Practitioner’s Corner: Data-Driven Bullying Prevention

By James Dillon
Principal, March/April 2016

When it comes to assessing bullying in schools, appearances are deceiving and impressions are misleading. What school staff see and feel does not equate to what students experience. When school leaders obtain and share accurate data on bullying and school climate, they shine a clear light on the discrepancy between the adult world and the student world that co-exist in the same environment.

Accurate data can make the bullying that students experience or witness visible and real to staff. Therefore, obtaining and analyzing accurate data on bullying becomes an essential tool for gaining staff commitment to improve the school environment and student learning. There are several interrelated sources of data on bullying: direct staff observation; reporting from students who are bullied, and from students who witness or know of bullying; reporting from parents on behalf of students; and surveys and questionnaires.

Direct Staff Observations
Bullying can hide in plain sight—seen only by students but not by adults. This happens for reasons such as:

  • Students become strategic in when and how they bully the students they have chosen as their targets;
  • Students can disguise bullying into subtle, often mundane gestures that appear innocent to adults but sting and hurt their well-chosen targets;
  • Adults are trained to look for more overt, discrete, and distinct rule violations like running, hitting, and swearing; and
  • Adult attention is easily diverted by a vast multitude of interactions all occurring at the same time.

Reporting from Victims or Witnesses
Students who don’t report being bullied do so for a variety of legitimate reasons that can be difficult for an adult to understand. Some of those reasons include:

  • They are reluctant to publicly admit that they are victims;
  • They want to feel that they can handle it and asking adults for help is either a sign of weakness, their own incompetence, or an overdependence upon adults;
  • They might often feel they deserve the treatment they receive from peers;
  • Reporting might not do anything to change their situation and could only make things worse for them;
  • They might not feel that staff are eager to help them—they assume that teachers are more likely to favor the more popular students who bully them; and
  • They are afraid that if the student who bullies them receives a harsh punishment other students will be angry with them.

Students who witness or know of bullying share many of the same reasons for not reporting bullying as the students who are bullied. There also are many inherent risks involved in reporting it, such as being viewed as a “snitch,” becoming targets of bullying after reporting it, and being perceived as socially connected to the student who is bullied.

Reporting from Parents
Often, some students who are bullied tell their parents. Parents will contact the school to complain usually with strong emotions. This information is not always reliable because parents’ emotional, secondhand descriptions make it difficult for staff to separate facts from speculation. Parents often interpret anything that happens to their child as bullying when in some cases it is conflict. And finally, students who bully other students can use their parents to deflect and distract attention from their own behavior.

As there can be many “false positives” among parent complaints, many are legitimate but can’t be substantiated with evidence. When this happens, staff might mistakenly convey to parents that little can done about the problem.

Surveys and Questionnaires
These data are more reliable than how things appear in the school environment. But, by itself, the data can fail to motivate staff to action. Unless school leaders are able to put this more reliable data in the right context for staff, it could be counterproductive in gaining staff commitment.

When principals, teachers, students, and parents communicate better, they develop a shared and accurate understanding of what the school needs. The four R’s—relate, redefine, reframe, and retool—are direction setters for changing how information (data) flows among all the members of the school community.

Relate. The most effective way to obtain accurate data is to connect the adult/staff world with the student world. When adults become trustworthy, the lines of communication with students become clear and information can flow more easily in both directions. This closes the gap between adult perception and student experience.

Redefine. When bullying is redefined as words or actions that conflict with shared values of respect and principles for how people should treat each other, it can point toward a higher standard of behavior for every person in the school. These positive social norms will ultimately exert greater influence over behavior than rules and laws.

This redefinition from rule violation to behavior inconsistent with a social norm can result in staff being attentive to how students treat one another and not just attuned to more overt, dramatic rule violations.

Reframe. Reframing grows naturally out of redefining. Staff and students can be affirmed and asked to work toward positive, aspirational goals, rather than just meet the low expectations of stopping a negative behavior. Reframing therefore changes perceptions, relationships, identities, responsibilities, and the school environment itself. If students feel a greater sense of ownership and responsibility for how people are treated in their school, they are more likely to show active disapproval instead of tacit acceptance of bullying.

Retool. Retooling means rethinking and redesigning the school’s approach to achieving a high standard for how people treat one another. It requires developing a process to involve staff, students, and parents in articulating and communicating these values and principles.

Although it is a challenging task, obtaining accurate data, in and of itself, becomes one of the most effective interventions for preventing and reducing bullying and improving a school’s climate. Put simply: Get the right data and you are well on your way to solving your problems and reaching your goals.

James Dillon is director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention for Measurement Inc.


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