School Climate: The Antidote To The Bullying Epidemic

September 17 2013


Steven Covey taught us many years ago to “begin with the end in mind”, and that’s a great place to start a discussion on school climate.  If what we want from our schools is to have them develop and “produce” students who are capable, connected and contributing citizens, then school climate must be the foundation from which we begin.

If the events of the past 14 years (post Columbine Tragedy), have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t lock tragedy out, we can’t legislate bullying away and we cannot punish our children in to being kind.  What we can do is understand the developmental needs of young people through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and insure that our schools take those needs into account when they develop their safe school climate plans.

For far too many students, school is a place where they don’t feel safe, emotionally or physically. And as a result, they often get “stuck” on the safety step on Maslow’s hierarchy. When that happens, students are distracted, worried and therefore less likely to attend school every day and less likely to participate in their studies with a focused and ready to learn attitude.

Researchers have found that the most effective way to address the pervasive bullying virus that is impacting so many young people is by strengthening the school climate. This means that school board members, superintendents, district administrators and building leaders must champion school climate improvement by allocating and directing the necessary resources – time, funding and staffing, to ensure that all students feel safe, welcome and included on their campuses.

Improving school climate is all about putting people first and recognizing the power of relationships. It’s about adults taking the time to be “hall friendly” and committing to be mentors and role models to the students they work with. It’s about viewing young people not as consumers and problems, but rather as contributors and problem solvers. It’s about schools providing more opportunities for students to participate in leadership and decision-making on a daily basis. It’s about instituting policies and practices that are more restorative and less punitive, thereby reducing discipline incidents and cutting back on suspensions.

Simply said, the antidote to bullying is to change the conditions in the school that allow it to exist. The virus cannot grow and thrive in an environment where the majority of people are invested in looking out for one another, and perceive it as their responsibility to speak up when they encounter intolerance and injustice.

To do that, schools must make addressing the social and emotional developmental needs of all students a number one priority. Research by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning holds the promise that an investment in climate would lead to increased school connectedness and improved achievement. When school climate is seen as valuable as academic performance, discipline issues decrease and test scores go up.

Change must start with us; as adults we must lead the way. Our children are watching and they are waiting for us to “be the change we wish to see in the world”.

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