Friday, 17 April 2015

The journey begins

This blog chronicles the journey of developing the Build Positive Relationships and School Cultures Program. Reflections are by Project Manager, Dr Sue Stack.

1 February 2015

How do schools engage parents in conversations about "bullying"? 

Is this what we really want to talk about?

At the end of last year I was asked if I would like to manage a project funded from the Safe School Framework to promote not just awareness around bullying but also to develop approaches that link into the Tasmanian Respectful Schools Framework

A key awareness event is the 20th March National Day of Action Against Bullying and Violence. Schools are encouraged to register and consider some of the activities.  The website has tips for teachers, parents and students, "bully blocking" apps for students, videos and lesson plans. Last year a number of Tasmanian schools created "Bystander" videos to get across the message of how bystanders can radically change bullying situations.

But this funding is slightly different. It is about creating a process that might engage parents in conversations and be part of processes to help develop school policy. There are three schools - A primary school (K-6), a High School (7-10) and a Senior Secondary School  (11-12). Each is doing something different and has a slightly different challenge. 

The primary school is a no rules school - rather students act from a strong values base to work out what is respectful behaviour in different situations. The High School is one year into developing a School-Wide Positive Behaviour Support (SWPBS) model, and the Senior Secondary School uses restorative approachesmethod of shared concern and ACT mindfully.  All of them were interested in finding ways to engage parents more.

Pete is the principal of the primary school and was keen to be part of the project:
The issue we have here is that parents will come in all upset saying their child has been bullied. They want to see action - some sort of punishment for "The Bully". "Bullying" is such an evocative term - we have all sorts of associations in our head about how bad it is and how people can be affected. That is true, but often what has happened is not actually bullying - it may be a one-off or it may not involve power.  And punishment is not the answer - it can make it worse. It doesn't address the underlying causes and it discourages reporting of bullying behaviours. Students may not even tell their parents that they are bullied, afraid of their parents taking action. 
I would like any process that we develop for our school to be restorative and an opportunity for social learning. I would not want to see any kid leaving the school or being expelled. That's the problem if you use a ladder of consequences with increasing repercussions for behaviour - they can end up getting expelled - and that doesn't help the long term future of the student. They don't have to be friends, or to like each other, but I would like to see them find a respectful way of relating.
I would like to say to parents that it takes a village to raise a child and how can allparents be responsible for all children. I would like to ask them what sort of processes they would like in place if their child was "The Bully." 

Then Pete reflected:
My first thought is we need to help parents develop a definition of bullying - to know when it is and isn't bullying, and then we can work out what to do. But now I wonder about the whole approach of saying NO to something. Wouldn't we be a lot better off saying YES to something? What are we valuing here?

I asked Pete in that case does the focus of the project on bullying actually fit his ethos for the school. He thought about it.
Yes, I think so. It is a difficult issue. The word "bullying" is still out there, parents use it.  We need to address it  - but we need to frame it more in the context of the respectful schools framework. If we can develop a process for working with parents through such a difficult issue then we can use it for other issues. 

We decided we needed to sleep on it and I knew that I needed to capture his competing dilemmas, because these no doubt will be the drivers that shape the way the process unfolds. 

When I visited the team at the High School responsible for the Positive Behaviour Support program at the school they were initially interested in the project. After further discussion they were unsure how it would sit within an SWPBS framework. They were particularly concerned that the emphasis on negative behaviour - Bullying. NO WAY! - did not fit their positive behaviour model. Their decision in the end was to engage a parent committee to review their old Bullying Policy and look at what it would now mean under their new framework. Their key concern in engaging parents was that most were busy working people who had little time to consider more than their particular child's issues. Their offerings of visiting speakers to talk about adolescent issues had poor attendance.

What is interesting is that although the campaign brand is Bullying. No Way! and parts of the website  focusses on tips for parents, students and teachers on how to respond if there is a bullying situation, the National Day of Action lesson plans actually do focus on positive behaviour. The 2014 lesson plans ask what is needed for a safe school and invites students to come up with their own ideas that can support this and prevent bullying. The 2015 lesson plans focus on what makes good friendship to help students develop a code of ethics for online practice, helping toprevent cyberbullying. 

How do we engage parents in conversations reflecting a positive behaviour approach? 

  • What are their concerns? 
  • What dilemmas are they facing? 
  • What are their values, and what do they hope for? 
  • What parental wisdom can they bring?
  • How can they feel part of a bigger whole?
Dr Sue Stack

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