10 May 2009

Adult Communities and School Bullies

A few years ago while I was the soccer coach at one American high school I was doing a technology project at another. The two districts were next to each other. One was a fairly wealthy and very small district with a reputation for great results on state achievement tests. The other was a much more diverse and much larger district with a middling reputation.

What I noticed, walking the corridors of both, was something very different. I noticed a radical difference in social and especially bullying behaviors.

Twitter can often get me thinking, and @nsharoff did this recently posting thoughts on her readings on school bullying. I responded to her thoughts by suggesting that perhaps the biggest impact on bullying behavior is created by the environment built by the adults who work in and surround the school. That is, the teachers, administrators, and parents.

And I said this because of what I saw in these two schools.

The bigger, poorer, less acclaimed high school was the far safer environment for kids perceived as "different." And this has no connection to size, or wealth, or academic achievement in my observed world. I've been in terrible big schools, and great small ones. Great diverse schools and awful diverse schools.

So, what makes the difference?

First, yes, environmental control. Better schools control stress environments better. Schools that are "safe" always have faculty in the corridors when kids are. Not just there, but "actively there," engaging the kids around them. Schools that are "safe" often also control noise, carpeted corridors seem really important, so that the din does not build its own chaos. They also often have natural light, and fewer student traffic "choke points" - those narrow doorways and stairwells which create chaotic physical places. In this case the big school had something else wonderful - a full 10 minutes between classes - which made the whole class changing experience a "safe time," rather than a desperate rush. And one more thing, the big school had its cafeteria at its core. Rather than being "off somewhere" everyone moved through this space, which was bordered by the office (the principal's office actually looked down on the cafeteria from the second floor), and the library. All of this meant that adults were far more engaged with students at leisure, and that students were far less stressed.

The small school had none of this. No carpets in the hallways which were lighted with buzzing and flashing old fluorescents, no teachers in the corridors either. A cafeteria hidden at the far end, far from everything, and many tight choke points that produced insanity on the stairs.

Still, none of that mattered most - at least in what I observed.

Now, this being the American Midwest, both schools had enormous football stadiums and very large gymnasiums, and both strongly celebrated their varsity athletics. But there were huge differences. The school which was "safe" also had a dramatic "performing arts center" and a huge library, these features held equal status architecturally with the sports facilities. The "unsafe" school had a small hidden library and no space at all for its acclaimed music and drama programs to perform (they usually did so off campus).

In the "unsafe" school only three of the district's many sports were celebrated - Boy's football and basketball and girl's volleyball. Before every one of those games parents would come into school and decorate lockers and there were frequent school time pep rallies. In the "safe" school every athlete pretty much got the same treatment, wrestling, soccer, the golf team. And there were also pep events (usually in the cafeteria during lunch periods) for the band, the Odyssey of the Mind team, Science Olympiad, etc.

I can't tell you that equal crowds watched boy's football and girl's soccer at either school, but I will tell you that at the "safe" school the principal and many teachers attended almost every sports event, and came to the OM competition as well.

In four years of coaching boy's soccer the principal at the "unsafe" school was at one half of one game. No one came to the Odyssey of the Mind event (I coached a team there as well). Teachers avoided "minor sports" events as well.

These might seem like small things, but they are not. Adolescents pick up their social clues not just from their peers, but heavily from the adult environment which surrounds them. In one school the adult message was all about social hierarchy: the district began this in Kindergarten when photos of those boys on the youth football teams and those girls on the youth cheerleading squads were put up in the primary school's entrance. And it reinforced the message constantly that some students were more prized than others. In the other school a very wide range of accomplishment was celebrated at every age level, and this was made very clear at the high school level.

Adults, when speaking of bullying, love to discuss peer pressure and child and adolescent communities. In my view this is much like those running America's educational system choosing to blame teachers, students, and parents - it is blame shifting - away from those who create the matrix - to those who must live within it.

Bullying behavior among those of school age is based on children reading - accurately - the adult world around them. If the President of the U.S. gets to bully smaller nations which he dislikes, if adult bosses are allowed to bully employees, if people on adult reality shows are celebrated for their role as bullies, kids imitate those behaviors.

And if the community of adults surrounding a school declares that certain students are more valued, more prized, than others, a template for bullying has been formed.

It is a fascinating observation that in a survey of bullying in Toronto students noted that they were twice as likely to be bullied in a supervised school situation as they were in unsupervised locales. That survey also noted that the further into the school year the students traveled, the less likely either other students or adults were to intervene. In other words, school seems to encourage bullying, and to develop an acceptance of bullying.

Of course. Education-as-we-know-it is about building hierarchies - among athletes, with grading, via teacher preferences, according to inherited wealth and parental power. When schools rank students, schools create unbalanced power relationships among students, and unbalanced power relationships are the cornerstone of bullying.

Making safe schools for all is not the work of children. It is the work of adults. And the most effective way to limit bullying among students is for adults to build a world which does not model that behavior.

- Ira Socol


Anita Strang said...

Thanks, I have never thought much about how much a school's physical environment impacts how we relate to each other. The part about bullying that has been bothering me for quite a while is the way teachers are complicit in it. If, under the guise of discipline, a teacher says something unthinking and cruel to a child in the presence of peers, he/she is modeling bullying. How then can we be surprised when students bully each other. In our workplaces we expect that if our 'superiors' have a complaint against us they will speak to us respectfully and in private. Kids deserve the same consideration. As you said, we must model the behaviour we expect of our students.

HomerTheBrave said...

No one likes to consider that their own shortcomings cause children to be violent.

Thus, no one considers it. :-)

v said...

in addition to bullying and cruelty being modeled in the adult world for kids, many adults just don't think kids are deserving of the same protections they get. If someone burns me with a hot glue gun on purpose, i can call the police. if it happens to my student, a few pictures are taken, out of school suspension for a couple days, and that's it. i think the problem is way over the head of the administration, but they pretend everything is ok, in my opinion, because they are afraid of being replaced. i get involved with every bully incident my kids tell me about. i call parents to tell them to come to the school to complain themselves. i tell them to document and to know that it is the school's responsibility to foster a safe environment at the school (these are immigrant parents, so a lot of times they think they have no rights). but really the kids see what happens to the bullies (and they usually aren't the 'valued' kids, neither are my kids the 'valued' kids). the bullies get a few days vacation from the school and then bully again. so the kids usually don't want to complain because they feel the school doesn't know how to stop it. my husband was a bully. it had more to do with the powerful feeling he got when doing it then getting revenge. he would bully any and everybody. i don't think it had anything to do with the school environment. it had to do with his manifestation of tourette syndrome. he was highly aggressive. the adults in the school kicked him out- he came right back. at that time (not in the US), he even could control adults because of their fear of gangs, which his brothers were in. there has to be some rule of law, or 'might makes right'.

Cheri said...

Excellent post! I have thought for a long time that the way the schools are run and by whom has a direct impact on how the children learn to socialize. My mother and second grade teacher hated each other and I paid the price - 8 full years of being bullied by the most valued students.

The question is, how to we change things. Every time I have suggested to parents that what happens in school is harmful to society as a whole, I get the reply "it was good enough for me!" All teachers need to know more about psychology and sociaology in regards to child development than they do, but that costs money.

How do we make it better?

CarlD said...

This seems right, and I especially like your observations about the students' stress levels. Blame-shifting also rings true. But along those lines let's not forget that students come to school with some relevant habits and strategies. In my experience bullies tend to be people who are habituated to high-stress environments and therefore manufacture conflictual / chaotic environments in which they enjoy an advantage or at least familiarity. The active presence of adults then acts like damping rods in a nuclear reactor for these radioactive kids, while also modeling a different interactive matrix just as you say.

v said...

bullying is fun for bullies. bottom line. the great equalizer isn't the gun- it's the court system:


The Goldfish said...

Something today reminded me about this post by Andrea from last July, which touches on similar subjects.

Jessica Partin said...

I have two children who I have had to take out of the local public school because of bullying not only by the students but the teachers and principal as well. This school is out of control. The children who "run" this school have full control over the staff and all other students. The sad thing is that this is an elementary school. The worst bully in the school is only ten years old. Why does she have the power she has? Her mother donates money to the school that's why. I'm pretty sure it's drug money at that. There have been many many parents who have begged for help from the principal, board of ed, and even the state dept of ed. Nothing happens. It all gets swept under the rug and innored. The children of the parents who complain then get bullied by the teachers and principal as well as by the children. Parents have given up. They don't know what else to do. Their kids are miserable because their parents aren't fortunate enough to be able to put them in private school or drive them to a different school. I don't send my kids there anymore, but I would still love to be able to help the other kids and their parents. I don't know who to ask for help in this situation. If anyone knows what I can do to help please email me at madsmurf2000@yahoo.com.

Jessica said...

The public school in my area is "run" by a few kids who's parents have extra money to donate to the school. These kids have total control over the other students. Many many parents have tried to get help from the principal, Board of Ed, even the State Board of Ed, to try to put a stop to the bullying in this school, but nothing ever gets done. It just gets swept under the rug and ignored. Most parents tell me that the bullying got worse after they complained and that the principal and other staff even started bullying their kids. I have two children who I've taken out of the school because of the bullies and because the school refused to do anything to protect them. Most parents don't have the option to send their kids to another school and they have given up trying to get help with the situation and so their kids are just having to deal with it. Although my kids don't go there anymore, I would still like to find a way to help the other parents. If anyone has any sugestions on what we can do please email me at madsmurf2000@yahoo.com