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Got the back to school blues

August 25, 2010

All across the country, kids are going back to school. It’s a time of excitement, of anticipation, of wondering what the new year will bring.  I’m dreading it. You see, I’m afraid — afraid that the new school year will be a lot like the last one. Only more so.

What am I talking about?  Bullying, anti-social behavior, damaging the learning environment, ruining lives.

I’m depressed at the thought of what lies ahead this year.  Last school year, it was so bad that I wrote a post about the “daily death count.”  There were countless stories of kids who had been harassed, tormented, even to the point where they took their own lives.  The “solutions” implemented by many education and legislative officials were to impose stronger “policies” even enact new laws making bullying a crime.  Very little, however, is being done at the level of where the “crime” is being committed: at the level of the students, teachers, families and communities. Most of the time the reason given for why schools can’t do more is “we can’t afford to do more.”

Yesterday one of our local Seattle Newstalk stations, KIRO, ran an interview I taped last week about how to make positive change in schools. The article that accompanied the story was entitled, “Will a manners class improve Washington’s schools?”  The title was unfortunate because what I’m advocating isn’t “merely” manners, although a lot of people naturally gravitate to that explanation for what we’re teaching.  The trouble is, there isn’t one good “marketing” word for what is truly comprehensive social skills, character and values education, that provide not only lessons in vital skills and foundations for the kids, but also offer a framework for the teachers that allow them to better manage their classrooms, in a consistent way throughout the entire school.

But why is this so important? Well, reality is, the bullying and anti-social behavior we see in schools is the extreme end of the same line of poor social skills that starts with “simple” disrespect and unruliness in the classroom.  Kids who don’t “get” what appropriate behavior is are more likely to act out in class and on the playground. They have a tougher time making friends and keeping them. They may feel they have to “be bad” to get attention, and then some of them become bullies.

So I worry when bullying is treated like it’s a separate, distinct problem in schools, unrelated to anything else.  It’s a symptom of a larger disease. Yet, many people continue to believe that there isn’t a problem, that what we see in schools is just “kids being kids.” Or worse, that there’s no place in the school curriculum for programs that teach the kinds of things we do. The thought goes, “Teaching character and conduct needs to stay in the home. If parents were just doing their job, we wouldn’t need to teach this in school.”

Yes, partly true. But, the “if parents were only doing their jobs…” argument only covers on small facet of why kids don’t come to school “adequately prepared” with social/emotional learning.  There are plenty of parents who are doing their darndest to instill good teaching and manners in their kids, but are still finding it a challenge to make the lessons stick. Everything from societal influences, to what they see in the media, to what they see adults model, and their peers’ poor behavior…it all has an effect to erode “good learning.”

Again, as I shared in the interview on Q13 Fox last month, I don’t believe there is one solution. It has to be addressed at all levels, which is why we created SocialSmarts the way we did, to support all sides.  But whether you think social skills education is something that the schools should be involved in because they should focus on academics, the reality is it must be at this point. Dr. Ronald Stevens, Executive Director of the National School Safety Center in California was quoted in the KIRO article to say…

“If you think teaching social skills and positive citizenship behavior is investing too much time,” he said. “Try ignoring the issue and see what happens.”

We don’t have to “wait and see.” We know what happens. We saw evidence of “what happens” all last year…and the year before, and before that. We have a long, tragic track record of what happens because we’re not teaching it and kids aren’t learning it any other way.

I’m hoping that this year will be different. That more enlightened school and district administrators will realize that doing the same things we’ve done in the past will not produce a better environment or end-product. I know there is an increasing number of schools that are looking for better alternatives, but the vast majority are still in the same place, doing the same things.

…and that’s why I’ve got the Back-to-School Blues.

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