Uplift Education is a high-performing charter school network in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. We serve approximately 17,000 scholars in a rigorous college preparatory environment, and are in the process of authorizing our schools in the full continuum of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. The International Baccalaureate focuses on interdisciplinary lessons, cultural understanding, and character development.

Positive school culture and strong relationships are the underpinnings of high academic achievement. We know that bullying can impact school culture and climate, and we also know that a positive school climate has the power to decrease harmful instances of bullying.

Bullying Hurts Academic Performance and School Climate

Schools need to be emotionally safe environments for all students. According to Hammond (2014), neuroscience shows that when students feel at risk, they are less likely to retain information and engage in higher-order thinking. When a person experiences a threat, whether physical or social, the amygdala is triggered. Through a release of cortisol, higher-order cognitive functions such as learning, problem-solving, and creative thinking stop.

Stopbullying.gov, the federal government website managed by the U.S. department of Health and Human Services, tracks the effects of bullying. Kids who are bullied are more likely to report loneliness, anxiety, and sadness. These feelings can lead to changes in eating and sleeping, a decrease in interest in activities, and an increase in skipping school. As a result, children who are bullied are at risk for a decreased GPA and lower performance on standardized tests.

Bullying affects more than just the target. Bystanders—students who witness an incident of bullying—can react in a myriad of ways. While some bystanders may actively intervene to support the victim, others may encourage the incident. Another common response is to passively accept the behavior while monitoring the crowd for reactions. Students who do not intervene often report feeling powerless to stop bullying, anxiety and guilt about the incident, and vulnerability about being the next target. This impacts the individual scholar and overall school culture and climate.

(Next page: SEL strategies to combat bullying)

Supportive Teacher Relationships Reverse the Impacts of Bullying

Luckily, according to GLSEN’s 2015 National School Climate Survey, the negative effects of threats and stress can be mitigated by positive relationships. In fact, the negative impacts of bullying can be reversed by one supportive teacher relationship at school. Furthermore, the presence of supportive faculty and staff can positively impact sense of self, academic success, coping with bias, engaging in school activity, and improving school climate.

At Uplift Education, we are constantly monitoring the state of our schools’ culture. Twice a year, we use the Panorama Student Survey to understand our scholars’ experience. We ask our scholars about the quality of their relationships with their peers and with their teachers, among other social and emotional components.

These data drive conversations around how we should approach our work. Furthermore, these data helped to guide our decision to launch three targeted programs on our campuses.

Safe Space

Annually in October, Uplift launches a Safe Space program to teachers in our network. Safe Space programs increase the visible presence of those who support respectful and diverse schools. Teachers opt in to wearing a pin that indicates they are committed to creating an inclusive environment. These pins demonstrate to scholars that this teacher is a person who will intervene when needed. Scholars are more likely to report instances of bullying to these teachers.

Furthermore, by seeing teachers commit to action, scholars are more likely to intervene themselves. Last year, a group of ambitious primary school scholars created a similar pin for themselves to wear that encouraged them to be respectful friends.

Staff Training

To further create positive school climate, our network is in the middle of a multi-year phased diversity, equity, and inclusion training for teachers and staff to help create an environment of involvement, respect, and connection. Leaders and teachers learn about, reflect on, and discuss identity, culture, oppression, privilege, and bias.

As a diverse network, it is essential to understand the how these concepts impact our lives, our relationships, and the lives of our scholars and families. In addition to having deep conversations about these topics, teachers are learning about culturally responsive practices that they can employ in the classroom.

Owning Up Curriculum

Lastly, we are proud to be named as one of the pioneer districts to implement Rosalind Wiseman’s Owning Up curriculum. Owning Up teaches young people to understand their individual development in relation to group behavior, the influence of social media on their conflicts, and the dynamics that lead to bullying, discrimination, and bigotry.

Through a series of engaging conversations and activities, students unpack complex social issues and are empowered to create change in their school communities. This summer, Rosalind Wiseman and her team, Cultures of Dignity, trained a group of our teachers on how to implement this curriculum in their classes and how to apply aligned teaching strategies that further create cultures of dignity on campus. This initiative allows teachers and students to create positive and respectful relationships.

Uplift Education is committed to making all scholars feel safe, welcome, supported, and valued. All scholars deserve to learn in an environment that is supportive and friendly. As a diverse network, we know that creating a culture of inclusion should be done thoughtfully and intentionally so the all scholars have the opportunity to learn.

About the Author:

Erin Hearn is Director of Social Emotional Learning for Uplift Education. She is passionate about educational equality and empowering students to reach their highest potential. She believes that every child deserves a rigorous education that also focuses on character development, well-being, and self-discovered meaning and purpose. She holds a Master of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.