The Most Effective Way to Change School Climate: Student Engagement

October 11 2016


  • Rick Phillips, Founder, Community Matters
    Rick Phillips
    Founder, Community Matters
  • William Grace Frost, Former Director of Strategic Relations, Community Matters
    William Grace Frost
    Former Director of Strategic Relations, Community Matters

We know we can’t legislate civility nor can we punish children into being more tolerant. The only viable solution to the spread of the bullying virus on school campuses today is to change the social norms that allow it to occur. When school norms change from meanness and indifference to kindness and compassion, that’s when disciplinary incidents and suspensions begin to decrease and students can get back to focusing on learning.

We know that in more than 85% of bullying situations, there are witnesses. However, more often than not, the witnesses or bystanders do not say or do anything. The effect of their silence is “deafening”, because silence is a form of consent. Consent emboldens the bully who perceives the silence of others as tacit approval of their actions and permission to continue.

Dr. Stuart Twemlow, respected author and bullying expert, recommends bystander education as the most effective strategy for improving and strengthening the social-emotional climate available to schools today.

How? Wake up the courage of students and adults, and equip them with the skills to safely and effectively speak up when they encounter an incident of bullying, cyber-bullying or other mean-spirited behavior.

Empowering students with the confidence and competence to intervene in these situations also makes sense because we know that:

  • Students see, hear and know things that adults don’t;
  • They’re usually on the scene of an incident long before adults even know about it;
  • They can influence one another, positively or negatively, in ways that adults can’t;
  • They’re the ones that establish the social norms on campus.

When student leaders speak up, they interrupt, de-escalate and often stop incidents from becoming offenses. We hear from many administrators that their school climate and culture is greatly improved, and that the number of fights, suspensions and other negative behaviors are reduced significantly after implementing student empowerment programs like Safe School Ambassadors®.

Young people are powerful, but far too often adults don’t recognize their capacity to be peacemakers and change agents. Seeing a young person who has been “awakened” and is choosing to speak up is both inspirational, and effective.

We remain grateful and hopeful that so many of you support “waking up the courage” of young people to stand up and speak up, to make a difference in the lives of many and to become the leaders of tomorrow we wish them to be.

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