Building Respect

What teacher-to-student actions do students consider respectful? Which student-to-student actions convey respect to each other? Which student-to-teacher actions convey respect? As I see it, discussion about these issues are at the foundation of a genuinely-held and actively-supported definition of respect. Adults can tell students which actions are expected of them using the word respect. Adults can enforce adult-created definitions of respectful behavior when adults are present. Yet if we want active co-operation in behavior standards, it is essential that youth participate in creating those standards.

There are many ways to involve youth in setting behavior standards. At the James Bean School in Sidney, Maine, where I worked for 15 years, we had periodic meetings of the student body during which we celebrated kind behavior, introduced new students, and discussed what students valued about our school. Using a wireless handheld microphone, students were able to speak their minds. A student once told me: “What works here is that we have peace assemblies to help us decide what we want our school to be like.”

At Brunswick Junior High School in Maine, which students in the Youth Voice Project  identified as one of the most effective and connected schools we studied, students told me that they are continually involved in developing the school’s code of ethics. They told me how much they valued their participation in defining desired and undesired behaviors.

My co-researcher Dr. Charisse Nixon uses a simple yet effective technique to help students define and use respect in her college teaching, which I recommend. She asks her students a series of three questions: She first asks students to identify how she can show respect to them as their teacher. Second, she asks them to define respect between students in specific terms. Third, she asks them to define student actions that show respect to their teacher. This strategy can be used with students of any age. It will, I think, be most effective if the teacher periodically identifies situations in which students in the classroom demonstrate examples of the respectful behaviors that they have defined. Students can be encouraged to do the same. Frequently pointing out positive examples helps students to reflect on the positive outcomes of those behaviors. This feedback also helps students see positive respectful behaviors as frequent and normative.

Another strategy for involving youth in defining behavior standards uses anonymous surveys to ask students if they want adults at school to take action to stop different negative behaviors and what kind actions they have seen or used. From surveying thousands of students in many schools, I have found that a large majority of youth indicate that they want school staff to stop a wide range of negative peer-to-peer actions. For example, the results of a survey of more than 3,700 students in middle schools in Maine shows that the following proportion of students wanted teachers to take action to stop these behaviors at school:

  • Name calling  based on disability: 91 percent;
  • Name calling based on race or religion: 90 percent;
  • Punching, kicking, or jabbing: 90 percent;
  • Name calling based on sexual orientation: 89 percent;
  • Name calling based on appearance; 88 percent;
  • Name calling based on gender: 83 percent;
  • Indirect use of biased language (that’s retarded; that’s so gay; etc.): 82 percent;
  • Exclusion: 79 percent;
  • Starting or spreading rumors (true or false): 76 percent.

Student input of this kind can be used in developing codes of conduct and ethics; they can also be reported back to students as part of social norms interventions, which show students that a majority of their peers disapprove of peer mistreatment in many forms.  This accurate data can correct young peoples’ misperceptions regarding their peers’ values, and provides a way for students to express their values and wishes about school behavior to each other.

Once we have helped students to work together to develop definitions of respect, staff members should develop strategies for consistent recognition of students who demonstrate the positive actions students have identified as important. Students should be helped to recognize the positive outcomes of their actions. In addition, staff should develop schoolwide protocols and strategies for consistently discouraging the behaviors that students have told us they want stopped at school, as  well as other peer-to-peer behaviors that are prohibited by law and/or determined by staff consensus to interfere with safety, belonging, and education.  These expectations and protocols should apply to every student and should be promoted by all staff. You can read more about this in the section on RESPONDING effectively to negative peer actions.

Creating definitions of respect and of unacceptable actions is an ongoing process, which should be repeated and refined periodically, so that current students and staff feel involved in the process and have a sense of ownership.

I have left the most important point for last. Young people are most likely to show respect to us and to each other when we model respect in our interactions with them and in our interactions with our colleagues. Youth are continually watching us. James Baldwin stated the importance of adult modeling powerfully when he wrote: “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”  The strategies outlined above can also be used to create consensus among staff and administrators about respectful collegial and supervisor-supervisee behaviors.

Read more about the foundations of effective intervention by clicking on the links below:

For more information about what we learned about bullying, and about what adults and peers can do, see Youth Voice Project: Student Insights Into Bullying And Peer Harassment

This site presents current research about reducing bullying AND reducing the harm that bullying can do.