Social & Emotional Literacy: Recognizing Our Role in Preventing Bullies

by Sandra Clifton on October 6, 2010

There is perhaps no greater fear for a parent than the idea that his or her child will be bullied. Unfortunately, incidents of bullying in schools across the country have become increasingly common—but the good news is that we as a society have become better at recognizing this problem, as reported in the New York Times article, “There’s Only One Way to Stop a Bully,” by Susan Engel and Marlene Sandstrom.

Bullying took center stage this past spring when Phoebe Prince, from South Hadley, Massachusetts, ended her own life. This tragic event instigated anti-bullying laws in all but six states across the country and emphasized the importance of improving Emotional Literacy in schools. As defined in earlier posts, Emotional Literacy is the process of understanding how feelings impact intellectual and social development in children, and identifying how these emotions continue to affect every interaction of our adult lives.

According to Dr. Marc Brackett, recognizing conflicted feelings is the first step in teaching Emotional Literacy, as developed in his RULER© curriculum through the core steps of Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing and Regulating emotions. Building on the first step of Emotional Literacy, researchers Engel and Sandstrom reflect in their July 22nd article that “It’s important, first, to recognize that while cell phones and the Internet have made bullying more anonymous and unsupervised, there is little evidence that children are meaner than they used to be. Indeed, there is ample research — not to mention plenty of novels and memoirs — about how children have always victimized one another in large and small ways, how often they are oblivious to the rights and feelings of others and how rarely they defend a victim.” What we must address now is the truth of this universal tendency to single-out others and work together to prevent both the incidents and intensity of bullying in educational settings.

Perhaps what is most troubling is not that young people are misguided in their treatment of each other, but that we as adults do so little to intervene when insensitivity and abuse erupts. The values more often emphasized in school are focused on achievement—grades, intellectual rigor, competitive edge… especially in a city like New York. Only when a young person like Phoebe Prince takes her life do we step back to consider the pressure of a SAT score or how the mark on an AP exam might really translate to teens….that their abilities can be quantified, and that we are modeling for children that scores can and do rank a student’s worth: “…in American curriculums, a growing emphasis on standardized test scores as the primary measure of ‘successful’ schools has crowded out what should be an essential criterion for well-educated students: a sense of responsibility for the well-being of others” (Engel & Sandstrom).

Engel and Sandstrom identify that, while anti-bullying laws are a step in the right direction, their studies of child development conclude that it is really through teaching Emotional Literacy that we will change our culture of insensitivity: “As an essential part of the school curriculum, we have to teach children how to be good to one another, how to cooperate, how to defend someone who is being picked on and how to stand up for what is right.” We as a culture must recognize not just when abuse is happening but to teach pro-active models of kindness and compassion—in math class, through stories in literature, in an approach to scientific research, through our exploration of history, and on the playground.

There are wonderful resources now available through the Committee for Children, BullyBust, and the Pacer Center, which have designated October as “National Bullying Prevention Month.” Through their websites, you can sign petitions, research the latest anti-bullying laws (“Steps to Respect”), order a free anti-bullying DVD, and access valuable information about how to become an active voice that makes a difference in recognizing and preventing bullies.

Here is the trailer for the free DVD, Bullied: A Student, A School and A Case That Made History:

About the Contributor: Sandra Clifton, Founder & Director of Clifton Corner: A Tutoring & Coaching Center, is a regular blog contributor to the NYC Firm Schools Blog in the areas of social intelligence & emotional literacy.

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