Banishing bullying; tackling the negatives with positive reinforcement
Teasing, while unpleasant, is the sort of activity that stops when the perpetrator realizes that the target is hurt. Bullying is something else altogether—done deliberately to hurt another’s feelings—and is very damaging.
The distinction between the two is one of the things that the Eldred Central School District (ECS) has been working to raise awareness of through ongoing efforts to reduce bullying and encourage positive behaviors instead. At the least, bullying behavior causes pain and suffering, hurts self esteem and more. In extreme circumstances, it can lead to death when the target chooses suicide as a desperate response to escaping the torment.
According to ECS principal Scott Krebs, efforts to encourage more positive behaviors at the high school have been underway for several years. One recent measure to continue educating students on the issue was a presentation on bullying from Sullivan County District Attorney Jim Farrell (see sidebar on TRR’s website for more). Another measure involved bringing bullying expert and author Barbara Coloroso to ECS recently for a presentation to students, staff and parents.
Changing behaviors isn’t an immediate process. “It’s an ongoing learning experience for the kids,” said Krebs. “Their behaviors change in relation to the environment they’re in. If you’re in a family that yells a lot, you just think that’s normal. If you’re exposed to a lot of profanity, you’ll be more inclined to use profanity. It takes time to change behavior.”
An important aspect of the ECS strategy is to target behavioral change from its youngest students on up. To do so, the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program was established several years ago. The program stresses three key points—being safe, responsible and respectful—and encourages students to think about the impacts of their behavior.
PBIS chairperson Mary Gordon heads up a team of staff members responsible for implementing the program and others within the overall PBIS umbrella, including Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS), which teaches kids a variety of skills and coping techniques that encourage them to solve problems responsibly and with compassion for the feelings of others.
“PBIS teaches the children the rules for the school in a positive way,” said Gordon. “The committee has set up matrixes of rules that apply to specific areas of the school, such as hallways, where they walk in single file using appropriate voice levels. It’s done with positive phrasing, to encourage good behavior.”
Voice modulation is one way that the children can make empowering choices and see noticeable results. Rules are in place that teach voice modulation in a simple number-based format—one is silence, two is a whisper, three is a soft voice, four and five are regular and outdoor voices.
Students are asked to be silent in hallways, for example, so as not to disturb the learning process for other students. “We are teaching it all the time, especially in places like the cafeteria and the gym, which can get really noisy,” said Gordon. “The kids really get it, and they take it home. Parents have told us that they use it at home and that reinforces it.”
Such behavior is acknowledged with certificates known as Good News Referrals (GNR), which highlight the positive behaviors that the student has exhibited. The certificates are phrased in a way that reinforces what they are being taught and the school has set a goal to make sure that every child receives at least one good news referral by the end of the year.
“We want them to understand that they followed the rules and can feel good about themselves and their place in the school and community,” said school social worker Sharon Schroeder. “It’s also good for their classmates when they follow the rules.”
Staff members are now involved in integrating bullying initiatives with the PBIS program, with Coloroso’s guidance. “We’re trying to take the bullying concept and put it into PBIS language for our children to understand,” said Gordon. “We have the language down throughout the school, and that was a process that took several years because it involved not just the teachers, but also bus drivers, cafeteria people, the entire staff using the PBIS language consistently. Now we want to use that in ways that can describe and assist with the bullying.”
Another aspect receiving attention is the role of bystanders. “We’re doing a lot of work in getting kids to recognize their role as bystanders and how important it is to report incidents of bullying to an adult,” said Schroeder. “We’re teaching the difference between tattling and reporting, as well as how not to be targets of bullying and what to do if they are.”
Since Coloroso’s visit, a group of staff members at the elementary school went to each classroom to continue related discussions. Corporal Cheryl Crumley from the Sullivan County sheriff’s department, ECS superintendent Robert Dufour and school principal Kathryn Ryan visited classes and joined the discussions with the children.
Coloroso will return in November for more work with students and staff. Visit www.kidsareworthit.com for information on her work.