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Preventing Bullying and Creating Equity

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Caltha Crowe is a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher and author of How to Bullyproof Your Classroom, Solving Thorny Behaviors Problems, and Sammy and His Behavior Problems. Before the pandemic, she volunteered at New Horizons, a multicultural and multilingual parent cooperative preschool whose motto is “Playgrounds without borders.” We wanted to draw on her experience and knowledge of creating positive school climate as a preventative to bullying and how that also translates to helping teachers create equity and inclusion in environments with diverse student populations.

We know that a positive school climate is protective against bullying and the microaggressions that lead to bullying. How can we make sure that the climate in our schools and classrooms is positive for all children?

Crowe: In order to prevent bullying we need a climate that honors, includes, and protects all children.

Our schools include children who come from many cultures. The physical environment of the classroom can communicate either “You belong here” or “This classroom is not for you.” Pictures on the walls, books in the book bins, music that fills the room, and a teacher’s language all need to say “You are welcome here. You are an important part of this community.”

Learning groups can be equally inclusive. This happens when all children’s voices are heard. There is a place for each child’s cultural practices. It’s okay for children to look away if that’s what they’ve been taught at home. It’s okay for students to sometimes use their first language. Thus each child belongs in the classroom community.

Bullying is behavior that says “We are ‘in’ and you are ‘out.’” If the classroom climate recognizes and nurtures some but not all of the children in the class, the message to the children who are recognized is that the classroom is theirs. They are being told that it’s okay to exclude, taunt, and attack children who are not highlighted in the classroom environment.

It is the teacher’s job to create a climate that reflects all students and to make sure that they understand that their job is to include and be kind to all. It’s the teacher’s job to watch out for and stop microaggressions that say “You don’t belong.”

What gaps or differences might exist in the social and emotional development of different groups of students? How do these impact discipline and potentially set up an environment or an opportunity for bullying? What can teachers do to mitigate this?

Crowe: There are so many reasons why a child’s life experiences, the culture that they’ve been raised in, and who they are can lead them to particular behaviors and actions that might suggest “inequity” to an educator.

A high percentage of our students live with anxiety disorders, sensory sensitivities, and physical challenges. These may lead a child to get too close to others or need more distance and may lead to hair-trigger explosive behavior. Classmates may think, “They’re different,” and thus respond with bullying behavior. We educators can help students move toward greater self-control and help them learn to proactively manage both explosive behaviors and bullying behaviors. It is our job to maintain a respectful environment.

Some students may have identities that do not align with mainstream cultural expectations. For example, some children live with gender-nonconforming identities. Children whose clothing, mannerisms, and behavior are gender nonconforming may be bullied. It is our job as educators to respect and honor each child’s identity and to teach and expect the same from all of our students.

Children who have recently arrived in the United States from a war-torn country will often perceive the world around them as one that is about to attack. Thus, they behave in ways that seem aggressive and highly reactive and are ready to retaliate against small, even accidental, incidents. These same behaviors can emerge when children live in situations that involve drug abuse, heavy drinking, gangs, and other hostile situations. Educators need to respond with respect and care. Our responses need to indicate “You are safe here.”

Even the warmest home environment may play a role as well. For example, children of Deaf parents get their attention by tapping them. Then those children arrive at school and do the same to their teacher who can hear. We educators need to respond with understanding and acceptance. Classmates watch our responses and follow our model.

Children who care for younger siblings, prepare meals, and are in charge of the household while the adult members of their families are at work are used to taking responsibility. They react with surprise and defensiveness when their teacher tries to order and control their lives. If we respond in kind, classmates will watch and conclude that bullying is the correct approach to these classmates. If we respond with respect and understanding, classmates will match our approach.

We support our students when we treat them with respect and understanding. We can focus on each child’s strengths and be ready to give all children leadership roles. When classmates see others as “different” or “weak” or, worst of all, “bad,” they can be quick to bully. When classmates see their teacher respond in ways that seem annoyed or irritated, they follow their teacher’s example. When their teachers are respectful to all, students are respectful as well.

In order to prevent bullying, we need to create a climate where all are honored.

How has COVID-19 impacted inequities across all domains?

Crowe: COVID-19 has revealed so many existing inequities. Underpaid essential workers are exposed to the coronavirus as others are not. Many of these essential workers are people of color and recent immigrants, groups whose death rates from COVID-19 are the highest in our country. Here in Colorado the meatpacking plants, primarily staffed by immigrants, have the majority of COVID-19 deaths.

Meanwhile, there are many children who had counted on meals served at school who are now going without. Children’s lives are impacted in multiple ways through no fault of their own.

Inequities affect online learning. There are families who have Internet service to receive virtual education but there are also families with fewer resources, often unable to receive ongoing lessons due to lack of Internet connections in rural areas and lack of access to digital devices. Some parents are able to remain at home or to work from home and tutor their children. But then there are parents who are working in the above-mentioned essential jobs and others who are not able to remain home and tutor their children.

Children with more resources have more opportunities for learning in the virtual environment.

What steps can teachers and administrators take to close the equity gap, both under these new circumstances and when schools return to face-to-face learning?

Crowe: Teachers and administrators are already doing so much. There are towns in Colorado where restaurants are receiving funds from the local school district to prepare food for children and their families, to replace the meals that children had previously received at school.

Teachers are giving of themselves to make sure that their students have learning materials. A Responsive Classroom consulting teacher I know in New York City put herself at risk to take laptop computers and other learning materials to subway stations where she had arranged to meet her students’ parents and transfer the needed materials.

Educators have put in long days working with their students via distance learning. They devote time to planning thoroughly in the new medium of virtual teaching and learning. If a student does not attend virtual school, teachers contact the family and follow up, often at night after adults in the family return home. Many educators work from early morning until they go to sleep at night in order to meet the needs of their students.

Probably most important, though, is that educators are making virtual school fun, engaging, and community-based. They plan active and thoughtful lessons. They keep the classroom community alive and lively with daily Morning Meetings and closing circles.

Educators also bring their students’ families into the school community as they plan and implement family meetings where all join in from their homes. As families join the classroom, teachers understand the children’s community and culture more deeply. The classroom becomes one community with all children treating each other with friendliness and inclusion.

These are ways of connecting with students and their families that can continue to benefit students and educators alike when school resumes in person.

How do we extend social action to classrooms in developmentally appropriate ways? How do we support students and teachers in acknowledging bias and moving from bystanders to upstanders?

Crowe: It’s important that educators and their students learn more about the many cultures that children represent in their schools and classrooms. These practices will build empathy for all. For a clear example of a joyous and inclusive school, take a look at the children’s picture book All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman. It depicts an actual elementary school and will inspire you.

Children can share the music of their culture with their classmates. They can use art to share their life experiences. Perhaps you’re been able to see one of The Lost Boys of Sudan art exhibitions that so movingly depict children’s experiences escaping death in their villages during a civil war. The reality of a child’s life during war is clearly communicated by these images created by refugee children.

Drama is another tool to teach about the true history of the social groups that are included in school and in our country. Children can put on plays about indigenous people, about important black leaders, about the struggle for the vote on the part of disenfranchised people, whether people of color or women. Thus students learn how people have asserted themselves to make our country more inclusive and open to all.

Children need the opportunity to learn about their own culture. On the Rosebud Lakota reservation in South Dakota, children learn the Lakota language in school. Their morning messages are in Lakota. They learn about their people’s past. Seventh graders at the historic He Dog School travel to Pennsylvania to feel the deep spiritual memories of the Carlisle Indian School—a place of great oppression and trauma.

Children learn how to work together to understand and preserve their heritage.

Children can learn to act on perceived injustices. I once taught in an urban school where the second-grade girls mounted a successful campaign to be allowed to go to the cafeteria and pick up the milk at lunchtime, a privilege previously reserved for the second-grade boys.

Another time-honored way of taking age-appropriate direct action in school is to have older children care for, tutor, and connect with younger ones. Whether older children practice conversation with children who are new to our country, listen to early readers read, or practice math with them, the combination of mentoring and skill-building is important for everyone. Older children are learning the skill of responsibility toward the school community.

Cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control are core skills of Responsive Classroom. They are also core skills that can lead to social action and turn bystanders to upstanders. Children can learn to cooperate so that they can work together for results. They can learn to assert themselves for equity. They can learn to take responsibility for our world. They can learn empathy toward their classmates. It is possible for children to learn how to work together to build a more cooperative, respectful, and just world.

Over 95% of principals in this survey believe that social and emotional skills are teachable in school and they are committed to developing SEL skills in their students. Are YOU?

Why graphic novels and picture books?

The combination of pictures and text is a powerful way to engage the imagination, to tell a relatable story, and to convey emotions and feelings in a visually impactful way.

Looking for effective discipline practices?

Learn more about the Responsive Classroom approach to positive discipline.

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