There is nothing quite like the sound of children on a playground at recess. As a former elementary school teacher, such sounds remain a pleasant sense memory for me. Unfortunately, on school playgrounds across the country and for many of the children on them, there exist sounds that are not as pleasant as those I recall. As educators, we all know from our own experiences that the less structured spaces of a school such as the playground are often sites of name-calling, harassment and bias.
Research conducted by GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) continues to highlight the prevalence of biased language, name-calling and bullying in U.S. schools. In one GLSEN study of school climate, elementary school students and teachers reported frequent use of disparaging remarks like “retard” and “that’s so gay” in their schools and classrooms. [See Playgrounds and Prejudice: Elementary School Climate in the United States]. Another GLSEN study found that most teens reported hearing others in their school making negative or offensive remarks about the perceived or actual appearance, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression, race/ethnicity, disability or religion of classmates. [See From Teasing to Torment: School Climate in America - A Survey of Students and Teachers]. It is clear that name-calling is a problem.
In 2004, inspired by the plot and characters in James Howe's novel The Misfits, GLSEN developed a program designed to support schools hoping to address issues of name-calling and endeavoring to improve school climate. Drawn directly from the book, this program was dubbed No Name-Calling Week and has been held every January since. The program, which lives online and is available for free, provides tools such as lessons, lists of suggested literature and videos and ideas for school-wide events. This year's No-Name Calling Week takes place January 21 - 25.
Not Zero Tolerance But Full Inclusion
No Name-Calling Week is not, as its name may suggest, a week of "zero tolerance" for name-calling, even though it was born at a time when schools were embracing so-called “zero tolerance” discipline policies. While the program’s given name might seem to suggest some sort of alignment with such policies, its intent and spirit could not be any further removed from the kind of educational philosophy that would permit the practice of "zero tolerance."
GLSEN and its organizational partners knew that it would be far too easy to focus exclusively on the negativity, bias, bullying and violence that we all agree must end. They recognized that the only real solution for the "bad stuff" was building a solid foundation of the good: the empathy, connections and healthy relationships that create effective learning communities and bolster individual happiness and success. Accountability and amends are key, but discipline, punishment and "zero-tolerance policies" are not the answer. Instead, GLSEN and its partners want children to realize that they can be as proud of being authentically "good" and "kind" as they can be of getting good grades; and the adults around them need to recognize that interpersonal qualities like kindness and respect for others are as important to life success as academic achievement.
The No Name-Calling Week approach aligns closely with a growing movement to establish social and emotional learning as a critical element of the K-12 curriculum, a movement that has garnered significant momentum in part from the intense focus on bullying of the past few years. This approach to learning benchmarks students' development of empathy and understanding of others, their ability to form positive relationships and demonstrate effective approaches to conflict resolution as well as other critical qualities.
GLSEN's programs are designed to support schools in ways that bolster this approach to education and that promote practices which serve every child in the school community. GLSEN created No Name-Calling Week knowing that students in the early grades must learn about issues of sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity right alongside all other personal characteristics that can lead to name-calling and undermine children's sense of connection to the community. At the time, fear of controversy often led schools to avoid issues such as the pervasive use of words like "sissy" and "fag," or complicated efforts to respond with inclusive and respectful practices to the growing numbers of children with LGBT parents. (While there has been progress, our work on that front is, sadly, not yet done.)
No Name-Calling Week has clearly filled an important void and continues to do so today. Alongside Ready, Set, Respect: GLSEN's Elementary School Toolkit, No Name-Calling Week provides a critical opportunity to bolster the empathy and understanding that underlie respect of others from the earliest years and evoke the joyful sounds of all children as they play on playgrounds of respect.