Building School Responsiveness

How can we respond most effectively to reports and incidents of negative peer behavior?

Based on my experience and review of research, I  propose some basic principles for intervention. As described in the other pages on this site, any responsive intervention will be more effective when schools build shared definitions of respect, connections between students and between students and staff, and social skills and resilient thinking for all.

Schools should have clear, specific definitions of both unacceptable and desired peer-to-peer behavior. With student and staff input (and including mandates of law and policy), schools should decide which kinds of name calling, biased speech, exclusionary actions, and physical aggression will be systematically discouraged by all staff. Schools should also have clear definitions of desired peer behaviors that include and support mistreated youth. There should be clear expectations, with student input, defining respectful behavior between classmates and between students and educators. These expectations should not apply only to those students who we believe are more powerful or who mean harm by their actions, but should apply uniformly to all students. For some students with special needs or circumstances, the actions we take to enforce these expectations may vary, yet we should continue to work toward the same positive actions from all.

Secondly, schools should have protocols for response to reports and observations of peer  mistreatment that include the following elements:

  • Strategies to help targets of mistreatment gain connection, emotional support, and  encouragement;
  • Strategies to gather statements from any witnesses to events when peer  mistreatment is reported but has not been witnesses by staff;
  • Strategies for staff to interrupt and discourage observed negative peer-to-peer actions;
  • Strategies for helping aggressing youth change.

The protocol should include ways to identify youth who persistently mistreat peers and to help those young people create new behaviors. The protocol should include ways to follow up with mistreated youth and determine needs for further support and protection. Schools should also develop procedures for informing and involving parents of both groups of students.

In addition, schools should collect and use data to identify groups of students who are most mistreated, and address the issues that lead to this increased rate of mistreatment. Schools might, for example, add diversity education and efforts to promote understanding and empathy if they learn that youth with disabilities or who receive special education services are being mistreated more frequently than youth who are not receiving special educaiton services.

Third, schools should use small and escalating teaching consequences to deter peer mistreatment and should pair these consequences with supportive reflective interventions to help mistreating youth think about their behaviors and create new, more positive behaviors. Youth should see these consequences as earned by their own actions rather than as given by adults. We should help mistreating youth take responsibility for their own actions, develop empathy, and find ways to undo any harm they have done when possible. To learn more about these types of interventions, please see Mark Kleiman’s book When Brute Force Fails: How To Have Less Crime and Less Punishment for an excellent explanation of research  in criminal justice focusing on parallel interventions.

For more detail about disciplinary interventions for peer mistreatment in schools, see my first book, Schools Where Everyone Belongs

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

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


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