The Safe Classrooms Blog explores how educators and parents can use social-emotional learning to create more accepting classrooms where young people feel empowered to prevent and interrupt bullying. Click one of the topics below to read more.

Contents by Topic


May 2021

Using Nonviolent Communication in the Classroom

For this edition of Safe Classrooms, I revisited one of my favorite teacher books called Nonviolent Communication by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. It’s sold over 1 million copies, so maybe you’ve heard about it or read it yourself. I think this book can provide some strategies for dealing with internal and interpersonal conflict and may be worth reading and sharing with others in your life. 

Nonviolent Communication – Interpersonal Harmony Through Dialogue

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is based on the idea that conflict arises because individuals miscommunicate their feelings and needs. NVC has been widely used in psychotherapy and as a self-help technique. And, while it may lack hard evidence of efficacy, some studies suggest it may increase empathy, decrease anger, and allow people to communicate more effectively. It is a simple structure that allows individuals to recognize and take responsibility for their feelings, which in turn promotes compassion, empathy, interpersonal growth, and self-awareness. It has been applied in workplaces, schools, mediation, healthcare, and within the justice system. When implemented with fidelity, NVC encourages members of a community to be more aware of the basic psychological needs of others and themselves in pursuit of collective harmony.

So where does miscommunication happen? Instead of expressing our feelings, we are often wrongly taught to express thoughts through judgment, opinion, and criticism. This leaves us with unexpressed feelings, which only alienate us further from ourselves. Instead of connecting their individual feelings with the needs and requests of others, many people operate from a place of inducing fear, guilt, or shame.

What we consider expressing a feeling may in fact be an opinion, criticism, or a moral judgment. For example, a student might say, “I feel like I am always helping you with your homework” or “I feel like I can’t get through to him.” Statements like these come across as criticism or opinion through the sharing of thought. We can see that this language can be harmful, and it can stop compassionate conversations in their tracks. Instead, people need to tune into themselves and express how they feel, connect it with their psychological needs, and perhaps make a request from the other person. 

Addressing the Emotional Needs of Your Community

Educators need to address the emotional needs of students who are returning to school after experiencing some kind of emotional trauma. They could be carrying the weight of internet addiction, months of virtual learning, the loss of a loved one, limited social contact, domestic violence, or the sudden absence of a favorite extracurricular activity or sport. At this crucial time, NVC offers teachers an opportunity to instill children with important life skills of communication– both expressive and receptive. For many students, a return to in-person school may be accompanied by an increase in feelings of stress, fear, and anxiety. And although the stigma around psychotherapy has lifted in recent years, not all students have access to regular therapy visits. Systems like NVC are one option that can be implemented by schools and teachers to bridge this gap. 

Authors of NVC argue that our psychological needs being met or unmet provides the basis for the expression of feeling. This is a great way to think about (and teach) empathy and compassion– when someone you know is expressing their feelings toward you, they are asking for you to help them meet their own basic needs– I couldn’t think of a better or more worthy task! In the long run, it also helps people connect with one another. This simple expression and reception format can help all of us knit our communities back together following an overwhelming year of social distancing. As Rosenberg writes in Nonviolent Communication:

“Judgements, criticisms, diagnoses, and interpretations of others are all alienated expressions of our own needs and values. When others hear criticism, they tend to invest energy in self-defense or counterattack. The more directly we can connect our feelings to our needs, the easier it is for others to respond compassionately.”

Identifying their own feelings allows students to connect with themselves and others in order to solve complex interpersonal problems. Some important tenets of NVC include:

  • Embracing our vulnerability can help resolve conflict;
  • Develop self-compassion;
  • Distinguish between feelings and thoughts;
  • Distinguish between feelings and how we perceive others to be acting toward us;
  • Take responsibility for your feelings and make requests without imposing demands on others;
  • Build a vocabulary for your feelings that goes beyond “good and bad”(the book has a great glossary of emotional terms);
  • Take responsibility for your intentions and actions;
  • If we don’t value our needs; others may not either;
  • Move beyond “active listening” to “empathic listening”;
  • We should respond to the needs of others out of compassion, never out of fear, guilt, or shame.

Of course, there are myriad ways to teach social-emotional learning, and that most educators have their tried and true methods. NVC offers some really powerful opportunities to foster a compassionate community of learners, however, it certainly has its critics. I’ll leave it to you to read about it on your own if it sparks your interest (book information is below). For today, I only wanted to lay out some of the key takeaways from NVC’s work and offer it as a potential way to help us all heal our way back from the distances this pandemic has created in our communities.

Works Cited & Resource

Rosenberg, Marshall B. Nonviolent Communication: a Language of Life. PuddleDancer Press, 2015.

April 2021 

Modernizing Schools for Inclusion

How can we modernize schools and classrooms around inclusive practices?

Education reform that shifts away from the traditional school and classroom learning models could make schools more inclusive, democratic, and supportive. True modernization of schools should shift the paradigm of classical education by adopting new learning frameworks that address both academic and social-emotional learning. This article outlines two such frameworks: Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) and Restorative Practices (RP). These innovative models promote inclusivity among students by incorporating social-emotional skills and social justice activism.

The traditional classroom model is a standardized one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning that emphasizes the retention of knowledge with a focus on assessment. This system tends to favor students who are geared toward this type of learning while excluding students who may be differently abled. It is also positioned to reward students who are culturally or cognitively geared toward this one type of learning while leaving out students who are might learn differently.

Similarly, the tradition of disciplining students with punitive consequences (detention, suspension, expulsion) can make existing disparities even worse and tends to be exclusionary. Punishments like these can cause feelings of alienation within the school community, especially when the discipline does not effectively reintegrate the wrongdoer. Likewise, the targeted individual and wrongdoer are rarely offered an opportunity to participate in meaningful conflict resolution. School leaders, therefore, should consider new practices that make all students feel welcome at school. 

What is Youth Participatory Action Research?

Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) is a scaffolded learning model that engages students in a process of inquiry and action in their community. Through this innovative approach, students rise up as leaders in their community while developing skills in research, civics, data collection, organizational theory, strategic communication, and community organizing. They also build strong ties to their community by investing their energy into making positive change. This model also has the potential to increase students’ social awareness, self-confidence, empathy, and compassion. It promotes inclusivity by enabling students to address systemic and institutional barriers or disparities within their community.

Through YPAR curriculum, Students in San Francisco identified and worked to change oppression and gender bias in their school’s dress code; Chicago students worked alongside social science researchers to implement restorative justice practices in schools; Boulder, CO students identified and proposed strategies for improving campus inclusivity, resources, and opportunities for students of color. YPAR could be as simple as asking students to identify disparities in their school and collaboratively developing a plan for change. Most importantly, this model gives students a voice and an opportunity to change their world for the better.

What is Restorative Practice?

Restorative Practice (RP) is a social science that studies how to improve and repair relationships among individuals and in communities by combining theory, research, and practice from the fields of education, sociology, criminology, organizational theory, psychology, and social work. Implementing RP is a simple way to promote empathy, active listening, and connection. The goal of RP is to foster healthier communities by repairing harm and restoring relationships that may have been damaged by crime or antisocial behavior.

Restorative conferences or circles allow aggressors and targets to explore how the transgression has affected the community and what can be done to repair the harm. In education, these circles and groups offer an opportunity for students to build strong relationships by sharing their feelings and solving problems collectively. Restorative circles can be practiced as a proactive approach to preventing anti-social behaviors such as bullying. Proactive work could include regularly discussing norms and expectations for the school community. Instead of punishing students, restorative circles address the reasons for antisocial behavior and give all students an equal voice in building community.

A Shift Toward Inclusion

These are just some of the ways that school leaders can slowly move away from traditions that are often alienating students. Both of these frameworks promote 21st-century academic and social-emotional skills while making school environments more positive and affirming. Implementing these frameworks has the potential to decrease rates of bullying, harassment, and humiliation.

March 2021

Why Do Students Bully?

In High School, I experienced bullying in the form of hazing rituals while playing team sports. Older students told us that it was a traditional rite of passage that all freshman rookies participated in and reassured us with the fact that even our coaches knew about it, which baffles me to think about today. Unfortunately, this one tradition set the tone for other persistent, targeted acts of bullying throughout the year. This bullying seemed to result from simple boredom, a culture of violence, and a deviant need for entertainment.

There are many reasons why individuals choose to bully. Research has shed some light on many of them, and has focused more on why cyberbullying has been on the rise. As we look to prevent and interrupt, we should seek to understand the reasons behind bullying in order to make informed decisions for creating safer schools.

Social-Emotional & Environmental Factors Can Cause Bullying

Why do people choose to bully? When I ask young people this question, they usually mention that aggressors feel jealous or seek power in their relationships. I’m not surprised that they are able to quickly identify these social-emotional factors. Students usually know best what is driving the behavior of their peers. For young people, bullying behavior is connected to a desire for power, revenge-seeking, aggression, or jealousy. Emotional risk factors for bullying also include anger, depression, and impulsivity. A proactive approach to social-emotional awareness and learning at all grade levels, therefore, has the potential to prevent and interrupt bullying behaviors before they begin. This kind of social-emotional learning should take place in school and at home

Individuals may turn to bullying as a result of stress factors or traumatic experiences at home. A recent annual report by Ditch the Label found that individuals who identified with bullying behavior were more likely to have experienced stressful or traumatic situations in the past five years. This could mean anything from the loss of a family member to experiencing arguments and aggression in their home. The same study reported that one in three young people who identified their behavior as bullying also reported that their parent/guardian did not have enough time to spend with them, and were more likely to view their relationships as insecure in some way.

Environmental factors are not limited to the home, the school environment can also influence bullying and cyberbullying behaviors. For example, a negative school climate has been shown to make students more likely to engage in bullying. A simple way to think about it is that those who bully are often reflecting their stress onto others. As educators, we have an opportunity to change the culture of our school but are limited in our ability to influence students’ experiences at home. We can, however, be supportive and listen to students who experience stress at home, and do our best to provide a safe space while they are at school. 

Potential Causes of Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is caused by many of the same factors found in traditional bullying behaviors, however, studies suggest several new risk factors. The social-emotional causes of online bullying are generally the same: anger, depression, and impulsivity. These have been shown to predict a higher likelihood of both bullying and cyberbullying. The same can be said for students who report feeling a lack of empathy for their peers.

Recognizing the newly researched risk factors for cyberbullying can help parents and educators plan interventions. Studies suggest that internet addiction predicts the likelihood of cyberbullying aggression. The more time students spend on the internet, the more likely they are to engage in cyberbullying as a target or aggressor. Students who are currently attending virtual classes should be monitoring their time on devices and the internet. Additionally,  a lack of control over personal information predicts cyberbullying victimization. Students who share too much personal information or leave themselves vulnerable to privacy attacks are more likely to be targeted by cyberbullying.

Another predictor of cyberbullying aggression is anonymity. Acting anonymously online can lead to increased levels of aggression direct toward others within or outside of their community. Much like traditional bullying, a lack of confidence in oneself, a desire for control, and retaliation also serve as risk factors for cyberbullying. Finally, having easy access to social media–and spending too much time using social media– can make individuals more likely to engage in cyberbullying.

The Transition Back to In-Person School

Since virtual learning started there has been a spike in rates of cyberbullying behaviors among students. In some cases, attending class online has posed a new threat to their privacy and left them more vulnerable to online bullying or harassment. We’ve even heard stories of teachers allowing students to leave their cameras off to protect them from harassment.

A recent article in Newsday highlighted this idea:

some students may feel inadequate when they are learning virtually and everyone can see their homes. This crisis has shed light on the inequalities in our society, and schools are just one component.

For many students, the school offers a safe haven from the home, which can be a stressful place. On the other hand, for students who experienced traditional in-person bullying, virtual learning has made it easier to focus and learn. As a return to in-person schooling approaches in many places, we can recognize that the transition will feel different for every student.

Below are some ideas that educators and parents can consider to support students:

1. Set limits for screen-time and social media use. 

2. Develop social-emotional learning opportunities in school and at home. 

3. Discuss both positive and negative experiences online without judgment.

4. Create opportunities for students to talk about the stress they experience at home and in school.

5. Talk openly about the risk factors for bullying and cyberbullying. 

February 2021

A Closer Look at Conflict Resolution

Bullying behaviors should always be interrupted and reported but we also need a clear process for conflict resolution. This requires a sincere apology, making amends, and forgiveness. Both the aggressor and the target should be willing to participate and take the process seriously. For the target. As a trusted adult, you can assure both individuals that, while the harm cannot be undone, this process will make your community stronger. 

Lessons Learned

As a 5th grade teacher, I wanted my students to learn conflict resolution on their own. I knew that they could do it if I gave them the tools they needed. In the weeks before school started up, I created a ‘peace corner’ in my classroom– a space where students who felt harmed could cool down, reflect, request an apology, and give forgiveness. I even bought a bean-bag chair, a few plants, and a box full of stress balls. If someone hurts you, I instructed my students, take some time to cool down, then ask the classmate who harmed you to “talk it out together” in the peace corner using sentence frames:

  • Student A- “When you did…it made me feel…”
  • Student B- “I am sorry for…” Student A- “I heard you say you are sorry for…”
  • Student B- “In the future, I will not…”
  • Student A- “In the future could you please not do…

The magical peace corner freed up time for me to focus more of my energy on student learning, and the routine worked wonders. It promoted emotional regulation, self-expression, and conflict resolution. That is until it stopped working altogether. A simple apology worked for “small” harms like an unreturned pencil or an inadvertent push in the recess line. But when a student felt deeply hurt by an action, “I’m sorry for…” rarely achieved mutual resolution. Deeper hurt was only superficially resolved and their feelings became resentment, retaliation, sadness, shame. Old wounds would re-open at the slightest provocation, or new wounds would open before the old ones could heal. My transformative project, it seemed, had failed miserably. Looking back, it was naive of me to think that conflict resolution would be so simple. C.S Lewis wrote, “We all agree that forgiveness is a beautiful idea until we have to practice it.” My classroom’s conflict resolution toolkit was obviously missing a very important piece: making amends. It was time to press the reset button on the peace corner.

Beyond Apologies

The sentence frames above provide a strong foundation by encouraging students to fully hear one another, however, the true resolution only happens when the individual who caused harm shows empathy and compassion for the impact of their actions. Effective conflict resolution requires deeper levels of emotional intelligence that take time to internalize. The person we’ve harmed is allowed to ask us to make amendsMaking amends means correcting our mistakes through actions that do not harm ourselves, them, or anyone else. As the person who hurt someone else, be it intentional or not, we need to know that a perfunctory “sorry” may not be enough to correct our mistake. Students can make amends by working together on a fun project, spending quality time together, or writing letters to one another.

Lessons for Conflict Resolution

1. It takes courage, humility, and compassion to seek and offer forgiveness. It is not an act of weakness. Share examples of forgiveness in literature and history that demonstrate how forgiveness of one’s enemies made an individual or a group stronger.

2. A true apology recognizes harm and humbly asks forgiveness, focusing on the harm caused, not the intent, with a goal to avoid making the same mistake again and a commitment to rebuilding trust. Making amends means rebuilding the trust to be stronger than before. Begin with compassion and empathy.

3. Discuss characters who have been hurt and examine how we think that person might feel. Explain that forgiveness requires us to understand how our actions affect others. Encourage students to ask the person they’ve harmed, “What would help?”

4. Suggest that students set compassionate boundaries for themselves. If they are repeatedly being harmed by one person, let them know that it could be acceptable not to choose this person as their close friend, as long as they are not excluding this person in order to cause harm.

5. Apologies, amends, and forgiveness aside, the process of healing from trauma is left to the person who experienced it. Apologies and amends might make you feel better but the act of healing is, in the end, up to you. This is where seeking support from others – a counselor, family member, or trusted friend- becomes important. Healing takes time but you will be stronger because of it.

Key Words: Empathy, Forgiveness, Apology, Impact, Healing, Harm, Intent, Personal Boundaries, Making Amends, Humility, Compassion.

The Philosophy of Kintsukuroi

Kintsukuroi (n.) (v. phr.) – “to repair with gold”; the art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken.

This philosophy comes from Japanese artistry and provides a great metaphor for forgiveness. Kintsukuroi or Kintsugi (“golden repair”) is the ancient tradition of adding gold or silver to broken pottery with the philosophy that an item’s imperfections are part of its story, not something to be hidden or disguised.

KintsukuroiI know that I’ve heard about this concept before and maybe you have too but I thought it was worth sharing as a reminder to us all.  It struck me as having unique relevance for our deeper understanding of conflict resolution. Like a broken object, an apology does not magically return the object to its earlier form or hide the breaks. Instead, the breaks become a part of its own unique story. We can teach this imaginative metaphor to help others internalize important lessons about forgiveness and healing.

Just as humans are vulnerable to harming one another and feeling hurt, objects are vulnerable to breaking. Mistakes and harm can always be repaired while becoming a part of our unique story. As Kintsukuroi artisans believe, imperfections are a part of our story and do not need to be hidden. Repairing an object with gold or silver shows to the world that it has a story. Experiencing harm, making amends, and forgiving one another does not erase the mistake or the hurt. Instead, the process makes us stronger and increases our capacity to love and forgive in the future.

January 2021

Helping Young People Develop Resilience

As a kid, I thought that resilience was a superhuman ability belonging to comic book characters who could heal themselves while defeating evil villains. In school, I saw resilience embodied by Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr., who acted with unflagging courage, persistence, determination, and moral excellence in the face of adversity. I figured some individuals were simply born with resilience, bound for the pages of history and comic books.

When High School arrived, I decided I might have been born with some resilience. As a freshman, my track coach told us we needed mental toughness: the ability to overcome the doubts that prevent you from being successful. This became the Jedi mind trick that could quiet the self-doubting voice in my head. Mental toughness, however, couldn’t help me outrun the negative emotions from experiences with bullying and social struggle. Overcoming self-doubt, it seemed, was only one side of the coin.

While working on a family history for a school project, I wrote about how my grandfather died when my late father was only eighteen years old. Despite this hardship, he adapted with courage and determination. He did this by, as he said, “focusing on what I could control and what I still had,” which meant caring for siblings, beginning a career, and starting his own family. Those words always stuck with me. Resilience is not a magically bestowed superhuman ability, nor is it one’s ability to ignore pain. In fact, part of resilience is knowing when we need support from others. Adapting to life’s challenges requires acknowledging that life is full of events that we cannot control, and instead choosing to focus on and control what we can.

Tools for Students

Research suggests that skills like resilience cannot be learned through the traditional methods of teaching. Instead, students can develop the ability to be resilient by learning how to respond to stress. As parents and educators, it is our job to shape the classroom and home environment, giving students the tools to develop resilience.

Student Resilience Checklist

When challenging or stressful situations show up, I will…

  • Remember that life is full of challenges. Resilient people understand that challenges are a part of life. Say: “Everyone faces challenges in life. What matters is how I choose to respond.”
  • Use a growth mindset by choosing to learn and adapt from adversity. I will encourage my peers to have a growth mindset, too. Say: “Adversity helps me grow. Ask: “What can I learn from this experience?”
  • Reach out to trusted individuals for emotional support or encouragement. Asking for help takes courage and makes me strong. Say: “Part of being resilient is knowing when I need help. I can talk to someone about this negative feeling.”
  • Be kind to myself and avoid self-harm. Ask: “Is this thought helpful or harmful?” If it’s helpful, I will keep it. If it’s not, I will choose to ignore it for now and talk to someone later. This will help me stay in control. If someone says something hurtful to me, I won’t repeat it to myself. Instead, I will talk to someone about how it made me feel.
  • Notice the positive; celebrate what I already have. I can beat negative feelings by focusing on the positive. Ask: “What do I have to be thankful for?”
  • Stay focused on my big goals. As a resilient person, I stay focused on my big goals so that little hurdles don’t slow me down. Say: “If I keep working hard, I can accomplish anything. I won’t let this obstacle get in the way of my big goals.”
  • Use a strategy like deep breathing or counting to myself. Focus on my breathing until my body feels better and the negative thoughts go away.

Educator & Parent Actions that Foster Resilience

As educators and parents know, negative stress makes classroom learning nearly impossible. By providing an environment that helps students cope with stress, we can improve overall academic and social outcomes. Research suggests that students who believe they have the capacity to develop both intellectual abilities and social attributes (such as resilience) tend to exhibit lower stress responses to adversity, which can result in improved academic performance. Communicate to students and families that you will be focusing on developing effort, resilience, and perseverance as important life skills. Below are some suggestions for how to do this.

Educator/Parent Resilience Checklist

To foster resilience as an educator or parent, I can…

  • Build strong, supportive relationships with students; foster supportive relationships between students; make sure students know that you and others are always there for them.
  • Affirm and reward students for effort, not just academic achievement or “good grades”.
  • Teach and model a growth mindset by sharing how individuals learned from their mistakes or “failures” and went on to be successful.
  • Help children (and their parents) learn from their mistakes and communicate about the process.
  • Provide students plenty of opportunities to identify times when they and their family members have embodied the spirit of resilience.
  • Lead mindfulness practices such as noticing (but not dwelling on) negative thoughts.
  • Plan routines that allow students to reflect on how they have practiced resilience.

Resilience to Bullying, Harassment, and Humiliation

We shouldn’t need to ask students to develop resilience for bullying behaviors. They should always respectfully interrupt and report any bullying behaviors, and feel comfortable asking for help. That said, an attitude of resilience in regard to bullying can still be beneficial to students in the long run. For this reason, consider offering the following tips to your students.

To encourage resilience, educators can encourage young people to…

  • Address the Issue(s) – Teach proactive habits like standing up for yourself respectfully and safely, reporting the behavior, reaching out to friends, and seeking mental health services as needed.
  • Avoid Victim Mentality – Encourage young people to avoid thinking of themselves as a victim by reminding them that their experience came as a result of another individual’s actions.
  • Seek Acceptance – Provide spaces (including home) where young people are free to be themselves and feel accepted. Encourage them to try new things that they are passionate about.
  • Develop An Emotional Vocabulary – Encourage kids to name their emotions instead of acting on them. It’s OK to feel angry and discuss that feeling. Model and support young people’s development and use of their emotional vocabulary.
  • Question the Critic – Teach young people to notice, question, and ignore self-criticism. Instead, ask them to write down positive affirmations to replace self-criticism in the future.
  • Build a Narrative – Remind young people that they have a history of overcoming bullying behaviors. Remind them that the pain they felt then was only temporary.

December 2020

Teaching #Upstander Behavior

This article offers educators and parents tools they can use to create a community of #Upstanders. In my experience as a teacher, my students acted as Upstanders when they were empowered to be assertive about their values and felt supported by their classmates’ collective efforts to create and maintain the community. If my students asked for help with interpersonal conflict, they found it among their peers, who could empathize and offer assistance. Instead of the teacher (me) putting out fires of bullying or conflict, I wanted students to interrupt, report, support conflict resolutions, and check-in with both individuals after the event. This meant releasing control, talking less and listening more, and creating a space for everyone to be heard. In the sections below, I’ve shared some basic ideas about how to begin this work. 

Identify and Clarify Your Community Expectations

With your class or group, identify the kind of behaviors and interactions members expect from one another. Take note of specific actions or language that made individuals feel unsafe or threatened in the past. Ask students to consider their own experiences with bullying scenarios in all roles: aggressors, targets, bystanders, or Upstanders.

  • Begin by brainstorming important shared values that individuals consider to be important;
  • Use an anonymous pre-survey so that all students feel comfortable sharing;
  • Frame expectations positively;
  • If appropriate for age and context, consider creating expectations regarding real or perceived power dynamics, bias, stereotypes, and discrimination;
  • Guide the group to connect their expectations with shared values;
  • Explain that all students have a collective responsibility to intervene and respond; discuss ways for individuals to respond, including reporting the behavior to a person of authority. 

Example Community Expectation: We choose to reject stereotypes because they lead to prejudiced behavior; they are unfair and harmful. 

Example Shared Value: We collectively value diversity, equality, justice, and social awareness.

Example Collective Responsibility: It is our responsibility as a community to call out and correct stereotypes, bias, prejudice, and discrimination. We will intervene when we feel safe to do so, report the behavior when necessary, and check-in with the targeted individual.

Develop a Collective Responsibility Mindset

Community meetings should promote a collective responsibility, which means that everyone acts in the interest of all other individuals while respectfully holding transgressors responsible. Community meetings offer opportunities for individuals to anonymously discuss bullying or harassment. Community leaders should hold these meetings even if bullying is not being reported because they provide a safe space to discuss the conflict. Holding these meetings is a proactive way to prevent bullying, harassment, and humiliation before it begins. 

As a facilitator, you can encourage discussion of ways to support both the target and the aggressor while also holding their peers accountable for being kind to one another. If a student is bullying, harassing, or humiliating their peers, hold a group meeting that directly addresses the issue without calling out the aggressor by name, however, leave the problem solving up to the students. As a facilitator you might say: I want everyone to know that in this space we do not use names. Instead, we will focus on how behaviors or actions have impacted our community. Then we can work together to come up with solutions to these issues.

Below is one potential process for groups to use when taking collective responsibility for interpersonal conflict and bullying:

  1. Individuals report out to the community about specific behaviors or words anonymously and objectively. For example, “In the past week, I have heard individuals using racial/ethnic slurs that I know to be offensive and harmful to others.” (They should also separately report inappropriate or harmful behaviors and actions directly to a person of authority when it is safe to do so.) Members of the group may also choose to share how this behavior or action has impacted them. 
  2. The group takes collective responsibility by discussing ways to act as Upstanders– holding the aggressors accountable and ensuring that they interrupt in similar scenarios if they happen to occur in the future.
  3. If individuals violated community expectations, the group can discuss appropriate ways for the aggressor to make amends, which can then be taken under consideration by a person of authority. 

What it Means to Create an Upstander Community

Being a community of Upstanders means that individuals act with both self-awareness. Educators should promote the development of self-awareness by encouraging individuals to honestly know and accept themselves, including their goals and values, as well as the obstacles that they often face.

Social awareness, on the other hand, is the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others. One way to support social awareness is to facilitate effective communication such as active listening skills. Group members should practice sharing their own values, as well as listening to the values of their peers. Combining the teaching of these skills will help your community members communicate and solve an interpersonal conflict.

As an educator, parent, student, or colleague, we believe that you have the ability to transform your community into space where #Upstander behavior is the norm. This is possible when everyone has clear expectations that are tied to their values, and a clear sense of how to respond to transgressions. As a group, you can maintain these expectations by checking-in regularly and building rituals that enable group members to communicate about their experiences. In promoting community Upstander behavior, it is your job to help the group arrive at an agreeable solution that meets the needs of all individuals. By doing this, you can empower others to be Upstanders who support and protect one another in an effort to end bullying in all forms. 

November 2020

LGBTQ+ Inclusion

New Jersey recently passed a mandate for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ content in textbooks and social studies curricula in schools throughout the state. Since then, Colorado, Oregon, Illinois, and Maryland have added similar laws. Utah, Arizona, and Alabama recently lifted restrictions on LGBTQ+ issues being taught in schools, however, seven states still have restrictions in place. The remaining 35 states have no specific inclusion laws, which means that many students still do not have access to LGBTQ+ history in their classrooms. 

All children deserve to learn from inclusive representations of history in the classroom. Refusing to include LGBTQ+ content in the classroom may signal to young people that these important stories do not matter and for LGBTQ+ students: that they themselves do not belong. At the Tyler Clementi Foundation, we believe that schools have a responsibility to help all students feel safe, included, and accepted. Stories of individuals overcoming discrimination and fighting for equality teach children that America is great because of its diversity, not in spite of it. In New Jersey, a parent of a transgender child argued that the recent legislation is essential for LGBTQ+ children, “This bill is so important for our young people…they need to see examples of themselves in the history being taught and in classes, they are going to each day. We know representation matters.” 

There is evidence that inclusive curricula improve the school experience for all students. Research suggests that when LGBTQ+ content is included in a school, bullying decreases and the campus climate improves for all students, LGBTQ+ students feel increased levels of safety and school engagement. Inclusion efforts can also increase social awareness, which is the ability to empathize with others from diverse backgrounds. According to a survey conducted by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, some of the most in-demand job skills can be linked to social awareness. As more states adopt the LGBTQ+ curriculum, administrators and educators will need to commit themselves to the work of creating fully inclusive schools.

What is LGBTQ+ Curriculum? 

The One Archives Foundation offers a series of free, standards-based lesson plans on LGBTQ history. These plans are appropriate for high school students and some upper-middle school classrooms depending on student maturity level. Teachers of younger students can adapt these lessons or seek out inclusive books about LGBTQ, transgender, non-binary, or gender-expansive children. Below are a few lessons from the One Archives website:

  • Students can explore the AIDS crisis timeline of events leading up to the second March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in order to consider how LGBT activists responded to government policies regarding AIDS, including their protests for affordable drug prices. They can reflect on how the battle against AIDS influenced the broader movement for LGBTQ+ rights and analyze artwork by Keith Haring and photographs from ACT UP/LA protests. They can watch a short documentary by Scott Calonico about the Reagan Administration’s lack of response to the epidemic. (Full lesson plan here)
  • Students can learn about California’s 2012 FAIR Education Act, which requires schools to include fair, accurate, inclusive representations of LGBTQ+ people in social studies classrooms. They can explore the language of the bill to determine what is meant by fairness, accuracy, inclusivity, and representation in this context. Students can consider both sides of the debate including arguments from organizations that opposed this legislation and watch testimony from Senate Judiciary hearings as LGBTQ+ community members testified on the importance of the law. (Full lesson plan here)
  • Students can explore the life of Bayard Rustin, the gay man who was responsible for planning the March on Washington. Along with Dr. King, Rustin was one of the pioneers of peaceful protest within the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout his career as a Civil Rights Activist, Rustin was forced to keep his sexual orientation hidden from the public and was eventually forced to stop working for Dr. King due to accusations surrounding his sexual orientation. Students will have an opportunity to reflect on the difficult choices that Rustin was forced to make due to his sexuality. (Full lesson plan here)
  • Students can explore how The Ladder magazine offered lesbian women support in the 1950s. They can discuss the fearful reality of living as a Lesbian in the 1950s while learning from the lives of Lesbian activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian-centered organization in the United States. They can discuss why belonging to LGBT communities was important to LGBT individuals in this time period. (Full lesson plan here)

Teachers Can Affirm Children’s Identity & Support Inclusion

Curriculum inclusion is an important step, however, true inclusion and acceptance are just as important. Teachers, Administrators, and Parents should model acceptance and affirmation of children who identify as LGBTQ+, transgender, non-binary, or gender expansive. Doing so will set a clear tone of acceptance in your classroom, workplace, or faith community. In general, LGBTQ+ inclusive spaces support and affirm all gender identities and sexual orientations.

Educators should begin the practice of asking students to introduce themselves along with their gender pronouns in order to be trans and non-binary inclusive. In a survey, 56% of Gen-Z said that they knew someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns. Many individuals have a preferred pronoun to be used when referring to them in the third person, including he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/their, ze/hir/hirs, and other gender-neutral pronouns. New York University suggests that instructors give a questionnaire before the start of classes that includes an opportunity for students to indicate their preferred pronouns. Consider using a Gender Inclusivity Workbook like Creating Authentic Spaces, find a list of gender pronouns, or check out these videos about gender pronouns and why gender pronouns matter. Remind students that it’s okay to make mistakes but that they should apologize and correct themselves.

In order to affirm students and addressing bullying in the classroom: “Teachers can be tremendous allies both in their role as educators and also as affirming adults in the lives of children. For every slur that goes unchecked, an LGBTQ person may be emotionally injured…Using the name and pronouns of a transgender or gender-expansive student is the easiest way to show support and inclusion as well as creating an environment of safety (Accredited Schools Online).” This work of inclusion is an important part of the social-emotional skill of social acceptance.

Raise Awareness for LGBTQ+ Representation

Teachers can also discuss and call attention to representation. This means talking to students about how LGBTQ+ individuals are portrayed in the media and in history, as well as instances of misrepresentation and unequal representation. The documentary Disclosure explores how trans depictions in film and television have not reflected the reality of living as a trans person; the film Miss Representation discusses the lack of representation in the media of women in leadership roles.

Students deserve to see positive reflections of themselves when they turn on the television, read a magazine, or go online. As an educator, you can hold up a mirror by pointing out accurate representations of LGBTQ+ people in the media. You can introduce young people to the recently elected transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming leaders at the state level or discuss the Rainbow Wave that made the U.S. Congress more diverse than ever before.

Find ways to lift up LGBTQ+ individuals, women, and people of color in leadership roles. Although the population of LGBTQ+ individuals has increased, representation continues to lag behind. More than half of Generation Z (age 13 to 20) choose not to identify as strictly heterosexual. There has been an overall increase in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender identification, most of which can be attributed to Millennials. According to GLAAD, between 2008 and 2015, the number of American adults who know or work with a transgender person increased from 8% to 16%. Nick Adams of GLAAD writes, “… it’s crucial that the media increase and improve the coverage…and that transgender people have the opportunity to tell their own stories about our lives and the issues we face.”

Educators Committed to True Equality  

LGBTQ+ individuals are still fighting for true equality in their homes, schools, workplaces, faith communities. In order to teach LGBTQ+ history, we need to imagine a more just and equal future for our children. It takes courage to teach counter-narratives when many of us were raised with one story of American History.

Whether you are an educator or an ally, you should consider yourself part of the movement for inclusion and true equality. Teaching inclusive history is a way of standing in solidarity with all LGBTQ+ individuals. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire describes the mindset of one who is truly committed to the liberation of all people: “This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.”

October 2020

Support Children Experiencing Loneliness

I struggled academically and socially in high school and nobody (myself included) understood why. Teachers described me as creative, friendly, and intelligent, yet I struggled to complete assignments that should have been easy for me and rarely felt like I fit in socially. I attended good schools, had plenty of friends, and received good grades nearly all my life, so my failure to thrive was confusing. I just felt different. A mental health diagnosis could not describe the feeling that a therapist would eventually help me name: loneliness. Although I appeared to be fine, my internal world was a cycle of loneliness and stress. I can see now that I was experiencing social isolation and an unmet need for connectedness and belonging.

As our social lives are interrupted by pandemic, we need to acknowledge the loneliness and stress sometimes caused by social isolation among both adults and children. At the Tyler Clementi Foundation, embracing and accepting all individuals is at the heart of our work. And being an Upstander means reaching out and listening to individuals who need support, checking-in regularly, being open to their experiences and encouraging them to seek mental health support when appropriate. In this time of increased social isolation, how can we better understand loneliness in order to support young people’s need for connectedness and belonging?

What is Loneliness? Who Experiences It? 

Loneliness is essentially an unmet need for connection that can cause discomfort and stress in the body and interfere with our daily lives; it is more common than one might guess and is experienced by children and adults alike. A 2018 study found that loneliness afflicted roughly 60 million (22%) of American adults (this was before the Covid-19 pandemic increased our rates of social isolation). A meta-analysis of several studies suggests that loneliness is associated with harmful effects on physical health (Vox).  Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy explains that people who experience loneliness are often in a constant state of hyper-vigilance, which can lead to increased stress levels. 

Children and young adults who experience loneliness or social isolation may actually have plenty of friends, which means that their struggle is often hard to identify. As author Kate Kelly writes on understood.org, young people who learn and think differently are more likely to experience loneliness. These young people may struggle with traits like self-control, social skills, making conversation, or self-esteem. Kelly also writes that feeling lonely is not the same as being alone or wanting solitude. Students who struggle with socializing do not necessarily experience loneliness or social isolation, however, it is an issue that often goes unnoticed or misunderstood.

The Negative Effects of Social Isolation On Learning and Health 

Social isolation can create patterns that have negative effects on both health and learning. Beyond Differences, an organization that works to end social isolation issued a review of existing scientific literature entitled, “It Hurts More Than You Think.” They define social isolation as, “the absence or perceived absence of satisfying social relationships; [perceiving] a discrepancy between the desired and achieved patterns of social interaction.” In their research, Dabney Ingram and Rebecca London suggest that social isolation can cause numerous negative mental and physical health effects including depression, anxiety, higher blood pressure, increased risk of substance abuse, and obesity in young adulthood. The studies cited in their report also suggest that social isolation in school can lead to lower classroom engagement, decreased attendance rates, and worsened performance on measures of student achievement and high school exams.

Social Isolation

In order to target and prevent loneliness, we must seek out ways to increase feelings of student connectedness and belonging, which is considered the inverse of social isolation. Social isolation prevention, Dabney and London suggest, is one critical step that schools can take in order to meet the needs of all students. A school-wide intervention approach targeting childhood loneliness, that doesn’t single out lonely children but instead changes social practices has been shown to be effective. These interventions could include altering environmental factors or teaching students about the importance of helping those who feel isolated. Some of the authors’ recommendations inspired our ideas in the section below.

Ideas For Parents

  • Help your child cultivate identity and seek affinity among classmates and friends by encouraging hobbies that may help children connect with others.
  • Talk to your children about their culture and traditions including nationality, race/ethnicity, religion; create safe spaces for them to discuss culture among friends.
  • Help young people define their identity more acutely. For example, teach young people to notice that an academic interest like marine biology or theater is an opportunity to connect with a community of like-minded individuals.
  • Consider forming a learning pod during the pandemic, or seek other options for learning and socializing outside of the virtual classroom. Consider planning safe, socially distanced social activities that follow CDC guidelines.
  • Offer opportunities to connect through shared activities. Set safe boundaries for age-appropriate video game and social media use (e.g. avoid posting anonymously). Download our cybersafety guide here for more information on creating family guidelines.
  • Consider encouraging children to join online groups formed around a specific area of interest. Age-appropriate video Games can actually be a source of connection for some children, so consider giving them a chance.
  • Discuss your own need for belonging and connectedness and practice compassion for yourself and others.
  • Develop mindfulness routines that address stress in the body.
  • Be open to your child having mentors and developmentally appropriate friendships across gender identity, age group, and cultural identity.
  • Encourage children to reach out to friends whom they haven’t heard from in a while. As Dr. Vivek Murthy writes:  

“Another thing we can do is service. This is a time where so many people are struggling. So service in a time of Covid-19 doesn’t have to look like going to a soup kitchen or spending a month with Habitat for Humanity. It can look like calling a friend to see how they’re doing. It can be checking on a neighbor who might be older to make sure that they have groceries. It can be FaceTiming with your friends’ children to virtually babysit them for 10 or 15 minutes so their parents have time to sit and breathe.” 

– Dr. Vivek Murthy, Former Surgeon General and Author of Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World

Ideas For Educators

  • If possible, provide opportunities for students to continue participating in affinity groups, student groups, or clubs that encourage students to share their experience with one another. Some virtual conference platforms include options for creating smaller conference rooms, which can facilitate student sharing
  • Set aside virtual class time for students to socialize. If your school is 100% virtual, make a plan for returning to in-person classes that provide opportunities for students to connect with one another socially.
  • Discuss the importance of social inclusion and helping others feel a sense of belonging.
  • Create student mentorship programs that allow young people to connect with others outside of their grade level or classroom.
  • Implement a school-wide loneliness intervention plan for when your students return from virtual learning. Visit beyonddifferences.org to find out how their resources can help you create a culture of belonging.

Upstanders Act with Compassion & Empathy

Young people often take their social cues from adults, which is why we should all strive to act with compassion and empathy. Fostering connectedness and belonging requires us to practice compassion and empathy– qualities that we should all model for young people. Acting with compassion and empathy signals that you want others to feel connectedness and belonging. It’s not always easy, but in this time of social distancing and political division, it certainly feels necessary. On behalf of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, thank you for continuing to be an Upstander!

Article References and Resources

Understood.Org -Loneliness Can Impact Kids Who Learn and Think Differently

Beyond Differences – Consequences of Social Isolation

Vox – America’s Loneliness Epidemic and Coronavirus Pandemic Together

New York Times – Learning Pods

CDC.Gov – Parent Checklist

Tyler Clementi Foundation’s Cybersafety Guide

Connecticut Children’s – Mindfulness Exercises for Kids

September 2020

Embracing Classroom Diversity

In my early days as a classroom teacher, I would often interrupt conflict between students with a simple refrain like, “You don’t have to like them but you’re going to need to tolerate them.” This no-nonsense message often resonated with my 5th and 6th graders, and it helped me maintain peace in the classroom. I said this because I wanted to create a safe, orderly classroom environment where all students could learn and achieve academic success, however, I’ve come to believe that we must aspire for more nuanced understandings that move beyond tolerance. In the words of our CEO Jane Clementi, “schools must not merely “tolerate” children who identify as LGBTQ+ but embrace them.” This need to embrace diversity extends to any difference including race/ethnicity, ability, nationality, or religion. Together, adults and teachers need to push young people toward a deeper understanding of differences.Safe Space

Safe classrooms are spaces in which children can understand their own truth and seek understandings of truth that may be different. By consciously embracing diversity, students can develop curiosity, self-awareness, listening skills, and respect.

This work takes time and commitment. It requires that both teachers and students travel outside their comfort zones, abandon stereotypes, and notice their own bias.

 

Learning Through Mirrors and Windows

mirrorsAdults have a responsibility to encourage children to see their own uniqueness and the diversity that surrounds them, ask questions with genuine curiosity and respect, and embrace what makes them and others unique. Young people need adults who can help them understand their truth while guiding them to understand the truth of others.

Educator Emily Style suggests that education should consist of children learning to look through both mirrors and windows.

A mirror allows children to see their own truth; a window provides them with a chance to see and understand someone else’s truth. Students can see through someone else’s window only if they are listening to their words with an open heart and a willingness to understand; they can find their own truth in a mirror only if they acknowledge how they are different from others. 

Shifting Away from a Normalized Perspective

As a teacher, I would sometimes hear students say, “That’s so gay!”  Why is this phrase still being used to express disbelief or disapproval? As teachers, we have a responsibility to ask, “What do you mean by that?” and to listen with an open mind. We should correct their use of slurs or hurtful language, but we should also guide them to understand why they may have used those words.

fishMany children develop a “normalized perspective” through learned behavior and exposure to external messaging. They are told to behave and speak based on a presumption of heterosexuality and a gender binary, therefore, using the word gay is their response to a behavior that does not fit into this perspective. In other words, “gay” is viewed as “not normal” and students may reflect that view into their world. What they perceive as “not normal” could also be any other kind of difference, including disability, religion, or political view that does not fit into their view of normal. This same scenario can be applied to any difference that challenges children’s preconceived notions and we should be careful not to “shut-down” these conversations.

Teachers should address the comment in the moment and then check-in individually with the student after. Let them know that you notice their willingness to learn about and understand diversity and that you are excited to learn more about their thoughts in the future. Remind them that saying “that’s so gay” can make others feel hurt, alienated either because it challenges their own identity or the identity of their loved ones. Finally, let them know that “difference” goes both ways. While they may see others as different from themselves, that person also perceives them as different. By helping them learn how they themselves might be seen as different, we encourage self-awareness and acceptance of others.

Guiding Children to Embrace Diversity

Seeking to understand our individual truth might be the easy part. The difficulty lies in seeking to understand and listen to and seek to understand the truth of others. Below are some ideas for guiding children to embrace diversity.

 

Model a sincere desire to understand diversity

Say: “This is a kind of diversity that I have less personal experience with (as a cis-gendered/heterosexual/female), so I plan to keep an open mind.” 

Notice when students express a curiosity to learn about diversity

Say: “I noticed that you asked, “What kind of guy would ever want to dress up as a woman?” It’s great that you are curious about transgender individuals. I’m wondering, do you know any?”

Create genuine opportunities for students to practice reconsidering their socialized beliefs by sharing examples in literature, history, or your own experiences

Say: “This experience may seem different to us but let’s try to imagine what it might be like. Can anyone share a related experience? Even though it may seem uncommon, this person sees our normative perspective as different.”

Exercise compassion by acknowledging that everyone is in a different place

Say: “In this classroom, we all have lived experiences that shape and inform our mirrors and windows. Let’s be open to learning new things from ourselves and others.

In closing, whether you are a classroom teacher, youth group leader, or parent, this work can be incredibly challenging. At the Tyler Clementi Foundation, we believe that the reward is worth it.

The good news is that we are not alone. Many, many great educators are already doing it. Below is a list of resources that can help you develop these skills in your classroom. 

Resources

Beyond Tolerance

Teaching Tolerance

National Seed Project Curriculum

Everyday Feminism: What is Heteronormativity?

https://www.weareteachers.com/mirrors-and-windows/ 

Article References

https://nationalseedproject.org/Key-SEED-Texts/curriculum-as-window-and-mirror

https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/07/what-is-heteronormativity/

For more information on implementing these ideas in your classroom, or to share your feedback, e-mail Ryan@tylerclementi.org.