4 Ways We Use Social-Emotional Learning to Prevent and Address Bullying

“Did you make any friends today?” It’s a common refrain after the first day at a new school, because it’s a common concern. When you send your kids off to school, it’s understandable to worry about the social dynamics they’ll encounter. At MLBLA, social-emotional learning is at the core of what we do, because we’ve experienced the difference it makes in creating learning conditions that enable children to thrive inside and outside of the classroom. This is why our curriculum includes a daily Leadership course centered on social-emotional learning. Here are 4 social-emotional learning practices and principles we utilize that help prevent and address bullying.

  1. Build Emotional Awareness

For kids to respect the emotions of others, they need to know how to recognize and acknowledge their own emotions. It can be difficult for children to communicate the complexity of their feelings and to find healthy ways of managing what they feel. The tricky thing is: emotional awareness rarely just “happens”; it is a skill set that has to be actively taught and--more importantly--modeled.

Let’s say a sixth-grader refuses to do an activity one morning. Instead of engaging with the class, she sits silently, arms crossed, kicking her bookbag repeatedly. When other students try to talk to her, she tells them in a sharp tone to leave her alone. Rather than immediately jumping to punishing or isolating the student, a teacher who wants to build emotional awareness can ask the student to take a few minutes to write out what she is experiencing, or even use a tool like a feelings tree if she doesn’t know exactly how to put the emotions into words. Encouraging children to understand what they feel is an important part of addressing the escalating, unregulated emotions that can often lead to conflict between students. The goal is not to shame the student for feeling agitated or upset, nor is it to make her anger “disappear”; rather, it is to help her understand the ways she can experience and express that agitation without negatively impacting other students’ classroom experience.

2. Practice Conflict-Resolution

When we teach our students how to navigate conflict, we approach it from a restorative justice angle, where the ultimate goals of resolution are reconciliation, healing and understanding, not punishment or shaming. Some of the questions we seek to answer are: What is the root of the conflict? What is the experience of everyone involved in it? What type of solution are the involved parties looking for?

As campus monitor Vickie Gomez describes in this EdWeek blog, when two students have a conflict, “Often the problem has nothing to do with the other student—something else took place earlier and it just boiled over.” Her insights speak to the importance of identifying the root causes of bullying, including the possibility that students who engage in bullying may be lashing out because they don’t feel their emotional needs are met. The more support a student has--not just academically, but also emotionally--the more likely they are to communicate

3. Talk About How to Be a Better Bystander

What often amplifies the impact of bullying is the unwillingness of bystanders to step in, speak up, or take other actions to help someone else who may be in a vulnerable position. Kids may hesitate to step in for fear of ridicule or retaliation, or general uncertainty about what they can do that would help the person being bullied.

One of the reasons Community is one of our core principles is that a community framework encourage kids to stand up for each other, and for their collective values. These are not just values we tell them to have--these are values they actively participate in molding and upholding every single day. When kids practice how to empathize and be allies to each other, bullying is less likely to escalate.

4. Make Sure Every Child Knows Their Resources

There are practical steps that middle schoolers and their families can take in the event of bullying, such as getting in touch with a teacher or school administrator, implementing social media safety protocol, and making sure each child knows who they can come to if anything is wrong.

At MLBLA, there are two primary built-in resources that every student has access to. One is the Dream Team, the student’s “support system” throughout their school career. The Dream Team is comprised of adults who are invested in the student’s success and their emotional wellbeing. This means that should conflict arise, students have already identified that there are multiple people they can go to for help. Another resource is the Circle we hold at the end of every week, which is based on restorative justice principles. This Circle is an opportunity for students to share, in community with their peers, their experiences and challenges, and to work together to find solutions.

As any adult who experienced bullying as a child knows, it can cause long-term trauma and impact how people see themselves for years to come. That does not mean, however, that bullying is “inevitable” or that it should just be accepted. What has happened for many generations, in many schools, is that students have been told what is and isn’t appropriate behavior, but have not always been given the opportunity to understand why, or how their actions truly impact themselves and others. At MLBLA, we believe that the difference between a toxic school environment and a nurturing one is in the commitment to offer students consistent, community-based, interactive opportunities to practice the values we preach. By being proactive about social-emotional learning and restorative justice, we believe kids can be much kinder to themselves and to each other.

Terrence Davis