It’s fitting that the last day of a bullying prevention conference focusing on empathy, kindness and resilience happened to be Election Day 2016. Whether or not they were thinking about it, some 750 educators, students, researchers and practitioners together capped off possibly the most divisive, indecent, relationally challenged presidential election season in our history by modeling and discussing what will start the healing.
Participants heard, said and demonstrated that – though we all know there’s plenty more work to do – bullying and other forms of social cruelty among youth are far from common and are being actively replaced, by youth, with positive, pro-social action. It was a theme reinforced by presentations from academic researchers to student activists. Another theme was a desire expressed in a number of sessions to focus more on the positive in the public discussion about young people’s sociality – or at least to strike a better balance.
“It’s important to understand that we adults tend to over-focus on the negative. Kids are actually trying to help the best they can,” said researchers Lisa Jones, Kimberly Mitchell and Heather Turner from University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC).
Here are some other highlights from the International Bullying Prevention Association’s 2016 conference:
- Kid President cited. “If we’re all on the same team, let’s start acting like it. We’ve got work to do…. You were made to be awesome,” he said in a YouTube video shown by professor, researcher and author Sameer Hinduja in his closing keynote – a 3.5 min. video that, as of this writing, has been viewed 39.3 million times.
- Wellbeing from the inside out: The opening keynote speaker, educational psychologist and author Michele Borba, touched on this. Safety and social-emotional wellbeing work from the inside out as well as the other way around; they don’t just come from parents or schools – from external conditions. Empathy is both a safeguard from anti-social behavior and essential to social success. It’s “the ability to feel with someone,” Dr. Borba said. Sympathy is outside in; empathy works from the inside out, she said. “It’s how we can mobilize our kids’ pro-social behaviors. It mobilizes their courage” so they can support peers being targeted, stand up to negativity and defuse cruel social situations. Telling them not to bully doesn’t inspire, much less mobilize, people. In his keynote, Dr. Hinduja suggested that “Teaching students about the harmful effects of bullying could promote a victimization complex, and constantly focusing on the negative paints a bleak picture.”
- Resilience, another key internal safeguard (see this), was the focus of Professor Hinduja’s closing keynote. It’s what helps young people bounce back from social-emotional cruelty, and “every individual is hard-wired for self-righting,” he told us. But kids can’t develop resilience without exposure to and opportunities to deal with negative situations. Hinduja questioned over-protectiveness. If nothing socially or emotionally bad ever happens to them, “will kids later expect society to provide the same protection when they grow up?” he asked, making a point very similar to that of EU Kids Online in a 2013 paper on “online resilience.” “Risk and resilience go hand-in-hand,” those researchers wrote (see this). Not that we create adversity for our children, but if we try to remove all negativity from their social lives, how can they figure out how to cope with, bounce back from or navigate their way out of negative social situations? Hinduja’s research found that the ability to learn and feel safe was much lower in students with low resilience. They were also less likely to reach out and help others who were being harassed.
Most are upstanders. By far. A whopping 83% of student bystanders reach out to help the victim, the CCRC researchers told us.
- An upstander’s own story. You could call them “compassion activists,” because it’s the goal of the members of Bayfield High School’s FOR Club to spread compassion in their town of Bayfield, Colo., as well as their school. Going into her freshman year, one member found out she’d made varsity volleyball. “It should’ve been the best day of my life. But someone didn’t like it and created a really mean Instagram account about me.” It was pretty devastating for her but the FOR Club members found out and stepped in. “By the end of the night I had so many people behind me.” She later found out that it was the club members’ goal to post 1,000 compliments on that mean page. “That’s why I joined FOR Club because I didn’t want anyone else to feel the way I felt that day.” Throughout the year, the club’s some 40 members mentor 4th and 5th graders on how to model and spread kindness, form one-on-one partnerships with special ed students, organize kindness campaigns and competitions like “Dude, Be Nice Week,” and have fun committing spontaneous random acts of kindness in and out of school (here’s a YouTube video they created to illustrate).
- A “caring mindset.” Sometimes, when the role models and environments around a child model unkindness, empathy, which is something humans are born with, can be unlearned, Dr. Borba said. She told the story of high school student Ryan, who was “constantly bullying” other kids. He’d unlearned his native empathy because he’d been taught it was “cool to be cruel.” So a wise educator decided Ryan needed to become the 16-year-old best friend of 5-year-old Noah. That was his assignment. The teacher gave him a few up-front “pointers on emotional literacy.” And she role-played it. He resisted being nice, but “research says it takes a minimum of 21 days” of practice to get good at just about anything, including a caring mindset, so they stuck with it. “In around three weeks, Ryan’s heart opened up,” Borba told us. “He developed a caring mindset because he now, for the first time in his life, knew from experience that he could do something good for someone else.” As for Noah, the 5-year-old pulled the teacher aside and said, “I knew he could do it.”
- Moral identity. As in identifying with the “we” in “this is the way we do things, here” (our school, our family, etc.). It’s another of what Borba calls the “9 essential habits” of empathy she describes in her book UnSelfie. Bayfield High School’s FOR Club fosters that identification at their school. They told us that the best way to change a school culture and create a culture of compassion is to make it clear that “bullying just isn’t the way we do things here.” Author Bruce Feiler discussed in the New York Times how it helps children feel stronger, safer and more confident if parents cultivate “a strong family narrative” (see this). A close cousin of moral identity is self-knowledge. Both keynoter Carlotta Walls-Laprier of The Little Rock Nine and Emily Lindin of The Unslut Project told participants at IBPA 2015 about how knowing who they were helped them through traumatic ordeals in their teen years (see this).
- Widening their caring circles. Borba gave the example of an extraordinary summer camp in Otisville, Maine. Founder and former Middle East war correspondent John Wallach decided that adults weren’t getting anywhere with peace, so he’d help young people sow it. He started Seeds of Peace Camp, bringing together teens from Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, the U.S. and U.K. who had been chosen by their teachers as “outstanding leaders.” They were given the simple goal of making just one friend from “the other side” in three weeks – those 21 days mentioned above. They practiced peace in canoes, at meals, in bunkrooms, etc., and they would talk about restorative justice, peace, etc. twice a day. “The University of Chicago has been tracking these kids for years, and many of them are now leaders in their countries,” Borba told us.
- Quiet upstandership: Upstanders are what bullying prevention experts want to help turn bystanders into. Peers can be a powerful solution to bullying and harassment when they stand up to negative behaviors. But upstanding doesn’t have to be public and high-profile to have great impact. It can be daunting to a shy but empathetic student to call out cruel behavior in public, and that’s not the only option. The Youth Voice Project that talked with students nationwide about their own experiences as victims, aggressors and bystanders heard victims say that just being heard – really listened to, one-on-one, especially by peers – helped them a lot. You could call this quiet upstandership (see this). Borba shared a simple acronym for it: “HEART.” It stands for “Help,” “Empathize,” “Assist,” “Reassure” and “Tell feelings.” All of these can be done in private, one-on-one.
- Take-home for educators: “We do think new technology might be making things harder for educators [in terms of school discipline], but the dynamics are not new – they have been around forever,” the CCRC researchers said in presenting their research. “You can reassure yourselves that what needs to be addressed is the social relationships. It takes emotional skills to make a difference in these cases. It’s not always easy to resolve them but these are issues we’ve all been working on for a long time.” It’s a thread I’ve seen running through so many academic studies about youth and digital media. Even when the behavior appears on screens, what we’re addressing is much more about their (and our) humanity than about technology. Never easy, but we’ve all been dealing with anti-social behavior since the beginning of human time.
- Mixed (online and offline) bullying: “Treating cyberbullying and traditional bullying as separate is misleading and not representative of how youth experience these problems,” said the CCRC researchers. Young people find mixed (in person and in media) harassment most distressing. “Tech-only harassment was less common and not particularly upsetting for youth relative to other types of harassment,” the researchers said. They added, we “want to be careful about assuming it was technology that was the distressing piece.” Mixed harassment “seems to involve more personal animosity toward victims and as a result it may have been hurtful in meaningful ways that we were not able to measure.” For more on this study, see my post on it last year.
- The online civility imperative. Microsoft unveiled at IBPA some results of research it’s conducting in 14 countries. Surveying parents and 13-17 year-olds in those countries, it has found that both adults and teens say they “became less trusting of others in the real world after a negative interaction online…. On a positive note,” the Microsoft representative added, 29% of adults and 25% of teens said “they tried to be more constructive in their criticism of others after a negative online situation.” The finding underscores that, in today’s very user-driven media, we all have work to do to increase trust and respect online.
- Social-emotional learning works. This is what we’re hearing more and more, from researchers as well as risk prevention experts: SEL is the major part of bullying prevention. Both the CCRC researchers and the authors of the National Academies report featured at IBPA said schools should consider SEL prevention programs because, as the CCRC researchers put it, SEL “protects students from a lot of different kinds of victimization.” The researchers also agree that restorative practices need to replace punitive approaches – see this page for more on restorative practices. Please see my post about the National Academies study released last May.
- Seek & spread good news. About real kids, Borba said in her keynote. Kids aren’t getting enough credit. She spoke of best friends Tyler and Ian in the 5th grade in San Marcos, Calif. When Ian was admitted into the hospital for cancer treatment, Tyler was the first one at his side. “We’re going to get through this together,” Tyler said. Ian wasn’t that worried about the chemo. He was worried about losing his hair and what other kids would think of him. Tyler said, “Don’t worry about it. We will be bald together,” then “went home and started making phone calls,” Borba said. By 4:30 that afternoon, every boy in their class had shaved his head in solidarity. “They called themselves ‘the bald eagles’.”
- Allow them agency. That’s the power to act, to “be the change” they want to see online and in school. They will help us create positive school cultures when we stop seeing them as merely potential victims (or perpetrators), acknowledge their powers for good, teach them the social literacy skills they need to exercise those powers, and partner with them to create change. “Kids all over the world are copying what Tyler did,” Borba said, and what the Bayfield High School students are doing every day for their peers and community. Dr. Hinduja reinforced this in his keynote….
- “The big-picture goals” Hinduja proposed in his keynote are not merely safety or literacy. Those will happen along the way, as we foster these in our students: Social competence (responsiveness, communication, empathy/caring, compassion); Problem-solving (planning, flexibility, resourcefulness, critical thinking, insight); Autonomy/agency (positive identity, internal locus of control/initiative, self-efficacy/mastery, adaptive distancing and resistance, self-awareness/mindfulness, humor); Sense of purpose (goal direction/achievement, motivation, special interests/creativity, optimism/hope/faith/spirituality/sense of meaning); and Transcend ethnicity, culture, gender.
And that’s just a sampler of what was seen, heard and learned at IBPA 2016, the conference about “bullying prevention through empathy and kindness.”
- My posts on IBPA 2015, 2014; and 2011
- Home page of The Youth Voice Project and similarly youth-sourced research in Europe about young people’s online issues, “In Their Own Words”
- More on agency, digital citizenship’s missing piece
- My posts on the Crimes Against Children Research Center’s influential research into online harassment, digital citizenship, sexting, and online safety
- On the National Academies’ major update on bullying and cyberbullying this year
- Balancing external safety “tools” with internal ones