Creating Kind, Safe, and Inclusive School Cultures

In my 30 years of practice as a school social worker, I’ve enjoyed working in four elementary schools and a middle school and high school. School communities are mirrors of societies with many similar dynamics. There is a tendency for societies to develop hierarchies. Those with more status exert their power over those with less status. And in some primary and secondary schools, this can mean the older students feel entitled to treat younger students in unkind ways, sometimes rising to bullying.

By creating kind, inclusive school communities, bullying and cyberbullying, as well as unkind behaviors, are less likely to occur. And when they do happen, the students from these healthy school cultures are more likely to know how to respond in a kind and helpful way by standing up to the hurtful behaviors either online or in the schoolyard.

These are students who share ownership and thereby take responsibility for maintaining a kind culture. I will outline a path whereby students look out for one another and take care of the younger and socially more vulnerable community members, for example students on the autism spectrum and students who identify as LGBTQ or are perceived to be LGBTQ.

Students who feel that they have a role to play as helpful upstanders at school can carry on this attitude on social media. Ultimately it requires that students need to trust adults. The current statistics do not reflect that trust. Nationwide, only 19 percent of students report bullying and only 11 percent report cyberbullying.

It starts with laying down a foundation of kindness and inclusiveness. To accomplish this, I’ve developed school programs which partner with students. One is for elementary schools named FAB and the other is WAM for secondary schools. 

The first norm I changed in my elementary schools was to address the practice of having boyfriends and girlfriends. I collaborated with the principals to establish an expectation that there are “no boyfriends or girlfriends.” This eliminated a dynamic whereby the focus of student’s attention was “who is going out with who,” “who do you like,” “who just broke up?” This drama ends up causing rumors, distress, and power dynamics that spill into classrooms and takes the attention off schoolwork. Once the older boys no longer felt they needed to be “attractive and cool” to impress the girls, and the girls no longer felt pressure to have a boyfriend to establish their popularity, it removed one of the components that can perpetuate a power structure. It goes without saying that this drama can easily play out in social media.

Friendship Assistance Brigade

FAB stands for Friendship Assistance Brigade. In creating this foundation of kindness, I conducted a survey asking students how they feel in the community and how much unkind behavior they notice.  I’d like to underline the fact that I do not use the word bullying, which is too limiting a term. I explained to students that kind and unkind behaviors are more reflective of what occurs.  I asked them to keep their focus on kindness and if they encouraged and modeled kindness, this would ultimately result in less bullying.

Once the survey was completed, I tabulated the data using colorful pie charts and presented the findings to the students. Rather than doing the interpreting myself, I asked them, “What do you see? What do you think of this?”  Frequently, survey results are not shared with students. Yet they are the ones that most urgently need to see it. They are the stakeholders. By sharing this with them, I demonstrated that I respected their opinion and invited them to become partners in moving forward.

When I was ready to start FAB, I pitched it to the 4th and 5th graders. I asked them, “Remember when you were the young ones and you looked up to the 4th and 5th graders and wanted to be like them? Now that you are the oldest students, you can choose to be a good role model and the younger students will want to be kind like you and they too will want to be in FAB when they get older.” And that is exactly what happened. Most of the younger siblings of FAB members also joined when they were old enough.

We met during lunch and recess once a week. During this time, they practiced the skits that had been developed over the years often in response to situations brought to our attention by students, or teachers.  They performed the skits, which are unscripted improvs, three times.

Take one is the unkind way. Take two involves an upstander stepping in, and take three is the kindest way.

Some of the more popular skits were: include others in play; boys and girls can play together (without teasing); share the ball; party invitations from home; be kind when someone makes a mistake; no bragging about grades, about winning, or about some expensive new item you received; and “stop means stop.” These skits were then presented at school assemblies or in individual classrooms. During our time together, we read and discussed books about bullying, upstanders, and kindness.  We spent time problem solving; we learned how to resolve conflicts and students developed compassion and empathy.

Here are some examples of how I knew FAB was successful. First, bullying events decreased. One example of awareness and compassion occurred when three students came to me and reported that they had read a book about autism from the school library, and concluded that one of their classmates fit the description and furthermore, he was being bullied right under the teacher’s nose and the teacher was unaware.

Another successful outcome happened when a socially isolated young person on the autism spectrum joined FAB. He initially did not join. I attributed that to the fact that he didn’t really understand the idea. So, I called his mother and asked for permission to be more persistent in my invitation to have him join. Well, he did join and became one of the most active and excited skit actors. He was in a skit for the entire school. Other members of FAB had shared with me that he had been bullied the year before. They told me this with him present. I asked them to look out for him. He stopped being bullied and he did develop a friendship group. The takeaway is that recruitment often involves reaching out personally to students. 

I found other opportunities for laying down the foundation of kindness. I offered lessons to all the 4th and 5th grade classrooms about safe, kind, and smart use on the internet. We covered everything including pop ups, spam, social media, netiquette, chain mail, addiction, and cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying was the most comprehensive unit and included covering sexting with the 5th graders. I would describe the forms of cyberbullying and explain ways to be an upstander. I proposed that one of the avenues they could take was to befriend the target and not to be sucked into the back-and-forth flame war. Throughout, I pointed out the importance of letting their adults know. And we practiced how to respond kindly online after brainstorming some ideas.

Also, I always asked them to educate me about their online experiences.  They were eager to share what was happening in their cyber worlds and via this questioning and invitation to share, they disclosed some scary situations that they had encountered. My intention was that by asking questions, and providing space for them to share their experiences, I was building the trust and the open communication that are necessary components when creating safe and kind communities.

Another vital component to creating inclusive and safe schools is to be present during recess.  It entails walking around and noticing what is happening socially. Who is all alone? Are girls permitted to join sport activities and are all players treated respectfully. How are teams picked?

Pay Attention

This brings me to underlying principles that point to best practice for all school staff in preventing bullying. First, pay attention. Bad stuff happens right under the noses of adults. Regardless of why teachers don’t intervene, this is interpreted by students as “they don’t care.” There are, of course, many school staff, including teacher aides, who do pay close attention and have been some of the most effective responders to unkind behavior.

If you see a group rough housing and everyone is laughing, don’t assume that everyone is having a good time. Be aware of the pecking order. Talk privately with the student on the bottom. Ask them if they are enjoying it. They may say “yes.” But if you have a gut feeling that it is one sided, you can ask all of them politely to stop the rough housing.

An example of paying attention happened years ago when I came across a student sitting by himself eating his lunch. Another student approached him asking him for his sandwich, which he immediately handed over. I asked him privately later if he meant to share his food. He said he did not. I asked him if he’d like me to talk to the other student or if he wanted to himself. He asked me to. When I approached the other student, he was quite taken aback. He’d assumed that the other student was okay with it and promised not to ask him for food again. The takeaway is pay attention, ask questions, interview the person of concern privately, never with the perpetrator.

Ask Questions. I have found that youth love to talk about social issues online and in school. They just may not want to disclose what is happening to themselves. To get around this, I ask what they are seeing in terms of bullying or unkind behavior in others. Once the pressure is off them, I have found that students are very forthcoming.

Follow through. On many occasions, students have reported to me that in their schools there was an initial big response to bullying but that once the situation had blown over, there was no follow through and the bullying reemerged. This turns out to be one of the chief reasons that students don’t share what is happening. They think that either the adults will do nothing helpful, or they will make it worse. They do not trust that the adults will intervene in a successful way.

Be the One. Make sure that every student has at least one adult in the school that they feel close to.  Someone must “be the one” to ensure that every student feels that they belong to a caring community.

Welcoming Allies and Mentors

Which brings me to WAM, a program for  middle and high school students. WAM stands for Welcoming Allies and Mentors. It came about many years ago when a teacher approached me and asked if I could do something about the high schoolers who were in effect hazing the new middle schoolers. My school spanned 6-12th grade. I began with a survey and had a team of students analyze the results and pursue a program that would address their concerns. WAM grew out of this.

WAM totally switched it up, creating a new school norm from having older students complain about and harass or ignore younger students to being their allies, friends, and advocates. Older students are matched with incoming 6th graders and other new students. These mentors are responsible for orienting new students over one day of information sharing and ice-breaking games.

They are then paired with their student/s for the rest of the year and often continue this relationship until they graduate. They become the go-to person when their mentee has questions or concerns. The WAM team met once a week to discuss the general tone of the community and any problems that they had seen. One such issue was that the older students were budging in the lunch line.

We brought in an expert to discuss suicide, signs, responses, and the necessity of sharing concerns with adults. We learned about hidden and not so hidden disabilities. We recruited students with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Muscular Dystrophy, Attention Deficit Disorder,  Tourette Syndrome, and autism to speak at an assembly to share some of the characteristics of their disability and how it produced challenges, and most importantly, how the community could be supportive. This trust and sharing of information are indicative of a community that is safe, kind, and inclusive. WAM also organized fun bonding events for their mentees.

Just as with FAB, there were no barriers to joining WAM. No grade requirements, no behavior requirements, no essays, or teacher recommendations. And as with FAB, I actively recruited students that would offer diversity. I had one student sign up who was known to the community as being unkind. I reminded him that in signing up he would have to be a good role model and that he didn’t exactly have that reputation. He assured me that he was ready and eager to turn a new leaf. He ended up being one of the most effective leaders and a terrific role model.

Another student that I actively recruited was a loner. He reluctantly joined and became one of the most popular WAM mentors. His students absolutely adored him, and he came out of his shell and relished in the discovery that he had something to offer others. One member of WAM became a very vocal and articulate leader for students on the autism spectrum.

Another strategy I have used to open communication and establish kind, inclusive school norms was to teach an internet class as well as a section about how to be a helpful upstander for incoming 6th graders. I also conducted a survey of the 6th graders to ascertain if they felt safe and welcome and to provide them with the opportunity to express concerns.

Trusting Adults

How does all this apply to cyberbullying? Once the community has a norm of looking after each other with kindness and compassion, it does migrate to online behavior. What I noticed was that when something did go awry, students were more likely to find adults to share concerns with. They had acquired the skills and the compassion to be helpful upstanders, and they had trust in the adults to be helpful.

To have the best outcome in maintaining safe, inclusive, and kind school cultures, students need to feel trust in their adults. Adults need to partner with students and demonstrate that they care and are truly interested in what they have to say. Students need to take the helm in establishing and maintaining norms of kindness and inclusiveness.

—By Celia Clement

Celia Clement was a social worker for more than 30 years in the Ithaca City School District. She is the author of Three Sisters: A True Holocaust Story of Love, Luck, and Survival.

This article is adapted from a presentation delivered in a panel discussion on “Strengths Based Intervention & Prevention Approaches” at the 2022 United in Kindness symposium on cyberbullying sponsored by the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force. CLICK HERE TO WATCH A VIDEO OF THE EVENT