Encouraging Kindness in our Schools
The Parents Council of Washington hosted its Best Practices program on “Encouraging Kindness In Our Schools – A Forum To Share How Schools Cultivate Kindness And Respond To Bullying” on Thursday, March 1, 2012 at the National Presbyterian School. The event featured three speakers from PCW member schools, Ms. Vickie Roos, Assistant Head of the Barnesville School, Ms. Kristen Edma, Middle School Counselor at the Holton-Arms School, and Ms. Gaby Grebski, Upper School Counselor at the Sidwell Friends School. The Parents Council of Washington invited PCW Representatives, PA Presidents and interested parents from all of the member schools to attend. Following the presentations by the panel members, this important topic was discussed by all of the participants in a Question and Answer Session.
The Middle School Perspective on Encouraging Kindness in our Schools was presented by Ms. Kristen Edma, who serves as the Counselor to approximately 150 7th and 8th grade students at the Holton-Arms School. The foundation of their program is a Diversity Mission Statement, which references a Statement of Respect, the Honor Code and the Holton Policy on Bullying and Harassment. The emphasis is on acceptance of others based on mutual trust and providing a safe and comfortable learning environment for all students. Holton has a zero tolerance policy and any offenses are judged on a case by case basis. When appropriate, cases are reviewed by the student Honor Council. However, it is important to note that the term “bullying” can be overused, and it must be considered with regards to both content and awareness. Ms. Edma’s goal as a counselor is to solve issues, not just to be a disciplinarian.
The Internet has changed the dynamics of bullying for many students, and Ms. Edma stated that “The Internet can be quite cruel.” As Holton-Arms is a laptop school, there has been a significant increase in instances involving online posts, forwarding of text messages, and anonymous comments. The Internet adds the “messenger” and can even become the “messenger” in some situations. Ms. Edma encouraged parents to be aware of their children’s activities online.
The Holton-Arms School conducts classes for 6th and 7th grade students on how to be their own best advocates, including topics such as diversity, tolerance, self-awareness, and relationships with teachers and fellow students. In the 8th grade, Ms. Edma leads a health class which focuses on communications and independence. The students view the movie “Odd Girl Out” and then discuss the important issues raised by the film.
The Lower School Perspective on Encouraging Kindness in our Schools was presented by Ms. Vickie Roos, the Assistant Head of School of the Barnesville School and the previous Head of the Barnesville Middle School. Her perspective is that of a parent, a teacher and now as an administrator. The foundation is the Mission Statement of the School, which states: “We are dedicated to providing a joyful and supportive learning environment for the development of excellence in each of us.” Self-centeredness is inherent in young children, and therefore the Barnesville School strives to make the students aware of the world around them at an early age and to further understand how to become part of their community. The Barnesville School sponsors a Buddy Program in which young children are paired with older students. Each school day begins with a Morning Meeting held in the gym where students sit with their buddies and listen to morning announcements. The relationships that develop throughout the year between the buddies are very meaningful to the students and encourage kindness and communication. During the Morning Meetings, the Barnesville School also highlights is “Character Word of the Month,” which has included kindness, service, perseverance, respect, initiative, courage, cooperation, responsibility and honesty.
Ms. Roos explained that the students of the Lower School at Barnesville are divided into groups called “Pods.” Each Wednesday afternoon, the Pods meet in designated areas to participate in health or character lessons. Most of the lessons are literature based, with role-playing and hands-on activities integrated into each theme. In addition, students work on conflict resolution activities to help young children understand how to become part of a community. Another approach to encouraging kindness even for very young children is through engaging in school sponsored community service projects.
At the Barnesville School the teachers and staff focus on early intervention for both the academic and the social-emotional growth of the students. If a teacher notices any type of unkind behavior occurring, he or she addresses it immediately. Whether on the playground or in the classroom, the teachers work to make each situation a learning experience with immediate feedback. Communication with parents is also important so that children know that everyone is on the same page. In addition, students are encouraged to support other students who are the targets of bullying by confronting bullies, telling adults what they have observed and communicating with faculty about such issues. Each year the Barnesville School sponsors “Peace Week” in conjunction with Martin Luther King’s birthday. The theme of this year’s “Peace Week” was “Bullying” and lessons and activities were developed by the school’s Diversity Committee. The culmination of “Peace Week” is a school assembly where each Buddy Group makes a presentation and together the students perform a silent candle lighting ceremony.
The Barnesville School has an Honor Code and an Acceptable Use Policy which all 4th through 8th grade students and their parents are expected to read, sign and return to the school. The school also has a bullying and cyber-bullying policy which is published in the Student and Parent Handbook. Students and families are encouraged to immediately inform the school when they are aware of a bullying situation. These behavioral concerns are dealt with on a case by case basis. Perception is a child’s reality and therefore a thoughtful discussion to discover where the truth lies is essential. The school works in a variety of ways to resolve a bullying situation and there are a range of consequences for inappropriate behavior including intervention and communication with parents.
Ms. Roos concluded her remarks by stating that it is important for educators to continue to work with children to learn how to be a friend and how to be accepting of differences. We need to make our moral standards clear and have ongoing conversations with students, teachers and parents about values and principles. Creating an environment of kindness will support the values that are most important in the greater community.
The Upper School Perspective on Encouraging Kindness in our Schools was presented by Ms. Gabi Grebski, the Upper School Counselor at the Sidwell Friends School. In addition to her role as School Counselor, Ms. Grebski also teaches a class and coaches. Ms. Grebski began her remarks by asking, “What is stereotypically labeled as bullying?” Examples such as gossiping, acting before you think, impulsive comments and joking were given. At Sidwell Friends, the intentional bullying is seen less in the Upper School. There was a serious incident in the Middle School several years ago and it was addressed immediately by the school counselors and the administration. Ms. Grebski stated that there is a developmental piece to the subject of bullying, with many types of behaviors labeled under that category. As the students mature, the behaviors often are modified. However, when bullying occurs in the Upper School, there are often underlying issues present and it is important to address these issues. Promotion of healthy ego development is very important for students at this age. Ms. Grebski uses the metaphor of thinking of your friends as books to help Upper School students understand the dynamics of relationships. Students may choose to rearrange their books on the shelf, but you should not throw away any of your books or in this case, your friendships. The discussion on bullying is an important one for parents to have with their children, keeping in mind that even Upper School students will model their behavior on their parents’ behavior.
The Sidwell Friends School has an established Bullying and Harassment Policy, which is based on inclusion and kindness. There is an additional section on Internet Harassment for which there are institutional guidelines for the appropriate code of conduct by students. Sidwell also has an Honor Code and an Honor Committee. There have been very few incidents in recent years concerning bullying.
Ms. Grebski noted that although there is not a lot of anti-bullying in the Sidwell curriculum, there is an ongoing, open dialogue between students and faculty. When working with her students, Ms. Grebski discussed how the students continually speak of their respect for one another. In addition, the students refer to Sidwell as a small tight community, and many believe that being a coed school encourages mutual respect. The students feel comfortable talking about different issues with the faculty and administration which creates an open environment for discussions. Sidwell offers many opportunities for Upper School students to join a variety of clubs, making it possible for every student to find his or her niche. There is even a student club called “Random Acts of Kindness.”
In the Upper School at Sidwell Friends, there is an established TA program in which older students mentor the younger students. The freshmen orientation program is conducted over two days and is led by the Senior TA’s for all of the incoming students. Issues involving diversity, including economic diversity, are openly discussed. Throughout the orientation program there is a sense that the Upper School involves more than just the individual student. Ms. Grebski believes that the underlying foundation of kindness and respect for others within the Upper School may in part be due to the Quaker influence.
Question and Answer Session
What faculty development exists for character development? How are faculty evaluated? Measured?
Playground time should not be a break for teachers. You need to plan where to stand, to observe and to be aware of what is going on during recess. The faculty needs to report to the counselors what is going on with the students in the hallways and classrooms, and then the counselor is able to intervene when necessary. Counselors rely on teachers and faculty to observe students and to report to them. This communication is essential and teachers need to know that counselors are following up on these issues, so that they do not go unaddressed. Advisory groups also help as another resource for the students to interact in a social situation. Faculty is present at lunchtime to observe the interactions among students. Most issues are brought to the counselors from students. High school students are savvier about social situations so issues may not be as obvious.
How are teachers and schools encouraging resilience? We are creating bubbles for our children. The real world is a lot tougher.
We need to have conversations with not only the students, but the parents as well, about how to set expectations and deal with disappointments. It is important that pain is felt and addressed, as parents cannot solve all of their children’s problems for them. “What do you have control over?” Teach the students you cannot change someone, so how do you choose to handle a situation? Children need to learn to make healthy and positive decisions and then to move forward. The parent piece is also very important as you hear “What is being done?” Parents need to have trust in their children’s schools and to believe that the schools are aware of most issues. Further, we need to give students the tools to effectively deal with difficult social situations. Barnesville has an ethics course for students in the 5-8th grades, which allows students to learn what their personal values are and to understand that there is a healthy way to address issues.
What are schools doing about what happens outside of school? Parties, Facebook?
Each school has their own perspective on how to handle issues outside of school. If issues are brought to the school or are having an impact in school on the students, the school has to address them. This intervention is done on a case by case basis. High school students need to have some independence and need to learn to self-regulate. “You need to know your kid and when to step in as a parent.”
Why is there no Honor Council for Lower School?
This question involves more of a developmental piece. Lower school is involved but there are other ways in which the Lower School addresses social issues. Age development plays a major role in determining what is age appropriate. In addition, the Middle School Honor Code/Council is a somewhat different from Upper School. In summary, levels of Honor Code need to be age appropriate.
Are there parent development programs out there as well?
Some schools provide mandatory parent meetings that address issues of kindness, bullying, etc. Holton, Barnesville and Sidwell all sponsor parent seminars and speaker events. Counselors are often invited to speak at parent coffees or meetings. The school counselors find that students are exposed to so much more these days that parent education is an important component for addressing these issues. Holton has a drugs and alcohol program that is mandatory for students and parents. Most parent education is done through the Parents Associations.
Seems you all want to shy away from “Discipline”?
The role of the guidance counselor at Holton is not to discipline students. Ms. Edma views her role is to work with the division head to support discipline decisions. All three speakers agreed that accountability is very important. In the Quaker community at Sidwell, Ms. Grebski does not directly discipline students, but works with the Deans regarding discipline issues. At the Barnesville School, Ms. Roos does discipline as the Assistant Head of School. If there is a major issue, the Head of School at Barnesville becomes involved, but all three schools agree the counselors are not the ones to discipline. The disciplinary actions are administered by the Deans or Heads of School. Discipline can look very different depending upon the individual circumstances. Sometimes it is in the form of a letter of apology, speaking at assembly, etc. and in each case the student needs to be held accountable for his or her actions.
Confidentiality vs. Accountability?
Parents want to know the loop is closed when they approach the schools with issues. They do not need to know specifics but need to trust that school is handling the issue. In every case, communication is key. The school needs to communicate with all who are involved and share whatever information is appropriate with the parents.
Talking with other parents about various issues can be tricky, any advice?
When the health or safety of a child is involved, you should speak up. Perhaps a phone call to the school counselor is easier than speaking to another parent. This can help to take the responsibility off of the “messenger.”