#SELChat: From Bullying to Building

We need to send the right messages to our students

by Tamara Fyke

As educators and parents, our hope is that schools provide a safe and nurturing environment that inspires lifelong learning. However, from our own experience, we know that growing up isn’t easy. Given the increase in childhood trauma and tenuous nature of societal stability, many of us adults acknowledge that being a kid today is more complicated than it was for our generation. We didn’t have cell phones and social media. We didn’t see mass school shootings in headline news, nor did we have TV shows like 13 Reasons Why that chronicled a girl’s suicide.

Aware of the impact of modeling, I believe that the bullying experienced in schools reflects that displayed in media, and vice versa. One feeds the other and perpetuates the cycle. What can we do to change the current dialogue?

Firstly, we need to send the right messages to our students. Positive youth development theory directs us to focus on building relationships and competencies in order to move kids from risk to resiliency. Resiliency is defined as the ability to bounce back despite adversity. With this in mind, we must shift our focus from bullying to building. We can build students’ competencies, build relationships with them, and maintain a positive outlook toward students’ well-rounded development. Competencies are skills or assets – things the child has going for him/her. Relationships include the various dyads and triads of relationship between child-self, child-peer, child-family, child-school, and child-family-school.

brain heart scale balanceSecondly, as caring adults – educators, parents, and youth leaders – we must have the necessary conversations with our kids. That means there is an exchange of thoughts and words, not a monologue from the adult. Kids need to know that they are not alone. By assuring them that we are on their side, we become a safe place for them to share their ideas, questions, and concerns.

When we think about the stages of moving kids from risk to resiliency, and the character traits that can help them, success, self-awareness, self-control, and kindness are a few that become relevant and urgent. The following tips provide a starting point for sparking meaningful conversations with students and shifting the focus to “building”:

1.) Self-Awareness

Definition: Self-awareness is knowing your strengths and weaknesses; being able to know and understand how you feel.

Tip: Ask, “How is your heart today?” Typically, this question is disarming. Give students a moment to reflect on what is going on inside. Have them journal or share aloud once a safe and secure environment has been established. Institute regular heart checks.

2.) Self-Control

Definition: Self-control is managing your feelings, attitudes, and actions.

Tip: Remind students that it is okay to feel how they feel. However, they do not need to let their feelings be the boss of what they do and say. During neutral time, talk about and practice strategies for dealing with strong emotions, such as deep breathing, peace corners, and journaling.  

3.) Kindness

Definition: Kindness is treating others the way you want to be treated.  

Tip: Empower students to change the culture and climate of their school. Ask them to share their ideas about what needs to be different. Provide coaching and support, but let them take the lead. Real and lasting change begins with them.

A focus on building looks at the assets―the strengths―each of our children has, rather than deficits. When we keep the conversation on terms such as “bullying,” we run the risk of labeling kids; of defining them as “bullies,” rather than focusing on a growth mindset and approach toward building upon their talents, interests, and unique qualities. Let’s leave labeling behind and instead choose to focus on love.

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