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Ending bullying: “The problem is…”

June 9, 2010

I’ve felt frustrated lately at the lack of real action in response to the ever-increasing problem of bullying in our schools.  I was asked in a recent media interview whether I think this lack of decisive effort is because people seem to think the problem is too big to solve.

I believe there is some truth to that argument.  It’s coming at us from all sides. We spend billions of dollars trying to “fix” it.  Yet, our kids are still vulnerable for a problem that just appears to be getting worse.

There are any number of initiatives and “solutions” we’ve tried to put in place in an effort to reduce the incidents of bullying. By and large, most of them haven’t worked — or not as well as we’d hoped — so there may be a sense of “gee, nothing seems effective!”  “See, we all have our anti-bullying programs in place, but it doesn’t seem to help.”  So, in the face of what feels like failure, the natural next stage is denial. After that…futility usually sets in.  We give up.

What I try to communicate is that there IS a way we can really solve the problem. We CAN make significant dents in the problem of bullying. It really doesn’t have to be this way. What it takes is a different way of looking at the problem.

You see, bullying is just one of the extreme end-products of inadequate social skills and character.  This lack manifests itself in simple and seemingly “innocent” ways such as disruption in the classroom, lack of respect for individuals and groups, and everyday rudeness in society.  Moving along that continuum is lack of ethics and integrity in business, in our communities. It continues on to include such things as racism, intolerance, and disdain for others.  Keep going and that’s where you’ll find bullying, cruelty, violence.

Bullying is not a separate problem, it’s part of a larger one. And that’s why just dealing with it as a separate problem is ineffective.  You can’t just say “bullying is bad, don’t do it” — and variations like that, including legislation and policies.  That certainly establishes consequences for what happens when you do it, but is that much of a deterent?  And, it’s certainly no preventative.

To truly solve the problem, we have to…look at the problem. The cause — what conditions exist that allow for these behaviors and thoughts to occur in the first place? Deal with the source of the problem and you’ll find you stand a much better chance of eliminating it.  It’s like a weed; is it easier to pull it out from the roots when it’s small or wait until it’s taken over your whole yard and spend the next 5 years doing battle each time it pops up again and again?

Yes, I believe wholeheartedly that we can eliminate nearly all the bullying problems we see today. I’ve seen it work in schools in 10 states across this country.  Schools where students value each other, respect each other and their teachers and staff, where positive behavior is recognized, praised and valued. Build a culture like that — of respect, consideration, empathy, compassion and integrity — and you find there’s little need for bandaids to manage bullying.

Or to go back to the weeds analogy, when your lawn is healthy and lush, weeds have a hard time taking hold, and the few that do are easily controlled. If we use the right kind of “weed and feed” we’ll find we won’t need the napalm. And a bag of weed and feed is a lot cheaper than a load of legislation.

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