedback given by his peers.

And if children are lectured about spreading rumors but hear a teacher criticizing a colleague behind her back, modeled behavior will trump the lesson.

As a result, the most exquisitely researched and crafted anti-bullying policy will have little effect if parents, students and teachers are not on board. In my experience as an assembly provider, students and teachers are the most easily engaged and receive our message enthusiastically. Hundreds of letters, emails, and evaluations tell me that our concepts are grasped, the kids use them, and they work. However, as a believer in systems, I always wonder about the third corner of the triangle that we rarely see—the parents.

Parental support of concepts such as empathy, bystander skills, and assertiveness is crucial to students becoming good bystanders and kind classmates. Asking their child about bullying behavior at school and listening without getting angry is an important skill. Undermining anti-bullying messages with “old school” advice about fighting back and being a “tattletale” should be avoided.

So how do we get the parents on board? Parent nights are an excellent tool. After hosting some poorly attended evening programs restricted to adults, I have learned that the best format is an evening program for students and parents on the night of the assembly.  The kids are told to “come back tonight” with their parents (with the promise of more magic tricks) at the conclusion of our program. The show is a delicate balance between entertainment and helpful tips for Mom and Dad. Audiences are large and the message is spread. But not every school can afford another program due to scheduling or economic restraints.

A regular newsletter column that includes active bystander skills for students and parents to discuss can help engage caregivers. And, of course, the school website can convey the message using words, pictures and even video.

One of my goals this summer was to develop a “parent packet” to go home with students following our assemblies. It will contain a summary of skills that their child has learned in addition to parenting tips. The trick has been limiting the material and keeping it concise, to cut down on photocopying and to provide a version that can be made available via the web. I am excited about providing a new dimension to our service. I hope that it will be effective in helping our message to “stick” by spreading it throughout the “system.”

Remember, most students never try to hurt anyone. When they as the majority are given skills and guidance, the school culture can assume a new tone. Others will fall in step. If parents support the school’s message, teachers model warmth and kindness, and student bystanders greet mean jokes with silence, then aggressors will adjust to the cues of the system: one that values empathy, assertiveness, and respect.

My Best,

Paul

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