Thursday, September 14, 2017

A curriculum that prevents bullying


A curriculum that prevents bullying finds a home in Catholic schools
Can social emotional learning prevent bullying before it happens?

Last year Lauren Bowman, an eighth grader at St. Christine School in Youngstown, Ohio, died at home of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The 13-year-old, who loved softball, reading, and her dogs, had been bullied at school. For her, ending her life was preferable to returning to class after summer break. That same year Daniel Fitzpatrick, a seventh grader at Holy Angels Catholic Academy in Brooklyn, hanged himself. And in 2017 Keegan Beal, a fifth grader at St. Mark's Catholic School in Peoria, Illinois, ended his life after enduring years of bullying at different schools. 

Catholic middle school students are not free from the effects of bullying. While research shows that overall students in private schools tend to be less cliquey and more accepting than those at public schools (which means a smaller likelihood of bullying), the recent deaths of Bowman, Fitzpatrick, and Beal are tragic evidence that bullying can go too far even in the face of anti-bullying policies, small caring communities, and religious education.

To be clear, bullying is not the same thing as typical and age-appropriate teasing many of us recall enduring over parts of our childhood. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines bullying as repeated, unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Middle school seems to be the most difficult period to get through: According to a 2015 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey, almost a quarter of middle schoolers reported having been cyberbullied (compared to 15 percent of high schoolers).

There is good news, however. A recent study of 109 Maryland schools across 10 years indicates a significant decrease in reported cases of bullying. One potential reason is an enhanced focus on educating students as whole people-not just keeping up test scores. This type of curriculum, called social emotional learning (SEL), teaches both students and adults how to prevent bullying before it happens and provide overall healthier environments in which to learn and grow.

The focus on SEL in schools was catalyzed in 1994 with the formation of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), which studies, advocates for, and provides training in SEL curriculum. Through group discussions, writing work, partner exercises, and teamwork, teachers and students work on self-management, social awareness, decision-making, relationship skills, and community building. In focusing on these areas, SEL can help students understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. SEL can help create a community that provides emotional education for potential bullying victims and bullies alike. And it's taught in many Catholic schools. 

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