New Teachers Need Training to Recognize Bullying

By Partnership for 21st Century Learning

When and where do new teachers learn about the bullies? 

When three-year-old munchkins, barely out of training pants, are already showing their muscle through inappropriate and aggressive behavior, it's time to pay attention. In 2005, Yale professor Walter Gilliam shocked anyone listening when he said that 3 year-olds were being expelled at three times the rate of children in kindergarten through grade 12. Over three million elementary and secondary school students are suspended a year, and 28% of middle and high school students report being bullied at school. This statistic worries us, especially when we know that novice teachers, be they pre-K or 12, have little or no preparation to deal with this phenomenon.

Expulsion is just a quick fix that is neither a means to an end nor an end in itself. Nothing gets solved and the opportunity to alter that challenging, aggressive behavior is lost. The scared children remain. Learning is impaired when children are scared.

Socio-Emotional Learning: A Necessary Intervention
Enter SEL, the Social and Emotional Learning program, basic to children's moral development, motivation and citizenship, that teaches children how to manage their emotions, reduce aggressive behavior and create a friendlier climate. It establishes positive social competence and interactions, develops empathy and handles challenges constructively.

Developing a caring, encouraging environment where children feel safe to participate, know how to sit still in a circle and pay attention, is crucial to successful learning for every child from his or her first day in school. We would like to think that preschoolers have a carefree life at school - loaded with fun activities and free of responsibilities and emotional and physical pain. For too many that's just not the case and we need to support them with the tools to manage social challenges and emotional needs and teach our wounded how to bounce back- aka resilience. A little one may be dealing with anything from exclusion, "You can't play with us," to ducking chairs hurled around the classroom, or to crying over a child who thinks his sole mission is to bite, kick, hit, scratch or punch anyone in sight.

We know that all the kids aren't entirely all right. Children who bully may be getting set up at school. What does that mean? A "real" bully may intimidate the child. For example, "If you don't take that toy from him and give it to me, I'll take your toy." Imagine the outcome if these two five-year-olds could negotiate taking turns and express their emotions in socially appropriate ways. Consider how this outburst and other similar ones suddenly change the classroom climate and impact the other children.

Our emotions and relationships affect how we learn, and not all children come to school emotionally prepared to learn. When studies report that one of the two main keys to a child's future school success are well-developed social and emotional skills, it's time to pay attention.

Teaching children to use their minds and not their fists, their heads and not their hands, stops hurtful behavior in its tracks, is effective in reducing long-term damage and boosts a child's ability to learn. That puts the responsibility on the schools to create an opportunity– an environment that helps our future generations realize their talents and their potential.

Who Will Do the Job?
As we look at conventional teacher training programs in our schools of education where undergrads get ready to teach, we see very little formal preparation on how to build the environment that fosters any 21st century skills. In pre-preparation of new teachers, it is hard to find any emphasis on socio-emotional learning. To top off this weak pre-preparation of new teachers, only a quarter of U.S. and Canadian states and territories require adequate SEL training, according to a study by researchers from the University of British Columbia.

Teaching today's children to learn 21st Century Skills such as critical thinking, how to collaborate, work in teams and solve problems provides a head start to acquiring the skills students will need to have an edge up on their competition locally and globally. For many preschoolers who already live in a digital world, engaging with others will be a brand new experience. Thus, it would seem sensible that young teachers know at least the basics for SEL.

How Will This Happen? Who Will Do the job?
Effecting change begins at the top and filters down through the ranks. Families and schools, like successful corporations, are built on solid, stable leadership. Principals, the leaders in the school environment, have the most opportunity and the main responsibility for implementing, promoting and enhancing SEL programs. When principals communicate to teachers and families that they value and are committed to supporting and implementing SEL programs, the chances of success are greater. Creating a school climate where all students can thrive, feel safe, supported, academically challenged and socially competent nurtures a positive culture.

Some teachers report that they appreciate having access to behavioral consultants that work in classrooms. In an effective program, a trained SEL expert works regularly with teachers to model lessons and techniques, observe, provide suggestions and monitor improvement. It is more effective than typical sit and listen training, where groups of teachers listen to a speaker, because coaching gives young teachers real-time and immediate one-on-one feedback from an experienced mentor.

For the new teacher, such a thorough professional learning program is not just a nice thing to have after all the academic programs are finished, it is essential to the well being of students. Responding to socio-emotional needs is challenging work that doesn't show up on a test.

A teacher, trained in SEL shared the following: "During a lesson on respecting others who are different, a student started to cry. The teacher leaned in and asked if everything was all right. She said that she had something she wanted to share and told the class that the teasing was deeply bothering her. Immediately, things began to change. Everyone apologized. The other students began inviting her to play and sitting with her in the cafeteria.

Before her coaching, the teacher admitted she wouldn't have known how to make the student feel safe enough to speak up. She wouldn't have had the language. Other teachers have noticed students become better listeners, more respectful and more able to calm down. Many time-starved teachers report a definite reduction in student conflicts allowing them more time to teach and engage. 

Lessons Learned
Today, we are learning the value, need and the importance of teaching social and emotional skills as much as teaching academic skills. "If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail," said Abraham Maslow, noted psychologist recognized for creating the hierarchy of needs.

Rutgers psychology professor, Maurice Elias contends that, "We have had a misplaced priority on preparing children for a life of tests. This must be more balanced by preparing them for the tests of life so they will truly be college-career and contribution-ready."

Finally, there's the ROI- return on investment. Released in March 2015, "The Economic Value of Social and Emotional Learning," written by Clive Belfield, Brooks Bowden, Alli Klapp, Henry Levin, Robert Shand and Sabine Zander, discovered that all assessed programs indicated measureable benefits that surpassed costs, highlighting, "On average for every dollar invested equally across the six SEL interventions, there is a return of $11, a substantial economic return."

We have the flowers, our children, and we have the planting seeds, SEL. It's up to us to equip our preschoolers with the social and emotional skills they need to blossom. Together, we can make it happen and enhance every child's future opportunities. The challenge of change is upon us.

Written by Alexandra Penn, Founder of Champions Against Bullying, and Leigh Rachel Faith Fujimoto, U.S. Director of Champions Against Bullying. Cartoon courtesy of Champions Against Bullying.

This post first appeared on the P21 Blogazine. Views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.