Reducing Bullying by Creating Community
By Jill Jenkins
All human beings have a basic need to belong, but children and adolescents feel this need even more keenly than do adult. Teachers and administrators can create a strong community in their schools and reduce bullying at the same time by creating a sense of community. To create the feeling of belonging administrators must encourage faculty and staff to work together as a team. Students in each classroom must not only know the names of other students, but must feel comfortable working together. Older students in a school must know younger students and feel a sense of compassion and caring for the younger students. The younger students need to look up to the older students and respect them. Parents need to feel that school is a comfortable place and that the teachers are working in conjunction with them to provide the best education possible. The administration needs to establish relationships with local businesses that might provide needed resources for the school. The school should become the center of the social and intellectual development for the community.
To create a feeling of belonging between faculty and staff, it is important for the administrators to have an open-door policy where teachers feel free to share problems with students or parents and the administrator helps solve those problems. When the doors of communication close, administrators can be blind-sided by a small miscommunication between parent and teacher and has expanded to a huge legal problem that is not easily resolved. On the other hand, it is also important for the administrator to be aware of faculty and/or staff who are not doing their job. A school is only as strong as its weakest link. If an employee is not performing, it can create a great deal of strife between the staff trying to compensate for the incompetent one. Therefore, it is important to know what is happening in the school and handle any problems quickly and discretely.
Teachers need to create a sense of community in their classrooms. This can be done by using a variety of interactive activities involving all of the students. Have students work in groups comprised of students from different social groups: small group discussions pair/share and group created projects. Getting to know each other in these varied activities makes classrooms more inclusive and less exclusive. When I was teaching in San Bernardino, I taught a debate class comprised of students from different ethnic groups, economic groups and social groups. One exercise that I often used to improve the students’ ability to listen and develop arguments quickly was we sat in circle and I would present a discussion topic. Students had a few minutes to develop arguments both pro and con. Then I would call on a student and tell him which side of the issue he was to speak. That student presented a two minute impromptu speech. When his time was out, I would call on a second student and ask him to first paraphrase what the first student said to that student’s satisfaction and then he was to present a two minute opposing speech forcing students to actually listen to each other. This continued until every student had an opportunity to speak. After we completed one day’s activities, a young man who considered himself a Neo-Nazi turned to a Black student and said, “I would never have guessed that you and I could have a discussion together. “ The two became friends by the end of the year. Today many applications allow students to work together even if they reside distances from each other. The program, Google docs, allows students to collaborate on essays together and Google Presentation allows students to create slide presentations from different locations. Open communication and working together builds bridges.
In many schools, older students bully younger student so it is important to help older students to develop a sense of compassion and caring for the younger students. To alleviate some of the tensions between grades, one seventh grade remedial reading teacher asked if my ninth grade honors English class could tutor her students during our advisory class. The students both seventh and ninth grade loved the interaction and the seventh grade student improved their academic skills and the ninth grade students felt compassion and felt they had to protect those students from bullies. In my daughter’s former school, they created families with one student from each grade (Kindergarten through 8th grade) in each “family.” During their advisory time, they met together. The older students helped the younger ones and read them stories. The students shared Valentine’s and gifts for holidays and they bonded just like a family. These social connections reduced bulling and help students feel a sense of belonging.
Parents need to feel connected to their child’s education if their child is going to do well academically. To do this, teachers need to reach out to reluctant parents, provide frequent interactions with all parents and provide transparency and resources to parents. If you do this parents will become more effective allies, students attendance and performance will improve and teachers will be rewarded with better test scores. I have heard teacher complain that the parents of honors classes are helicopter parents that put a lot of pressure on schools to provide adequate education for their child. This is precisely why their children are in honors classes. Students who feel that their parents expect them to do well in school and who actively participate in their child’s education perform better in school. So, how do we get all parents that involved? One principal tells me she not only has her teachers invite parents to parent-teacher conference who are struggling, but if the student improves 10% or more a congratulatory letter and phone call is sent to the parent with a special invite to parent-teacher conferences. Teachers need to improve communication with parents. When I was an elementary student, my older brother would not bring his homework home always claiming that he had none. My mother’s solution was to send me to his teacher and retrieve the homework daily. It was embarrassing for me, but it improved my brother’s academic standing. Not all students have a younger sibling to handle that chore. One way is to create a website with calendar listing all of the assignments for every day of the month. If you use Google Calendar or Google Sites, a calendar is easy to create and update. Make sure you provide links to electronic copies of assignments and worksheets. Students often forget the resources they need to complete their work, so include lists and resources so parents can help students complete their assignments in a timely manner. If your parents use cell phones, you might want to use Remind101. It is an application especially designed for teachers that allows teachers to send reminders to their students and parents about upcoming assignments and tests. The parents will get a text message reminder and they can persuade their children into completing their work. Send emails and call parents when students need help or better yet to praise a student’s accomplishments. Send post cards home to parents letting them know when their son or daughter has been successful. The better you get to know your students’ parents and guardians, the more they will feel like part of the community. Involving parents in decision making committees and supervision of activities will also increase their sense of community. When my daughter attended elementary school, parents were required to donate 100 hours of volunteer time per year. I spent my time coaching volleyball giving me an opportunity to work with students and staff and develop a sense of community. The more involved your parents are the more likely they are to support the school’s agenda.
Finally the principal and teachers need to establish connections with local businesses. For example, one year the Language Arts-Reading Department decided to give each student who achieved his/her Accelerated Reading Goal a “Live Strong” bracelet. We hoped to reward them for reading and to help them develop a sense of compassion for people in our community who had cancer. My sister worked for a local car-dealership and the owner was a cancer patient. As his grandchildren attended our school, he was connected more directly to our program. I approached him through my sister and asked him if he could donate the money to purchase the “Live Strong” bracelets. He was more than happy to do it. His generosity bought him some promotion and helped us promote reading with our students. Making connections with local business can be a valuable asset for any school
People perform better in an environment where they feel they belong. Helping students, parents, faculty and staff feel connected and appreciated is a great way to reduce bullying. Connecting with local businesses can help the school provide useful resources to students that local school districts could not afford. Students who feel they do not belong often have a higher absenteeism rate making it difficult for them to succeed academically. Parents who do not feel comfortable with teachers and staff often don’t provide the emotional support their students need to succeed at school. Creating a warm, caring environment is everyone’s responsibility and everyone wins. Transparency and frequent interaction will increase everyone’s sense of ownership.