Prevent Bullying by Empowering Student Leaders: Harnessing Your Students’ Strengths to Build a Positive School Culture
Bullying remains a persistent issue in schools at every level all across the world and affects countless students every day. Despite efforts to combat it, bullying—whether online or in person—continues to harm individuals and hinder learning. Traditional approaches often rely on adult-led interventions launched after an incident, but it’s time to recognize the power of student leadership in addressing this problem.
But where do we begin?
Leadership training should be available for any and all students who want it. While many formal leadership roles exist within schools, our message to adolescents is that you do not have to wait to be elected or selected to be a leader. Leadership is a mindset. Leadership is choosing to have an influence. Leadership is about stepping up to offer your unique skills, ideas, and strengths when needed, and stepping back to support the leadership of another when they have something to offer the group. Leadership is about setting a tone, modeling what you expect and hope from others, and making one encouraging move after another to create a lasting ripple of positive change. When students commit to this mindset, they create the greatest chance to prevent bullying, as well as many other negative, harmful, or worrisome behaviors.
We have witnessed dozens of unique and innovative ways to embed leadership training in schools, including through wellness classes, advisory programs, lunchtime sign-ups, athletic sessions, and clubs. If you are looking for a curriculum or training program, OTA has designed forward-focused, easy-to-implement, boundaried leadership training for both middle schoolers and high schoolers. In these trainings, we speak to students like the changemakers and influencers they are, and we provide them with real-world examples and inspiration for positively leading at their schools and in their communities.
Once your students know that you are invested in their development as leaders and care about their well-being, they will become active participants in building mutual trust—and you need this trust in order to make the most of student leaders in your school. Ongoing discussions with trained student leaders can generate incredible insights into current issues and innovative approaches to problems. We recommend running regular focus groups, with students of diverse age and interests, to address building and maintaining a positive, student-led school culture. When we observe these focus groups, we note that students have a habit of simply writing “No Bullying” when they are asked to list the rules or expectations of the school. Rather than letting the conversation stop at “No Bullying,” push your student leaders to discuss and define not only what ISN’T allowed in terms of behavior and treatment at school, but also what IS allowed.
Below is an example of a poster and an explanation of its meaning created by a student leader focus group. (Download Poster Here)
Further description from the focus group:
Allowing Disagreement without Demeaning
Creating opportunities for healthy debate and allowing differing opinions are important for critical thinking and personal growth; however, all views must be expressed respectfully and never with hurtful language toward another person.
Permitting Mistakes without Mockery
Everyone makes mistakes, especially when learning. School must be a safe place where we can try and fail without being ridiculed, and where taking healthy risks is celebrated. We must help others recover from mistakes, not mock their efforts.
Challenging One Another without Bossing or Bullying
Pushing one another to be our best and do our best is vital to each of us reaching our potential, even when done through questioning or challenging. But doing so without being bossy or resorting to bullying tactics is important for the safety and well-being of everyone in our community.
Adults may have come up with similar “allowables” and “disallowables,” but adolescents who are TOLD to uphold rules are far less likely to do so than when they are called leaders and asked to CREATE the rules. Of course, there are laws, mandates, and other matters to consider, but when you give students the parameters within which they need to work and then tell them they are leaders and that this is their school, you offer an opportunity for them to create their own language and explain the policies they come up with to their peers. With the greater buy-in they feel through this exercise, student leaders will work to uphold the rules and appreciate the authority and autonomy they have in creating a school culture they want to be a part of.
Researchers in adolescent behavior have long observed that peers have a more substantial influence on adolescents than adults do, a finding also noted regularly by youth-serving adults. This influence is not to be discouraged but instead harnessed. When we adults partner with students and allow space for their ideas and voices, we see positive cultural change in schools that is wider, deeper, and faster than top-down anti-bullying campaigns can achieve. So, invest in training your students to lead, and then create space and opportunity for them to help shape your school into the safe and supportive learning environment all students need to thrive.