Creating Climates of Respect:
A Call to Action
By Jo Ann Freiberg, Ph.D.
with Eve Kessler
As recent events remind us, school bullying is a significant and pervasive problem in the United States, affecting at least 20% of students, with over one-third of those cases involving kids with special needs.
For children that are particularly vulnerable to bullying, conventional empowerment strategies alone are not enough. To protect them, a more comprehensive approach is needed—one that not only builds individual skills, but also ensures a safe environment where anti-bullying preventive practices are systematically implemented and enforced by schools and communities.
The true antidote for bullying is the creation of climates of respect—safe physical, emotional, and intellectual environments that do not tolerate cruelty and mean behaviors.
Because youngsters imitate the behaviors modeled by adults, fostering a safe school culture must be a system-wide endeavor that includes administrators, principals, teachers, coaches, staff, and the parents and siblings of bullies, their targets, and the bystanders who witness their acts. The change must begin at the top. From elementary school through high school, administrators must learn what it takes to ensure a safe school climate for all students, leading the effort to build awareness, implement reform, require accountability, and maintain vigilance.
Building Climates of Respect
Understanding what respect looks, sounds, and feels like is essential if true climates of respect are to be achieved. When students feel they are a valued part of the school, are happy to be there, have friends with whom they feel close and empathetic, and are treated fairly by the teachers and adults, they feel a sense of safety. Then risky behaviors fall away, and they are better able to learn.
Respect is reciprocal. Demanding it may result in obedience, but not respect. Respect must be given for it to be received. It is an earned quality and happens in a particular hierarchy: Only when adults are modeling respect toward each other and toward children will children ever respect adults and one another.
To be respectful, children must be taught to show common courtesy, and to listen (not just “wait to talk”). They must be willing to address difficult issues rather than ignore them, be empathetic, and understand and accept differences in others. They must treat others fairly and appropriately, be honest, forthright and trustworthy, recognize that adults are fallible, and learn to give heartfelt apologies.
Bullying is an adult problem, because adults allow it to happen. Parents and teachers must take responsibility to make it “cool to be kind” and let kids know that meanness is not okay. There is no excuse for toxic classrooms with sarcastic, mean-spirited teachers; instead the classroom should be a place for children to find mentors who understand and appreciate differences in others, value respect, and treat everyone fairly. For example, some teachers have students make contracts in which everyone agrees to treat others the way they wish to be treated and those breaching the contract are told publicly that they are not being appropriate.
Kids must learn ways to help and appreciate others, be more caring and compassionate, ask for help to stop meanness, and apologize when necessary. They must be taught that while they don’t have to be everyone’s friend, they are responsible for not hurting anyone.
It is common for a child to feel alone and helpless when someone is mean to him or when he watches another child being bullied. But he must understand that he has the right to be safe as well as the responsibility as an ally to help others be safe. It’s vital that children realize they are not alone and that they should not keep their feelings to themselves. When children do not take immediate action to inform an adult that bullying behavior is occurring, the harmful behavior is destined to continue and likely to escalate.