Prevent Peer Cruelty and Promote KindnessTHOMAS LICKONA
Schools have no higher moral obligation to students and their parents than to do everything in their power to prevent peer cruelty and create a culture of kindness and respect.
"The school's most powerful moral influence," observes psychologist and character educator Marvin Berkowitz, "is the way people treat each other." In many schools, most of the adults are making a conscientious effort to treat students with love and respect. But in those same schools, even schools that are ostensibly committed to character education, kids are often devastatingly cruel to each other.
When peer cruelty goes unchecked, it's a very serious problem for many reasons. The school is sending the message that the law of the jungle rules. This threatening atmosphere interferes with learning; students won't be focused on schoolwork if they're worried about getting cut down in their classroom, harassed in the hallway, ostracized at recess, or bullied on the bus. Cruelty at the hands of their schoolmates deprives them of what every child needs: the experience of being accepted and valued by peers. Peer rejection, one study found, is more likely to cause a child to leave school than academic difficulties.2
Students who persecute peers are not only hurting others; they are also deforming their own character. By age 24, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, 60% of students who bully will have a criminal conviction.
For students who are regularly subjected to abuse by peers, school is a miserable experience. After graduating from his suburban high school, a boy wrote the following letter to his principal:
Some students who are subjected to this kind of tormenting do carry out their desire for revenge. A 2000 study of school shootings by the U.S. Secret Service found that two-thirds of the shooters had felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others.
Other victims of peer cruelty become at risk for suicide. A mother says:
One 8th grade girl who did kill herself left this note to her parents: "All my life I have been teased. I love you very much, but I just couldn't stand it anymore."
Peer cruelty, of course, has always been with us, but research shows it's on the rise.4 In recent years, anti-bullying programs have proliferated – a reflection of the problem.
Much more pervasive than classical bullying (a stronger child picking on a weaker victim) are the everyday emotional cruelties – teasing, taunts, gossiping, rumor-spreading, and exclusion. In a nationwide survey of nearly 70,000 students in grades 6-12, only 37% said "students in my school show respect for one another."5 The problem facing a great many schools is now a general peer culture where disrespect and meanness have become the norm.
Schools have no higher moral obligation to students and their parents than to do everything in their power to prevent peer cruelty and create a culture of kindness and respect. There is no more important measure of the effectiveness of a character education program than its progress toward this goal.
1. Begin with character-based discipline
The first strategy in preventing peer cruelty is character-based discipline (Chapter 7). All of the discipline strategies that help kids develop respect for rules and the rights of others will help to curb bullying.
An essential part of character-based discipline is enforcement that holds students accountable to rules through fair and firm consequences. With bullies, behavior contracts have often proved helpful (e.g., "I will not hit or hurt anyone – if I do, I will have to call my parents and report what I did").
2. Create a caring school community
The second strategy must be the creation of a caring school community in which all students feel a sense of security and belonging.
It's possible to measure the extent to which a caring school community exists. This can be done through a survey that asks students and staff to indicate their agreement or disagreement, on a 5-point scale, with statements such as: "People in this school care about each other," and "Students in this school help each other, even if they are not friends."6 Using such an instrument to investigate six diverse school districts in different regions of the country, one study found a clear pattern: The stronger a school's sense of community, the more likely it was that students showed positive attitudinal and character outcomes:
Schools seeking to strengthen their sense of community should consider using an available survey (see Chapter 11) to get baseline data at the beginning of their effort and then repeat the survey later to assess their progress.
3. Implement an effective anti-bullying program
Many schools have taken the further step of implementing a schoolwide anti-bullying program.
Schools pursuing this strategy should take care to select a program that is evidence-based. In 1999, a committee of educational researchers examined more than 500 programs ostensibly designed to prevent violence and found only four school-based programs with proven effectiveness.7
Perhaps the best known of the effective approaches is the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program designed by Norway psychologist Dan Olweus. Implemented over the past 20 years in Norway's elementary and junior high schools, this program has: (1) reduced bullying by 50% or more; (2) significantly reduced general anti-social behavior such as vandalism, fighting, and stealing; and (3) improved classroom climate and students' satisfaction with school life.
Now used in a growing number of U.S. schools, the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program has four major components:
For more information on the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, Life Skills Training, Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS), and The Incredible Years, visit www.colorado.edu/cspv/blueprints/model/overview.html.
4. Get students to take responsibility for stopping peer cruelty
Bullies gain power when there is a tolerance for their behavior. An estimated 85% of bullying occurs with other students watching. Bystanders often passively observe or aggravate the problem by cheering the bully on or even joining in.
A Canadian study found that if even one student spoke up to express disapproval of a bullying incident, the bully typically stopped within ten seconds.8 Our challenge as educators is to create a school culture in which most students hold the belief that they should do something to try to stop any cruelty they observe.
Some schools have had success in promoting peer intervention by recruiting an anti-bullying team of students at each grade level. These teams then work with a teacher or counselor to brainstorm and carry out strategies for reducing peer cruelty. Team members subsequently step in on behalf of victims. Says a high school senior in Clarksburg, West Virginia: "We don't yell at the kids picking on someone – we just say, 'Hey, man, that's not a cool thing to do.'"
In Erie, Pennsylvania, The Ophelia Project (www.opheliaproject.org) focuses on "relational aggression," including all the behind-the-back ways kids are mean to each other. The project trains high school students as mentors who go into middle and elementary school classrooms and lead discussions: "What do girls do when they want to be mean to each other? Let's make a list. Okay, what do boys do?" Then the high school mentors role-play common scenarios depicting the aggressor, the victim, and the kids in the middle. Sample situation: Someone is mad at Kelly and tries to get all of Kelly's friends mad at her, too.
The goal of the role-plays: to demonstrate to students how the kids in the middle have the power to influence the group dynamics in a positive way. "The message we want to get across," says Ophelia Project founder Susan Wellman, "is that what bystanders do makes a significant difference."
5. Build classroom community
A central strategy in preventing peer cruelty is to create a strong sense of community in every classroom.
That begins with helping students get to know their classmates. A seat lottery – changing kids' seats on a regular basis – is a simple way to do that. A mother remembers with gratitude how her 6th grade teacher used this strategy:
Halfway through my 6th grade year, we moved. I dreaded going into my new school in the middle of the year. But every week the teacher assigned us a new seat by lottery. I got to know a lot of other kids in a short time and was able to make friends. There was a very comfortable atmosphere in that class.
Marty Kaminsky, a 4th grade teacher in Ithaca, New York, describes how he uses the ritual of "morning meeting" to create and renew the sense of community in his room:
The first day of school and every day thereafter I sit down with my students and conduct a morning meeting. For at least 15 minutes, we share the birth of kittens, the loss of a tooth, anxiety about an upcoming move. We sing songs. We celebrate individual accomplishments. Through our morning meeting we are saying to every child, "You are part of us. You are welcome here."
Morning Meetings, a publication of the Responsive Classroom (www.responsiveclassroom.org), is a rich source of greeting rituals and other activities for this start-of-the-day time.
6. Foster friendship
As psychologist Michael Thompson points out, students can handle social cruelty if they have one friend. An estimated 20% of children, however, are at risk of having no friends.
Wise teachers therefore take deliberate steps to foster friendship in their classrooms. Beverly Oakley, a 2 nd-grade teacher at Long Island's South Hampton Elementary School, reads several books on friendship at the start of each school year. And every day, for five minutes immediately after recess, she has her students circle up for "Friendship Time."
"Since I started Friendship Time," Oakley says, "I almost never get complaints about behavior during recess – 'he did this, she said that.' And if someone tells me about a friendship problem they're having – such as a friend who isn't playing with them – I'll say, 'Let's talk about that at Friendship Time.'"
7. Do "anonymous compliments"
Mark Twain once said, "I can live for two months on one good compliment." Rick Mansfield, a 5th grade teacher in Merrick, New York, keeps the compliments flowing in his classroom through his weekly "Anonymous Compliments" activity.
Comments Mansfield: "This activity takes almost no time but does a great deal to create a positive classroom climate. And because a compliment is anonymous – anyone in the classroom could have written it – there's a generalized good feeling toward classmates."
8. Implement quality cooperative learning
Cooperative learning has students work in 2s, 3s, or 4s on a task that requires interdependent learning (each student has a job to do) and individual accountability (each must demonstrate mastery of the material by taking a test or turning in a paper or project). Dozens of studies show that cooperative learning contributes to both academic achievement and character development, including perspective-taking, team skills, the appreciation of differences, and the integration of all students into the classroom community.
However, to have these benefits, cooperative learning has to be designed well. Many adults have negative memories of "group work" where some kids got a free ride, a bossy student took over, and the teacher gave a group grade (not a good idea) that penalized students who had done higher-quality work than their teammates.
Quality cooperative learning requires that the teacher and students: (1) identify the behaviors that bring about effective cooperation; and (2) continually monitor and assess how effectively pairs or groups are working together. For example, Betty House and her 5th grade students in Ithaca, New York, developed the following chart to guide their cooperative learning:
We work best together when:
Students are most likely to grow in their cooperative skills if the teacher reviews such a list before every cooperative activity and then asks students after the activity to use the list to evaluate how well they worked together.
9. Teach empathy through children's lilterature
Peer cruelty – especially toward kids who are "different" – almost always reflects a lack of empathy. Children's literature that depicts cruelty and the suffering it causes is a valuable tool for fostering empathy.
Eleanor Estes's The Hundred Dresses (Harcourt Brace, 1944), Lauren Mills's The Rag Coat, Mary Wright's Who Belongs Here?, and Taro Yashima's Crow Boy are four picture books on this theme that can be used effectively with kids of all ages. See also Character Education Through Story: K-6 Lessons to Build Character through Multicultural Literature (www.CharacterEducation.com.)
I was recently working in an elementary school where children's unkind treatment of each other was the staff's top concern, as it so often is. I read The Hundred Dresses to several 4th, 5th and 6th grade classes and conducted circle discussions with each group.
The book tells the story of Wanda Petronski, a poor, quiet girl who always wears the same faded blue dress to school. She has no friends. The other girls, led by the popular Peggy, constantly tease Wanda about her one dress. Finally, one day Wanda blurts out, "I have a hundred dresses home – all different colors!" After that, the girls' teasing becomes merciless. Maddie – Peggy's best friend – wishes she and the others would stop picking on Wanda but doesn't have the courage to say anything.
The time comes for the annual art contest conducted each spring by their teacher. On the day the winner is to be announced, the children enter their classroom amazed to see 100 beautiful drawings of dresses – each different – displayed on the walls. They were all drawn by Wanda, the teacher explains, but she is not present to receive the first prize. The teacher then reads a letter from Wanda's father:
In every class I read this story to, the children listened intently. You could tell it hit home. I asked, "How many of you have ever been left out or made fun of at school?" Most of the hands went up. I asked, "How many of you have ever taken part in making fun of another kid or excluding them because they're different in some way?" Most students either looked down or slowly raised their hands.
As the discussion progressed, I asked them to think about Maddie, the girl in the story who felt sorry for Wanda but did nothing. After Wanda moved away, Maddie had a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. She felt like a coward. I said, "What are some ways Maddie could have helped Wanda? Suppose she wanted to be friendly toward Wanda but still stay friends with Peggy – how might she have done that?" In each class, students came up with good ideas.
Then I said: "Suppose you see someone in your class or school being treated badly – made fun of or left out. Maybe that's happening right now to someone you know. What are some things you could do to help?" We made a list on the board. I asked each student to write down one thing they would try to do – and I asked the teacher of each class to make time the next week for the children to write about whether they followed through on their intentions.
10. Have children with disabilities teach their peers
In developing empathy, there is no substitute for face-to-face experience. First-hand experience is especially valuable in helping kids understand and support schoolmates who have disabilities.
Kathleen Scanlon is the school nurse at Frederick Leighton Elementary School (Oswego, New York). She helps disabled children talk to their classmates about their disabilities and how they cope with them. She explains:
With a parent present, I'll meet with the child and ask, "What would you like to share with the class? How would you like to share it? What don't you want to share?" One 4th grade boy had spina bifida and didn't want to tell that he had a catheter because of bladder control difficulty. One 3rd grade girl had epilepsy and was worried that someday kids would see her having a seizure – and did want to talk to them about that. Having the child be part of the planning is key. Sometimes they decide to read something to the class about their disability or to tell a personal story. Sometimes they'll do part of the presentation, and I'll do part.
Says Scanlon: "I've had students come back to me when they're in junior high and high school and thank me for the opportunity to do this and for asking them how they wanted to do it."
11. Use the 7 E's to teach caring
There are 7 E's of teaching any virtue:
Jan Gorman, a 1st grade teacher at Meachem Elementary School (Syracuse, New York), illustrates how to implement the 7 E's. She starts the school year by teaching a virtue a week, beginning with caring. On the board she has a large sign, CARING, along with a photograph of two children working together.
She gathers the students in a circle and elicits their thoughts about the following questions on the board:
She makes a visual web of the children's responses, which remain posted in the front of the room.
She then reads a picture book that illustrates the theme of caring. She often begins with Peter Golenbock's Teammates, the story of how Brooklyn Dodgers captain Pee Wee Reese stood by Jackie Robinson when Jackie faced racism, even from some of his teammates, for being the first black man to play major league baseball. After the story, she conducts a discussion, asking: "Who in the story showed caring? Who did not show caring?"
Then she says, "I want you to remember this story and to try to show caring toward each other during the rest of the day." When a child behaves in caring way, she compliments that child, sometimes calling the class's attention to a thoughtful act. If a child behaves in an inconsiderate or unkind way, she will speak to the student privately: "Did that behavior show caring? Remember our story . . . remember our discussion."
On each subsequent day of the week, she reads a different story about caring, followed by another class discussion. She repeats her challenge to children to act in a caring way in their own interactions, and again looks for opportunities to comment on their behavior.
"By the end of the week," she says – after five such stories and discussions – "caring has been established as an expectation in my classroom." Her children have been immersed in this virtue. It has become part of the classroom culture. During the following week, she repeats this process with a different virtue.
12. Use the power of a pledge
A pledge, especially if it's repeated daily as a classroom ritual, can build classroom community and strengthen students' commitment to doing the right thing.
The "Children's Diversity Pledge" is an example of a pledge that helps students value the differences that enrich human community. The pledge teaches that we should all try to find the good in other people, just as we want them to find the good in us.Children's Diversity Pledge
13. Have kids keep a good deeds journal
One of the best ways to inhibit a negative behavior is to develop a positive habit that is its psychological opposite. It's hard to be mean to other people, for example, if you set out each day to perform acts of kindness.
Acting on that insight, St. Rocco Catholic School (Providence, Rhode Island), winner of a Blue Ribbon Award from the U.S. Department of Education, has its students keep a daily Good Deeds Journal. At the start of each day, students write in their Journal a good deed they did the day before in school, at home, or in the community.
In all subjects, teachers make a connection to the good deeds theme. In language arts, the teacher might comment on a good deed performed by a character in a story; in social studies, on a good deed performed by someone in the news. Students learn that a good deed can be anything that contributes to another person's happiness – something as simple as a smile.
A girl comments: "I like the Good Deeds Journal because it helps me to be more aware of helping others. I can even see an improvement in my friends because they are trying to be more courteous and kind to each other." A St. Rocco's parent says: "My children now readily shovel snow for our elderly neighbor without expecting or accepting money in return. They are also more sensitive about social issues when watching TV."
14. Celebrate kindness
We celebrate what we value. Classrooms and schools that care about kindness find ways to recognize and honor it.
For example, Donna Funk, a special education teacher in Cortland, New York, gives each of her students a "LOOK WHAT I DID TODAY" page. To recognize positive actions she gives kids stickers (1"x 3"rectangles, each with a graphic, that she makes on her computer and prints out on adhesive label paper). Students put these stickers on their page so they can see at the day's end all the good things they did. Sample stickers: "I shared with someone," "I gave a compliment," "I listened to someone," "I let someone else go first," "I said excuse me," "I calmed myself down," "I was a good friend." Funk comments:
15. Have peers recognize peers
When students recognize each other for acts of character, virtue has a better chance of becoming a peer norm rather than something kids do just to please adults.
One 3rd grade teacher often ends the day with a 2-3 minute class meeting in which she asks, "Who has a good word for someone today?" On the board she has a list of character words: kind, caring, hard-working, determined, fair, generous, and so on. A student might say, "Sara was kind to me when she gave me some of her paper." Or, "Steve was determined to solve the math problem he got stuck on."
Many schools make a schoolwide effort to involve students in noticing other kids and adults performing "Acts of Character." Students write the act and the person's name on a printed form (placed everywhere in the building) and drop it in a box. As part of the morning announcements, students take turns drawing three or four forms from the box and reading what those persons did. Forms not drawn are sent to classroom teachers so they can pass them on to the students whose positive actions were reported.
16. Use a class meeting to discuss bullying
Despite a school's proactive efforts to prevent peer cruelty, some children will still engage in hurtful behavior and will need additional help in learning to act in a prosocial manner. The class meeting – in which the offending child can hear peers say what behaviors they like and dislike – is often more effective than teacher correction alone.
Peter Sullivan, a 2nd grade teacher in central New York, had a student he believed was in the beginning stages of becoming a bully. Charles came from an unhappy home environment. He showed little respect for others' rights or feelings. He consistently invaded the personal space of other students and often grabbed or pushed to get what he wanted.
Teacher Sullivan describes how he used a class meeting to address this problem:
17. Build bonds through buddy classes
Many schools develop a caring community by using "buddy classes"to create nurturing relationships between big kids and little kids. These go a long way toward making the school feel like a family.
For example, a 5th grade class might buddy up with a 3rd grade class, a 3rd grade class with a kindergarten, and so on. Older students help their younger buddies with schoolwork and do special projects together. Sometimes the older kids read to their younger buddies and sit with them during assemblies.
Says principal Bob Storrier, who uses buddies extensively at Enders Road Elementary (Manlius, New York): "These relationships give the older children a sense of responsibility and the younger ones a sense of security."
18. Create "school families"
St. Rita's K-8 Catholic School (Dayton, Ohio) groups its students in "families," one child from each grade (they say they got the idea from a public school). A 7th and 8th grade boy and girl serve as the "parents" and are actually called "Mom"and "Dad" by the younger children.
At the start of the school year, these family groups spend much of the first three days together in games and other activities that build bonds. During the rest of the year, the family groups come together for regular events (in a public school this might be weekly assemblies) and for special occasions such as holidays.
Principal Maryann Reismann comments:
19. Implement advisory groups
At the middle school level, friendship and inclusion are more important than ever. Therefore it's very important for schools to provide structures which ensure that no student gets left out.
Advisory groups are one good way to make sure every student has a home base. Advisories typically consist of an advisor and 8 to 12 students. Some advisories meet every day before school or during lunch; some meet less often. The advisory can address school issues, share good news, plan group activities (e.g., a field trip), discuss an educational TV series they're all watching or a book they're all reading, or talk about current events. Advisory provides every student with two things crucial for young adolescents: (1) a supportive peer group, and (2) an adult who knows and cares about the student as an individual.
A middle school advisory group also helps parents stay connected to the school at a time when parents' school involvement typically declines. The advisor usually has several scheduled meetings with the parent during the school year, is available for other meetings as needed, sends the report card home, and generally keeps parents updated about their child's academic progress and any problems.
Some middle schools tried an advisory system but dropped it when staff or students complained it wasn't working. A better solution: Conduct a survey of both staff and students, asking: "What do you like about advisory, and what would you change to make it better?" If middle schools don't have something like advisory that meets every student's need for inclusion, many students will look for intimacy and identity in gangs, drugs, or premature sex. Others will suffer a painful loneliness.
A recent publication with activities for advisory groups is Sarah Sadlow's Advisor/Advisee Character Education (www.CharacterEducation.com). For information on a well-designed advisory system that has evolved over three decades, contact Shoreham-Wading River Middle School (contact info to be added).
20. Create a safe and respectful school bus
How can a school promote respectful and responsible behavior on the school bus, which for many children has become a ride in terror?
Lynn Lisy-Macan describes how she tackled this challenge when she was principal of Brookside Elementary School (Binghamton, New York), a 1998 National School of Character:
The peer culture is a powerful teacher. If schools do not take proactive steps to shape a positive peer culture, the worst in human nature will often prevail. By contrast, when schools take deliberate steps to create a caring community, students can learn morality by living it every day. In such a community, virtues are not abstract words on a wall but emotional realities felt in the heart and experienced in relationships. And by placing respect and caring at the center of its moral life, the school meets the deep human need to belong. It becomes what every school ought to be: a place where respect and kindness are normative, where exceptions to that are treated as a very serious matter, and where every student feels valued, safe, and significant.
Other recommended resources: the March 2003 issue of Educational Leadership, devoted to "Creating Caring Schools," and the 2002 report Safe and Sound: An Educational Leader's Guide to Evidence-Based Social and Emotional Learning Programs ( www.casel.org ). See also www.peacebuilders.com
Thomas Lickona "Prevent Peer Cruelty and Promote Kindness." Chapter 9 in Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues (New York: Touchstone, 2004).
Reprinted with permission of Thomas Lickona.
Thomas Lickona is a developmental psychologist and professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland. He is the author of Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues and the Christopher Award-winning book Educating for Character. He has also written Raising Good Children and co-authored Sex, Love and You. Thomas Lickona is the founder and director of the Center for the 4th and 5th Rs (Respect & Responsibility). He is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
Copyright © 2004 Thomas Lickona
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.