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HomeHealth & BehaviorBullying

Making your child’s school safe and supportive

As a parent, there’s a lot you can do to influence how kids are treated – and how students treat each other – at school. Here’s how to make positive changes happen.

GreatSchools Blog

By Suzanne Bouffard , Richard Weissbourd

Your child comes home from school in tears because she sits alone at lunch, and you don’t know who to talk to about the problem. You tell the teacher your child’s been harassed or bullied, but you feel like they don’t take enough — or any — action to stop it. Your child tells you another kid’s being picked on and you want to help, but you’re not sure how.

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?

Parents often feel like they have no say in what goes on within the walls of their children’s schools. But that doesn’t have to be the case. You can be a powerful force for change; in fact, you should be — especially when it comes to ensuring that your child and other students feel safe, supported, and respected.

One way to start is by asking the principal or other school leaders specific questions about how the school handles issues like social and emotional learning, making sure students treat each other with respect, and bullying, harassment, or exclusion. By asking specific questions, you’ll show administrators that you’re serious, and you’ll help them focus on the issues, even — or especially — if they don’t have answers right away. Just remember, principals and teachers are typically trying hard and pressed for time, so it’s important to think about how to engage them on these topics respectfully.

Improving the school for your child and all students

When you have concerns about safety and well-being, you might first think to ask questions specific to your own child, like what the school is doing to discipline the student who’s harassing your child. But physical and emotional safety are school-wide issues. The way your child’s treated is part of a whole set of relationships and interactions at that school; in the education realm, this is often called school climate. For all students to be safe and treated respectfully by their peers and teachers every day, school leaders have to commit to making the school climate positive, supportive, and caring. For this reason, it’s often best to raise these questions at the beginning of the year. Even though everyone’s busy, it helps put school climate issues on the table before problems arise.

When you ask clear, concrete questions, you state your expectations for the school. It’s a signal to the school that you hold them accountable: that they need to recognize the issues and address them, including making any necessary changes. Being proactive about creating a better school climate also sends powerful messages to your child. It shows that you care about how she feels at school, and that you’re taking action to make school a better, more supportive place. It also shows her that when she has a problem, she can take action to change it — and it models for your child that it’s important to care about everyone in the school community, not just themself.

Making your voice heard

First, talk to the principal, because that’s who is ultimately responsible for what happens at school. But it can also be helpful to talk to whoever’s in charge of school climate or discipline, which might be the assistant principal. An exception to this rule is, if your child is being bullied, it’s a good idea to start with the adult who’s closest to the situation. For example, if your child is being bullied in class, start with the teacher. Some schools also have guidelines detailing how to report bullying — and to whom. You can check the school handbook to find out who’s responsible for what. But when in doubt, start with the principal.

If, after several attempts, the principal doesn’t respond to your request for a meeting, try the assistant principal, a teacher, or another staff member. If these attempts are also unsuccessful, enlist the school’s parent group for support. And if that doesn’t help, you can always contact the school district office — but keep in mind that it’s generally best to exhaust all school-level options first.

Even if the principal is quite responsive, you may want the proverbial village’s support. Although your voice is powerful on its own, it’s even more powerful when accompanied by other parents’ voices. Encourage a few other parents to approach the principal with you. Or, you might consider asking the school’s parent group (PTA, PTO, or other parent group) to pose the questions you want addressed.

No matter who asks, it’s crucial to show you’re serious while remaining polite and calm. Make sure you communicate that your goal is to work together to improve the school. Pointing fingers rarely achieves this goal; being firm but respectful often does. To that end, plan out when and how often you’ll meet with the principal. Also, try to accommodate the principal’s busy schedule so you’ll get the follow up you need without being written off as — gasp — overly demanding, unreasonable, or a helicopter parent.

Getting answers

As a parent and a member of your school’s community, you have a right to real answers to your questions. If the principal doesn’t have answers right away, ask why and schedule a time to meet again after she’s had time to reflect.

If the answers you get are unsatisfying, let the principal know you’re unhappy, why, and what changes you’d like to see. For example, if the principal says there’s no one monitoring hallways and other common spaces, point out that this is a hot spot for bullying, which can leave students feeling unsafe. Work together to figure out which adults could reasonably take on this role. Or if your child’s school doesn’t have a program to teach kindness and other social and emotional skills, tell the principal that this is important to you and ask if someone on staff can do some research to find a program that might work. (Find programs that research has shown to be effective here.)

Even with the best intentions, everyone gets busy; at the end of these conversations, it’s a good idea to schedule follow-up time so you have a set appointment to discuss what progress the school is making.

Sharing what you learn

Other parents have a right to answers, too. Don’t assume someone’s silence equals apathy — chances are that if you’re concerned about a safety issue at school, other parents are, too. Look for ways to share what you learn with other parents: you might discuss it with class parents, post it via a parent email list, or share it with the school’s parent group. You can tell your neighbors and friends about it and encourage them to spread the word. News travels quickly. If you feel the school is taking positive steps, you can also share that information with your children so they know the principal cares about making sure kids feel happy and safe.

Getting started: specific questions to ask

Our team at the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education created a list of questions to ask your principal. Here are four important questions to get the conversation started:

  • How do teachers and other staff know what they’re supposed to do when they see aggressive, mean, or other hurtful behavior? Who trains them, and how?
  • Who’s in charge of monitoring what happens in bathrooms, hallways, and other areas outside classrooms?
  • Does the school have a program for teaching social and emotional skills such as conflict resolution, being aware of emotions, showing empathy for others, and resolving ethical dilemmas? If so, what program is it — and are there any studies that show this program really works?
  • For middle and high schools: Does the school regularly survey students about whether they feel safe, respected, and cared about? How are the answers used to improve the school? And how are these answers shared with students and parents?

 

Once you’ve started the conversation, you may need to dig further. Check out our full list of questions for elementary schools and for middle and high schools. With more information and communication, you can work with your child’s school to ensure that all children feel safe, supported, and respected.

Suzanne Bouffard is a writer and developmental psychologist. She writes about education, families, and child and adolescent development. Drawing on a doctorate in psychology and a passion for making research accessible, she has written for parents, educators, and the general public on topics such as social and emotional learning, college access and success, out-of-school-time learning, and family-school relationships. Her writing has appeared in publications including Educational Leadership, Phi Delta Kappan, Principals’ Research Review, and Social Policy Report. She is a contributor to the Harvard Education Letter and is co-author of the book Ready, Willing, and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success (Harvard Education Press, 2012). She is part of the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Richard Weissbourd is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he directs the Human Development and Psychology Program, and a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His work focuses on moral development, vulnerability, and resilience in childhood, and effective schools and services for children. With Stephanie Jones, he directs the Making Caring Common Project, a national effort to make moral and social development priorities in child-raising and to provide strategies to schools and parents for promoting in children caring, a commitment to justice, and other key moral and social capacities. He is currently conducting research on how older adults can better mentor young adults and teenagers in developing ethical, mature romantic relationships. He is a founder of several interventions for at-risk children, including ReadBoston and WriteBoston, citywide literacy initiatives led by Mayor Menino. With Robert Selman, he founded Project ASPIRE, a social and ethical development intervention in schools. He is also a founder of a pilot school in Boston, the Lee Academy, that begins with children at 3 years old. He has advised on the city, state, and federal levels on family policy and school reform and has written for numerous scholarly and popular publications and blogs, including The New York Times, The Huffington Post, CNN, The New Republic, The American Prospect, NPR, and Psychology Today. He is the author of The Vulnerable Child: What Really Hurts America’s Children and What We Can Do About It (Addison-Wesley, 1996), named by the American School Board Journal as one of the top 10 education books of all time. His most recent book, The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children's Moral and Emotional Development (Houghton Mifflin 2009), was named by The New Yorker as one of the top 24 books of 2009.

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