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Priority for schools in 2016: Character education to prevent bullying

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Voice of the Educator

This month, SmartBlog on Education shines a light on reader trends, content roundups and expert forecasts for 2016. In this blog post, character education expert, former classroom teacher and blogger Serena Pariser challenges teachers, principals and parents to consider ways to prevent bullying by focusing on changing habits from the inside out.

Every year we come back from our winter break with fresh ideas and new perspectives for our schools and classrooms. Although one of the biggest issues facing schools, we still do not have a universal answer to bullying prevention — perhaps until now.  As a teacher for 10 years, the sad truth is that it was inevitable that I would witness bullying. I would like to think I tried everything and essentially had bullying under control in my classroom. Under control isn’t enough. It only requires a single victim for something terrible to occur. One nasty look, a single shove, or one snide comment can scar a child. Even the most experienced and vigilant teachers in the most well-managed and caring environments can’t see everything that happens in their classroom.

While we would like to think we’ve never been guilty of bullying, it’s many-form existence means we’ve all likely bullied at some point in our lives. When I would teach bullying prevention as a teacher, I felt especially guilty of any minor or subtle bullying I did in the past. Granted, it was only a matter of passing a nasty note back in seventh grade, but I’m still ashamed of how I made that student feel. And for what? A few minutes of approval from people I thought were my friends. If I could turn back the clock, I would. Since I can’t, I try to focus on learning from my mistakes and teaching others how to avoid them. I opened up to my students about my minor instances of bullying that may have had major traumatic effects on that students and expressed my remorse. Can you believe that my students actually asked (basically demanded) me to reach out to that person and apologize? I did and in those rare instances when the students become the teacher, the lesson is truly learned.

Today, we may not realize it, but bullying occurs among adults all the time. It’s not uncommon to get nasty looks while driving or to be the brunt of hurtful jokes at work. The difference is that our minds are developed. It still may hurt to experience these situations. However, most likely it’s not a devastating experience. For children though, these seemingly minor incidents are in fact quite significant, and can have lasting negative effects.

Awareness of bullying as a “school plague” does appear to be getting solid traction. More education stakeholders are getting involved, and more remediation and prevention measures are in practice. We’ve incorporated student arbitration, teacher training, special class programs, school assemblies, zero-tolerance policies, outside services and parent training. These measures have created some success. However, they are not as successful as they need to be. Part of the problem is that these methods do not seem to be bound by a universal solution at the core level.

Why aren’t we able to achieve sustainable positive results? Teachers and school stakeholders seem to be running around in circles tying to find the right solution.

From the bottom of my teacher’s heart I believe no one wants to bully or be bullied. It’s one of the most toxic and harmful ways to hurt another person’s integrity, spirit and potential to live a happy and healthy life. There’s substantial research that provides proof of the heart-paining long-term effects of bullying. There’s evidence that suggests we should focus on the bullies.

Why would somebody do this to another human being? According to, the following negatively motivates bullies:

  • Crave attention
  • Have low self-esteem
  • Make them feel better about themselves or more powerful
  • It makes them feel stronger or smarter
  • They don’t understand or know how to socialize in a healthy way
  • They don’t understand how it makes the other person feel
  • They lack empathy
  • They learn this behavior at home
  • They are jealous of the other person

I see adults bully other adults. I see grown adults fight in public instead of controlling their emotions. I see parents discipline children much harsher than they deserve. I see politicians speak poorly about one another for personal gain and power.

The fact is we can’t just blame our students. They mirror our behavior. The difference is that we are now trying to make a difference. We have put our foot down to better our students. We have been saying, “no more bullying” since the anti-bullying law was passed (the first being Georgia in 1999). We’re now educated on the long-term individual and global effects. Our mission is to create a sea of change as generations progress.

So then, what if we focus on helping students curb their desire to bully? Is it possible to fix bullying from the inside out? Fortunately, like many unhealthy habits, bullying can be unlearned. Having good character is not innate. It can be learned regardless of age.

Character education in the home and classroom is essential to transforming negative to positive. Fortifying each student with attributes such as self-awareness, self-control, responsibility, empathy, healthy collaboration and communication, and civic responsibility provides the best chance of eradicating bullying. Social and emotional learning provides the courage to be confident with ourselves, as well as the confidence to stand up to others and face down negative peer pressure.

The total solution isn’t in finding a specific bullying prevention program or system. It’s in finding a way to teach and foster character education traits for every child. We have a long way to go, but we’re on our way. It starts with us: the principals, the teachers and the parents who make the decision to bring character education into our schools and homes.

Schools all over the country are leading this movement. Just look at the success of the National Schools of Character. These are schools that are paving our way with successful character education programs. They have successfully implemented explicit character education programs with documented success in bullying, attendance, grade point average, and student/staff/ parent satisfaction.

As we leave for our well-deserved winter break, instead of finding ways to punish bullies, let’s think of ways to implement character education into our schools and classrooms in 2016 and give students the tools to not have to bully to feel better about themselves. Are you ready to implement character education in your school?

Serena Pariser lives in San Diego, Calif. She served as a middle- and high-school English language arts teacher for 10 years, where she earned Teacher of the Year. Serena now facilitates online continuing education courses in character education and presents at local as well as international conferences on educational topics. If you enjoyed this blog, read more of her work and receive her free e-guide at Follow her Twitter @SerenaPariser or Facebook at