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Teaching Bullying Prevention, School Climate, and SEL: Seven Research-Informed Principles for Schools of Education

Did you know that October is National Bullying Prevention Month? AACTE member professor Ron Avi Astor, who holds joint appointments in the schools of social work and education at the University of Southern California, has two new books out this fall addressing bullying prevention and creating welcoming schools for vulnerable groups, and he prepared the following article to share some of his research and resources with Ed Prep Matters readers. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of AACTE.

Preparing our nation’s teachers, principals, superintendents, and pupil personnel to create safe, welcoming, and supportive schools has become a high priority for colleges and universities. PK-12 schools have the power to prevent students from becoming bullies and to prevent victims from becoming bullies or being further victimized. Organizations such as the American Educational Research Association and the National Academy of Sciences have put forth research summaries and materials for universities to use with this aim in mind. In addition, many states are now actively working with organizations such as the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning to better implement social and emotional learning (SEL), positive school climate, and bullying prevention into schools and to consider ways to measure these areas as part of their state student surveys and accountability systems. (See list below for useful resource links.)

Nationally, the Every Student Succeeds Act also urges states to address school climate, bullying, and other nonacademic issues as part of their accountability systems. These developments hold promise for a massive positive change in the lives of millions of students and teachers. Research spanning decades (see below) shows that teacher, administrator, and pupil personnel candidates in university programs need to understand a set of overarching principles when learning about bullying prevention. Educators should consider these specific guidelines to make bullying prevention scalable and sustainable:

  • The most effective ways to deal with bullying are built on a whole-school approach. All the teachers, administrators, janitors, playground monitors, secretaries, parents, students, and those volunteering in the school need to share common understandings, procedures, and ways of communicating and have the same mission in order to prevent and not just “deal with” bullying after the fact.
  • Creating a welcoming, positive school climate, integrating SEL, and empowering students and teachers to openly discuss bullying can prevent it. Students, school staff members, parents, and community members have a wealth of information and knowledge that is central to the success of bullying prevention programs. Processes to engage them are core to the success of bullying prevention strategies.
  • Academic achievement, a positive school climate, SEL, and bullying prevention are interconnected. The order and patterns of bullying interventions are important. Recent longitudinal studies of schools in California and comprehensive research reviews show that a positive school climate can contribute to better mathematics, reading, and literacy outcomes. The studies also suggest a counterintuitive pattern. Schools that place a strong focus on academics and include efforts to improve school climate and prevent violence have increases in academic achievement. They also have significant reductions in bullying with increases in positive school climate. However, schools that only focus on improving the climate or reducing violence do not seem to significantly raise academic achievement.
  • SEL, climate, and bullying prevention efforts are more sustainable over time if integrated into traditional academic subjects and the academic school improvement process rather than implemented as an outside, supplemental program. Ideally, bullying prevention should be happening in the core academic subjects as part of the overall school improvement plan.
  • Each school in each district may have different types of bullying behaviors and different vulnerable groups. In one school, verbal and social exclusion may be a major problem, while another nearby school, with similar demographics, may have issues primarily with weapon use or sexual harassment. Each type of bullying requires a separate approach, and one-size-fits-all programs normally fail when applied across many schools. Having ongoing, reliable local data about the nature of bullying, school climate, teacher support, and student peer groups is a cornerstone for successful programs.
  • Educators learn best when they have real-life examples of schools similar to theirs that have improved climate, reduced victimization, and raised student achievement. Materials and examples detailing how other schools have succeeded are very important. Monitoring and mapping data from schools within the same communities and districts can be important tools for sharing lessons and creating a wider synergy within geographic regions around ideas that work at the local level.
  • It’s important to prevent bullying when a student first enters a school by using welcoming routines and making sure the student has a positive peer group and warm interactions with teachers and other personnel. This is true for all students but particularly for vulnerable groups of students such as those who are in foster care, homeless, from military families experiencing frequent deployments to war zones and multiple school transitions, and from immigrant groups, both documented and undocumented. How schools welcome these families and students while acknowledging their culture and family circumstances potentially makes a huge difference in whether students are bullied or victimize other students.

If universities and colleges could teach these principles to future teachers, administrators, and other school personnel, many students who might have become victims of bullies will never have to live through those experiences, and those who may have been bullies in another school without these approaches will never bully anyone again.

Selected Research

Astor, R. A., Guerra, N., & Van Acker, R. (2010). How can we improve school safety research? Educational Researcher, 39, 69-78.

Benbenishty, R., & Astor, R. A. (2005). School violence in context: Culture, neighborhood, family, school, and gender. New York: Oxford University Press.

Benbenishty, R., Astor, R. A., Roziner, I., & Wrabel, S. (2016). Testing the causal links between school climate, school violence, and school academic performance: A cross-lagged panel autoregressive model. Educational Researcher, 45(3), 197-206.

Berkowitz, R., Moore, H., Astor, R. A., & Benbenishty, R. (2017). A research synthesis of the associations between socioeconomic background, inequality, school climate, and academic achievement. Review of Educational Research, 87, 425-469. doi:10.3102/0034654316669821

Other Resources

American Educational Research Association

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning

Editor’s Note: The author’s two new books are now available for order with an academic discount using the codes shown below:

Astor, R. A., & Benbenishty, R. (2017). Mapping and monitoring bullying and violence: Building a safe school climate. New York: Oxford University Press. https://goo.gl/XUFB1M (30% discount code ASFLYQ6)

Astor, R. A., Jacobson, L., Wrabel, S., Benbenishty, R., & Pineda, D. (2017). Welcoming practices: Creating schools that support students and families in transition. New York: Oxford University Press. https://goo.gl/S9a1XP (30% discount code ASFLYQ6)

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Ron Avi Astor

University of Southern California