A Collaborative Approach to Addressing Bullying

03/21/2011  |  STEPHEN GOULD, Ed.D

Bullying is universal, prevalent in most countries, and not a new problem. In spite of a media frenzy, there is no definitive evidence that bullying is on the rise. Nevertheless, it is a problem to be taken seriously and just one incident of bullying is one too many.


Bullying should never be accepted as just a “normal” part of schooling. In a democratic society, schools must be committed to social justice and helping all students from all families achieve at high levels. When a culture of bullying and violence is tolerated, the entire school community is distracted from doing the work of schools.

When problems arise in schools and the discussion is fueled by the media, it is common for policy makers to issue mandates or for school leaders and teachers to implement quick fix, one size fits all programs. Mandates pushed down from those farthest from the learner are often met with resistance from educators. At best, these mandates often result in a paper exercise followed by a flurry of compliance activities that become ends in themselves, rather than the means to addressing the problem.

The only way to significantly diminish bullying in schools and violence in our society is through the implementation of a comprehensive, school and district wide social curriculum that is woven into the daily fabric of school life.

Mandates can make parents and the public feel good, for a time, because something is being done. The reality is they rarely sustain improvement. And most bullying programs simply do not work.

Bullying cannot be treated using a band-aid approach. Bullying, as well as other forms of violence in schools, cannot be addressed in isolation — they are symptomatic and part of a much larger problem of human living that are simply not consistent with the values of a democratic society. In order to address the issue, we need to develop a broader perspective.

Bullying is a learned behavior with a myriad of suspects for blame. Violent video games, television and media, and the mean-spirited nature of comedy, have all been named as culprits. A lack of tolerance, racism, homophobia, polarizing political rhetoric and the aggressive and brutal language used in our public discourse are contributing to the problem. Inappropriate language from parents at home, to discipline or criticize, could find its way into the tool sets of bullies. The fact that children and young adolescents often feel insecure and lack self-esteem is likely an important role.

Given these factors and others, children and young adolescents often bully to gain peer status. In other instances, in order to “fit in” they tacitly observe bullying, go along to get along, reinforce the bullying behavior of peers by joining in, or seek out affiliation with bullies. Students may also bully because they do not know how to interact positively, or lack the problem-solving skills to resolve a disagreement.

But the behaviors associated with safe school environments — where students can learn in an environment without bullying behaviors — are also learned behaviors. Schools can, and should, serve as democracy’s workshop where students learn the power of self-control; how to become more self-directed; how to be good citizens; and how to respect, include and get along with others.

The only way to significantly diminish bullying in schools and violence in our society is through the implementation of a comprehensive, school and district wide social curriculum that is woven into the daily fabric of school life. The effective social curriculum is fully entwined with the academic curriculum, and ultimately serves to enhance academic goals.

In addition to helping create respectful, inclusive and safe environments, integrating both curricula underscores the importance of meeting both the social and academic needs of students. The integration of the social and academic curriculum improves student discipline and the culture of the school.

The social curriculum helps students take responsibility for their own behavior. It simultaneously teaches students the academic and interactive social skills necessary to be successful in schools and in the future. It helps teachers be in the moment and counteracts the practice of “pressing on” academically at the expense of taking advantage of “teachable moments” to problem solve issues of learning and human living.

The social curriculum should help students learn how to collaborate, communicate, think critically, problem solve, interact positively, be civil to one another, and cultivate the capacity of students to sympathize with the lot of others. It should also provide opportunities for discussing the role of citizens in a democratic society, understanding and respecting diversity and differences, interacting cross culturally, and learning how to leverage differences so that they lead to the production of new ideas and innovation. All of these elements include addressing the need of students to “fit in,” helping children and adolescents learn how to resist the impulse or pressure to bully, as well as discuss the code of silence that prevents students from doing the right thing for fear of being excluded.

The development and implementation of a comprehensive, integrated, school and district wide social curriculum will need to be a collaborative effort. The person best positioned to lead school improvement efforts is the school principal, who needs to gain the support of the superintendent and involve students, teachers and parents in a collaborative planning process.

School leaders need to lead whole school community meetings with students, teachers and parents to reinforce expectations for behavior, articulate what is not acceptable, describe the characteristics of supportive school cultures, address the code of silence, and discuss the role of citizens in a democratic society. They need to help teachers be better able to create a sense of community and set expectations for behavior in classrooms, in hallways and on the playground. They need to provide professional learning opportunities that help teachers reconfigure classrooms so that learning is more self-directed. They also need to help teachers develop the necessary teaching and learning interventions in classrooms as well as contract with outside agencies to provide more intensive interventions for those students with greater social needs.

School leaders need to engage parents by first providing a welcoming environment, opportunities for two way communication, input and feedback, and establishing guidelines for working together as well as developing a parent education program so that parents are better able to reinforce the social, interactive values of the school at home. At whole school meetings they need to celebrate the achievements of students, teachers and parents who have contributed to making the school a more respectful, inclusive and safe place for all.

Integrating the social curriculum with the academic curriculum won’t be an easy sell. In this high stakes testing environment school leaders and teachers already feel overburdened, and it will be difficult for those educators who feel they will have to give up academic time in order to address social issues. Furthermore, it will be difficult for many parents to support schools that devote time to addressing social issues when they feel that their school is not serving their students well academically, or if the school has been designated by the state as underperforming.

Whether schools change, or continue to do business as usual. is dependent upon the degree to which school leaders and faculty have the will and skill to reflect, collaboratively plan and use a systems thinking approach to implementing a comprehensive, whole school and district wide, integrated, social curriculum.

It will also depend on the extent to which parents, superintendents, policymakers and university schools of education increase their efforts to help and support school leaders and teachers in the development and implementation of an integrated social curriculum that emphasizes social justice and underscores the values of a democratic society.

Dr. Stephen Gould is Program Director of Educational Leadership, a PhD Program offered through the National Center for Teachers, Counselors and School Leaders at Lesley University (http://lesley.edu). Prior to joining Lesley, Gould served for 30 years as a teacher, principal and assistant superintendent of schools.
Comments & Ratings

  6/6/2013 9:55:17 AM

New Comment 
If you keep the population healthy and physically active, we would not have these discussions. Our education system gives individuals the right to do nothing at an early age; subsequently, resulting in weak minded citizens. Better role models are needed in the classrooms and in the media.
  4/14/2011 8:48:33 AM
Sharon Zimmerman 

Board Member - Greater Boston PFLAG 
This is an approach that will bring results. This is hard work but as a society we can not allow kids to be hurt and to hurt themselves because they feel like they don't belong. School leaders need to be courageous, think systemically and implement their plans. Teachers need to be committed to taking opportunities in the classroom to address the tenets of a civil society head on. Parents need to be role models and community institutions need to collaborate with school and support anti bullying community education programs. As Dr. Gould says a social curriculum needs to be woven into the daily fabric of school life. This article should be required reading for school leaders as they are mandated to develop anti bullying programs!
  4/1/2011 6:35:25 AM
Hetty van Gurp 

President, Peaceful Schools International 
Thank you for this insightful article. It is a refreshing alternative to the "get tough" solutions that are so often touted as the way to address this insidious problem.