Accepting Responsibility for Bullying
Research continuously shows us that bullying has its roots in adult behavior: Children and youth replicate the actions and words they see and hear in their environments. If not parents, then teachers; if not teachers, then television—somewhere, somehow, young people learn they can use intimidation to get other people to do things. Despite the temptation to say otherwise, not just "bad" adults perpetuate bullying. Almost every single one of us has relied on intimidation to get a student to do something, and that behavior is at the heart of bullying.
Adults have routinely disrespected students in schools for years. Treated as less than adults, teachers rarely take the experiences, opinions, ideas, and actions of young people seriously. These expressions constitute student voice, and that explains why student voice is rarely included in planning, teaching, evaluating, or decision making throughout schools. Sure, it is relatively easy for adults to hand over school dances, classroom fundraisers, and other student-focused activities to young people, but when it comes to matters of curriculum making, school improvement, or teaching hiring and firing, students are not seen as having valid roles as partners in schools. Excluding students from the decisions that affect them most teaches them they are of lesser value than adults; this awareness, however unconscious, allows them to accept and perpetuate their sense of unvaluedness. That allows them to both accept and perpetuate bullying.
But just as bullying by students does not always take wide, broad gestures to make itself felt, neither does this discrimination of students by adults. Instead, it is felt in everyday comments such as
- "You’re so smart for fifteen!"
- "When are you going to grow up?"
"As long as you are in my classroom, you'll do what I tell you!"
"You're being childish."
It is the combination of both systematic exclusion and cultural discrimination that forms a straight line from the desire to stop bullying and the necessity of engaging student voice throughout education.
Working across the United States and Canada over the last 10 years to promote student voice, I have found that in order to defeat bullying we must focus on transforming relationships between students and adults in schools. Students who bully rely on their peers to passively receive whatever treatment they are dishing out. Adults in schools have done the same thing for too long, relying on students to readily accept the treatment they dole out every day. By positively changing the way every adult treats every student in schools, we will change the way students treat each other. We know that students must be empowered to combat bullying, and by exposing the role adult treatment has in perpetuating bullying, we can see what is next in schools: we need student/adult partnerships.
These powerful relationships actively stop the treatment of students as passive recipients of adults' decisions about learning, teaching, or leadership in schools. They do not seek to treat students as equals to adults, either. Instead, they build equitable relationships between students and adults by acknowledging the appropriate boundaries and evolving capacities of students while providing them with meaningful opportunities to become involved as partners throughout schools. Student/adult partnerships engage students as partners, and this type of relationship is the cure to bullying.
Student/adult partnerships are for every student. In countless cases across the country, research shows that these relationships transform the cultures of every grade level and every skill set, every cultural background and every resource level. All adults in all schools must see their personal responsibility for fostering student/adult partnerships, not only for the purposes of defeating bullying or engaging student voice, but for the future of education and democracy, as well.
In my next and final post, I will explore how student/adult partnerships happen, and what roles both students and adults play in overcoming bullying.
Tell us what you think about the role adult treatment has in perpetuating bullying. Ideas, comments, concerns?