Invest in Positive School Culture to Prevent Bullying Behavior

Stock photo: school bullyingRather than react to bullying incidents in schools with heavily punitive policies, a systemic, preventive approach that avoids demonizing students and strengthens the overall climate in classrooms is the way to go, Neag School of Education‘s George Sugai and co-authors advise in a paper prepared for President Obama’s White House Conference on Bullying Prevention held this spring.

“Academic success and positive overall school and classroom climate for all students may be our best preventive approach to bullying and other problem behaviors,” Dr. Sugai, director of Neag’s Center for Behavioral Education & Research (CBER) at UConn, e-mailed from Australia, where he was guest-lecturing on advances in school-wide discipline.

Sugai and report co-author Rob Horner of the University of Oregon are co-directors of the national Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. The PBIS center was established by the Office of Special Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education. CBER and the PBIS center jointly released the recent paper. Rob Algozzine at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, also was co-author.

The paper, entitled “Reducing the Effectiveness of Bullying Behavior in Schools,” was presented in a collection of materials at the president’s conference and is also posted on the PBIS Web site with other bullying prevention strategies.

In recent years, schools and their communities have found themselves reeling when a  shooting occurs or a student takes his or her own life or harms a classmate. The presumption is that students come to school socially equipped to handle the school culture, but often it’s an informal, trial-and-error process. When violence erupts, districts may resort to responding in harsh ways.

The paper suggests a much less punishing, and a more preventive, system-wide approach to violence and bullying behavior. The positive school and classroom culture is achieved when adults teach social skills to students, actively supervise them in and out of the classroom, and acknowledge successful behaviors that result, Sugai says.

The paper, organized around eight central questions, provides an overview for establishing an effective framework to prevent school violence and bullying behavior. It starts with a guide to what competent schools have in place:

  1. A curriculum that stresses targeted social skills instruction.
  2. Positive classroom and school social structures where learning is emphasized.
  3. Practices that maximize academic success.
  4. Continuous, positive and active supervision of students.
  5. Regular reinforcement of academic and social behavior successes.
  6. Active involvement of students, families, faculty and community members.
  7. Multi-year and multi-component approaches to implementation.
  8. Adults who model the social behaviors and values expected of students.

The article describes three tiers of the PBIS approach to preventing bullying. In Tier 1, all students and staff are taught how to behave in safe, respectful and responsible ways in all school settings. Under Tier 2, students who don’t respond to Tier 1 teaching, receive targeted social skills instruction, more monitoring by adults, daily feedback on behavioral progress and extra academic supports, if necessary.

In Tier 3, students unable to respond to the first two sets of strategies and supports will undergo individualized academic and/or behavior intervention planning, more comprehensive wrap-around processes and school-family-community mental health supports.

Sugai, who has written more than 100 articles and several textbooks on effective teaching practices and positive behavior support, has researched at-risk student populations with severely challenging behavior. Outside factors that may affect the PBIS strategies for students who engage in bullying behavior and also for those who are targets include behavioral learning history, socio-economic status, social skill competence, academic achievement, disability and peer and family influences, the report says.

Sugai cites at least four randomized control trial research studies that have documented successes in the school-wide PBIS framework, leading to decreases in disciplinary referrals, increases in academic achievement and reports of improvements in overall school climate, health and safety. Recent unpublished research suggests that PBIS implementation is associated with reductions in teacher reports of student bullying behavior.

The national PBIS center Sugai co-directs aims to inform schools, families and communities that the school-wide behavioral technology exists and is feasible and effective at the individual, school, district and state levels.

Under the PBIS framework, educators are encouraged to discard the word “bully” as a student label in favor of using language that describes the behavior.

“Not only do we propose that a positive and preventive approach (rather than reactive and punishing) be emphasized, we also suggest that we avoid demonizing and degrading those who bully, and instead focus on providing productive support to students who engage in bullying behavior,” Sugai says. That tactic must be coupled with strengthening responses from students who are targets and bystanders of bullying behavior, he says.

The more respectful “person first” language is an accepted professional ethic in special education and mental health fields. “The same respectful approach should be used with the problem of bullying behavior,” Sugai says, “So, instead of saying, ‘George is a bully,’ we should be saying ‘George displayed bullying behavior.’ Even more specifically, we should say that ‘George is engaged in teasing, intimidating, personally harmful, or derogatory behavior.’”

Incidents of bullying behavior are occurring in increasingly widespread settings, for example, in cyberspace, classrooms and hallways, at social events, and on buses and streets, the report says. In some contexts, such as sporting events, reality TV shows and competitive cooking shows, bullying behavior is viewed as acceptable and even entertaining, Sugai says.

“We have become more sensitive and aware because entertainment and social networking have become such a prevalent means of engaging and communicating with a vast range of other individuals. What used to be private has become much more easily public,” Sugai says, adding that, as a result, the line between school and non-school is less distinct.

The report, which is careful to say the PBIS framework is not meant as a packaged curriculum or practices manual, encourages local expertise, cultural relevance and durable interventions. The report also offers guidance for assessing whether a school has problematic bullying behavior and steps to address it.

Training should be strategically organized and presented to build durable implementation capacity. “Traditional one-shot professional development sessions are good to introduce ideas, but ineffective for changing teacher practice,” Sugai says.