Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Using Books for Anti-Bullying Instruction

September 20, 2012

There are many books and related written materials designed to address bullying, drug use, depression, anxiety, shyness, peer rejection, and the like. How does one know which book to use?

The simple answer is that there is no clear correct answer. But the question I posed is incomplete. The real question is: What materials do I need to make a particular point in the context of a specific learning objective?

No book, video, or other single media experience is likely to be effective as a sole source of prevention or positive social-emotional or character development. Genuine learning requires progression and continuity. The challenge, then, is to not let the tail wag the dog. Don't look for a book, look for materials that make a key point you want to make.

Even after you do that, you are still likely to find that the materials need adjusting. Often, a book is simply that -- a book. It may not contain guidance regarding how to use it. Even when such guidance is contained, the suggestions may not match with your particular objectives. So assigning a book or video is almost never an appropriate pedagogical strategy. You have to provide the structure that will allow the materials to be beneficial.

Make no mistake about it -- good books and videos can add a lot to what teachers and counselors and others can present in prevention-related programs. Stories are powerful learning tools, and good visuals clearly help many learners who are not so print/text oriented.

Considering Resources

Free Spirit Publishers do a particularly good job providing materials for those who want to promote SECD. Their avowed agenda is to create "learning tools that support young people's social-emotional health and their educational needs. Free Spirit's mission is to help children and teens think for themselves succeed in life, and make a difference in the world."

When they develop materials, they are concerned about the research supporting what they are doing. They use peer review to ensure that what is being provided to consumers represents the best available knowledge, leavened with format and delivery systems that are likely to be used and enjoyed. That said, let's consider one recent publication, Bystander Power, by Phyllis Kaufman Goodstein and Elizabeth Verdick. It is grounded in research, and influenced by an important study, recently completed, of nearly 7,000 children in 77 schools, showing that bullies do indeed derive support from bystanders, and that the experiences of victims who have support from peers are far different from those who are isolated (Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 2011, Vol. 40, No. 5, pp. 668-676).

The book actually uses the language of upstanders (growing in popularity). It makes distinctions between outsiders, upstanders, bystanders, assistants, and reinforcers that may not match your own wider curriculum and conceptualization, and so you will have to help students reconcile this. It's an example of what happens often in books and videos (they are not necessarily aligned to what teachers are doing.) So, it is essential for you -- ideally, for your students -- to make the translations necessary for consistency. Don't expect the kids to reconcile discrepancies without guidance.

It's also unlikely that any book would be useful if simply "assigned" to be read. There is a lot to talk about, and what to emphasize will be determined by one's wider curriculum objectives. For example, in the sections on "How to be an Upstander," and "Why You Need to Unite," having kids engage in discussions of obstacles to upstanding and uniting could be especially valuable, far more so than having students think about this or even write about it individually (or just read those chapters). In general, taking suggestions in books and videos and personalizing them and sharing them with classmates/peers as action plans is far more likely to lead to a change in behavior than any strategy that tried to get kids to "accept" what is written -- regardless of how sensible.

Considering Activities

Sometimes, you may find yourself ordering materials that sounded good aren't when you actually look closely at them. Worry not! Maryellen Taylor and I encountered this situation so often that we developed a skill-building template to use. It's called the Video Critique Club, and it involves showing a video to kids, disavowing it completely, and asking kids how they would make a better one. (Building Social and Academic Skills via Problem Solving Videos. Elias, M. J., & Taylor, M. 1995).

For example, if the topic was an anti-bullying video, kids' task would be to design one that they thought would really work with their peers. (One common example is the relative paucity of materials designed for children of color. They simply don't identify easily with the context of the books or videos, and this diminishes their ability to absorb the message.) The social-emotional skills students need to work together in groups to create their revision is a larger curriculum objective.

Secondarily, they have to do some research on the topic to know what to put into their revision. Further, they are on a timeline, so this creates the need for (ideally) non-violent conflict resolution, respectful listening, collaboration, and compromise. Obviously, the technique is easily adapted to all media materials, including books (and even program posters and banners put around a school). And we do know that active learning, an emotionally charged but safe learning context, and constructive creation and ownership engender greater identification with the skills and content being learned.

Books and videos can make wonderful adjuncts to your anti-bullying and related SECD and problem behavior prevention efforts. Just make sure you provide a clear pathway for the kids to see a coherent connection to your wider curricular and program objectives. What are some anti-bullying materials you have used successfully with students?

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Bullying Prevention
  • Curriculum Planning

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