In September 2007, two Nova Scotia high school students decided to take action after watching students taunt a Grade 9 boy simply for wearing pink on the first day of school. The two older boys brought 50 pink shirts to school and asked fellow students to wear them as a sign of support for the younger boy. “We stand up to bullies,” was the powerful message that reverberated through the halls that day. Ten years later, Pink Shirt Day is part of an international anti-bullying campaign designed to create awareness in schools and communities around the world.
This year, Canadian schools will recognize Pink Shirt Day on February 22nd. At Trafalgar Castle, our Middle School Leadership Council began creating awareness amongst our students with an informative Chapel presentation. Their message was simple: Bullying can happen anywhere, but at our school we want to do something about it. It was an authentic effort by our girls to address a perennial challenge that impacts all schools and harms so many people.
Although no school is immune to the problem of bullying, I strongly believe that school culture greatly reduces or increases the likelihood of it occurring. Culture influences the way in which others respond to difficulties, and conveys established norms that make it evident what is and what is not acceptable. In other words, the values we express and uphold as a school community have a greater capacity to create a kind and supportive environment than any policy document or off-the-shelf program ever could.
The research bears this out. Numerous studies have shown the overall ineffectiveness of anti-bullying programs, pointing instead to the importance of teaching compassion. Schools need to actively generate kindness and thoughtfulness through modelling and explicit teaching in order to create an authentic culture of care that touches all students. University of Tampa Professor Patty O’Grady notes, “Children and adolescents do not learn kindness by only thinking about it and talking about it….Kindness [is] best learned by feeling it so that they can reproduce it.”
The old saying, “It’s the little things that count” factors heavily in the creation of a culture of care. Holding the door open for someone, greeting people by name in the hallway, stopping to help pick up a dropped notebook, or showing concern when someone is having a bad day – all these moments combine to create a pro-social school environment that offers multiple additional benefits.
Students who are encouraged to help others often experience what author Allan Luks termed the “helper’s high”, a biochemical response to altruistic acts that releases endorphins, reduces stress, and lessens anxiety. Helping others naturally makes us feel more generous, thereby fostering compassion and empathy. All these things make it less likely for a culture of bullying to take hold, and more likely that normal childhood moments of anger, frustration, and hurtful words become the exception rather than the rule.
There is no doubt we need to talk openly about bullying with our children. The statistics are alarming, and with the added challenge of 24-7 access to social media, incidences of bullying are on the rise. Schools need to support both the bullied and the bully, while educating about the need for by-standers to speak up because we know from research that intervention can stop an act of bullying in 10 seconds or less.
It’s true that bullying, when it occurs, does not always take place in school, particularly as cyber-bullying knows no geographic limits. More often than not however, it does. Schools, therefore, play a vital role in educating and providing the supports necessary to tackle the problem where it most often lives – in hallways, classrooms, playgrounds, change rooms, and online. Any school that isn’t prepared to publicly acknowledge that bullying can occur within its walls is, at best, naïve and, at worst, irresponsible.
School leaders, in particular, must lead the way and make it known to all that bullying will not be tolerated. As one of those leaders, I believe it is likewise important to demonstrate what we do want in our schools – to model how generosity, acts of kindness, and consideration for others are simply the way we behave. Of equal importance is the need to help students (and sometimes parents) understand that acts of meanness amongst peers – even very hurtful ones –are not necessarily acts of bullying. We should be cautious not to label every friendship problem or social difficulty in that way, but instead help children and adolescents move forward with facilitated discussions that encourage perspective taking, with ideas to manage tricky relationships and solve problems, and with strategies to deal with the type of childhood conflicts that are normal (and, in fact, important to healthy emotional development).
I am proud of the open conversations we are having at The Castle. We are able to acknowledge when things go wrong and work to respond to difficulties quickly, thoughtfully, and responsibly. Fortunately, these moments are few and far between. Most of the time, we get to focus on celebrating what’s going right. We enjoy our strong sense of community, we talk about our differences, we encourage each other to forgive (and often laugh) at small misunderstandings, and we feel warmth inside our hearts when we act with care and consideration. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that on February 22nd, when Trafalgar Castle comes together as a community to speak out against bullying, we will do so with pink shirts, compassionate voices, and a whole lot of kindness.