When middle school students are bullied by their peers, they’re at a much higher risk for low self-esteem, anxiety, stress, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. The bullies don’t fare very well either. Studies indicate that one in four ends up with a criminal record by age 30.

A rise in anti-bullying programs has been seen nationwide, but many haven’t proven to be very effective. For starters, middle school students frequently have neither patience or interest in information that is deemed as parental advice. During this stage of adolescence in which the “know-it-all” attitude is pervasive, these programs struggle to make a significant impact and to affect long-term behavioral change. One reported study even showed that anti-bullying programs had the unintended effect of helping bullies better mask their behavior by teaching them the traits that were being monitored by the school staff.

Another issue with anti-bullying rhetoric is that it focuses on reactions to the problem, instead of addressing the underlying behaviors that cause it. Common advice includes walking away from bullies, ignoring their insults, not responding with anger or physical force, and of course, telling an adult. While some of these strategies may work in the moment, there’s a more effective approach to dealing with middle school bullying.

This is where mindsets-based social emotional learning comes in. The techniques to follow have been utilized with hundreds of thousands of students at 7 Mindsets schools, and are based on research and over a decade of collecting evidence. Whether you are a teacher, a school principal, or a leader in a position to positively improve your school’s culture, here’s a unique blueprint that works every time.

4 steps to dealing with middle school bullying:

1. Create an environment of hope

Middle school is a challenging time for adolescents. Many are entering a brand new environment with new teachers and new classmates. The academic work load increases substantially, they’re dealing with growing bodies and puberty, and, in general, are wondering if or how they fit in. For many, it’s their first time dealing with the emotions related to girl/boy pressures. This combination adds stress, anxiety, and fear to an already tense and unfamiliar situation.

The body’s reaction to all of this is to release cortisol–a hormone that regulates stress levels. Unfortunately, increased cortisol also lowers an individual’s ability to feel compassion, empathy and manage his/her moods. Elevated cortisol levels can interfere with learning and have even been linked directly to depression. It’s no wonder that an estimated 15-20% of middle school students are believed to struggle with depression, and it’s no surprise that middle school is such fertile ground for bullying.

Depression is the inability to see hope. When students live with high levels of fear, stress and anxiety, they often develop a belief that things may never get better. Hope, however, combats feelings of despair. Optimism can be both taught and learned.

You can create an environment of hope by modeling it yourself. Maintain high expectations for your life and share your goals and dreams with your students. Begin encouraging students to raise their own expectations and to aim even higher with their goals and dreams. Then try this activity:

Ask your students to raise one hand as high as they can (from a seated position). When they’ve done so, ask if anyone can raise their outstretched hand one or two inches higher (remaining seated). Almost all of them will probably be able to do so. Have them put their hands down, then point out that you asked them to raise their hands as high as they could the first time. Explain that the reason they got their hands even higher is because they didn’t fully understand their potential. Tell them that you’ll be encouraging them to stretch to new levels of achievement from now on.

2. Teach Connectedness

You’ve probably heard the saying, “It’s a dog eat dog world,” or heard the term “self-made” applied to someone who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. Our society loves to highlight instances of independent success. After all, if you want something done right, you better do it yourself…or so we often hear. The problem is that the idea of total independence while en route to triumph is a fallacy.

The world’s most successful people approach their relationships with others in a completely unique way. One such individual said, “If you can accomplish your dreams alone, you’re not dreaming big enough.” Highly effective achievers understand the importance of learning to work with others, for others, and even through others.

John Schnatter–better known as “Papa John” from the famous pizza chain–talks about how he once worked 18-hour days, exhausted, filled with stress, and with no time for his family and friends. When he finally realized what he was doing to himself, he decided to make a change, and ceased believing in the success fallacy of getting to the top all by himself. He began seeking ways to work with others, learned to delegate, and started to view the different perspectives and approaches to business that others brought to the table as positive contributions. He cites this shift in thinking as critical in his ultimate success.

One way to teach connectedness is to ask your students to research someone in history whose success was attributed to the ways they worked with others. Have them share their findings with the class. For example, when Abraham Lincoln was elected President, he did the unthinkable by appointing a number of his rival politicians to his cabinet. He believed it was important to utilize their wisdom and find synergies in these relationships to best serve the country. This resulted in a group who after vehemently opposing one another during the election, came together to steer America through its darkest days.

After guiding your students through some of these stories of connectedness, try creating more group projects that will allow them to put this concept into action. The projects themselves aren’t as important as the students working together toward common goals…which will ultimately keep them looking for ways to empower one another.

3. Model the Virtues of Vulnerability 

Vulnerability means being able to be your authentic self and connect with others without fear and shame. The challenge is that many people view being vulnerable as a sign of weakness, so they put up walls to create distance from others. As educators, it’s important to model to our students that we ourselves have shortcomings, we’re working to improve them, and that we aren’t afraid to show them to others.

Self-compassion is awareness that we all have flaws, and that having them is a part of life that everyone faces. This recognition leads to increased compassion for others who are struggling with their own feelings of self-worth.

You can model the virtues of vulnerability by creating an environment where it’s okay (and even encouraged) to make mistakes and learn from them. Teach your students to empathize by understanding that everyone has imperfections, and that mistakes are an integral part of success. We want our students to be comfortable with all aspects of who they are.

Ask the students’ permission to make the classroom a safe place to take chances. Ask if they agree to support one another as everyone is trying their best and dealing with their own issues. If asked from a place of compassion, my experience is that they will welcome the opportunity to be in an environment that is non-judgmental. Ideally, this would become part of the school culture practiced by all teachers, staff and students.

When students get to know one another on an emotional and supportive level, they begin to see similarities between their own feelings and emotional needs and those of their classmates. This enables them to better identify with each other and have more empathy–a connection that significantly reduces any desire to cause misery or harm to another person.

4. Foster a Community of Kindness 

People who are nicer and do favors and good deeds for others without any expectation of reciprocity are typically happier and more successful. In addition, individuals who practice an attitude of gratitude on a regular basis are both more fulfilled and kinder to others. Research also indicates that helping others is an authentic way to experience more meaning and significance in life. It’s one of the fastest ways to reduce stress and anxiety.

There are several, simple ways you can foster a community of kindness. You can initiate a practice of random acts of kindness in class, throughout the school, and in the broader community. Turn it into a project in which students perform good deeds, and then share how that made them feel–especially if they received any feedback from the recipients of their kindness.

To help your students experience more gratitude, ask them to make a list of things for which they’re grateful. Then ask them to make a list of the nice things others have done for them. Allow them to openly share what they have included on their lists. Make this a part of the weekly routine, and encourage your students to go through their days with eyes wide open to spot opportunities to be grateful. When they start to realize how much other people have done for them, it will bolster their self-worth and self-esteem. If they can learn to be genuinely thankful for what they have in life, they’ll be less likely to focus on or envy what others have.

The more gratitude they practice and experience, the happier they’ll be. And when we are happy, there is less room for anger. This state of gratitude leads to a desire to be more kind and caring to others. Isn’t this exactly what we want in our middle school classrooms and schools?

Changing negative behaviors and forming a positive culture in your school can be sustained if you create an environment of hope, teach connectedness, model the virtues of vulnerability and foster a community of kindness. When these principles are embraced, it creates an inhospitable place for bullying to exist. At a minimum, students are more intrinsically happy and better equipped to deal with challenging situations. As always, I’d love to read your comments and any other strategies that have worked for you.

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