A curriculum that prevents bullying finds a home in Catholic schools

Last year Lauren Bowman, an eighth grader at St. Christine School in Youngstown, Ohio, died at home of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The 13-year-old, who loved softball, reading, and her dogs, had been bullied at school. For her, ending her life was preferable to returning to class after summer break. That same year Daniel Fitzpatrick, a seventh grader at Holy Angels Catholic Academy in Brooklyn, hanged himself. And in 2017 Keegan Beal, a fifth grader at St. Mark’s Catholic School in Peoria, Illinois, ended his life after enduring years of bullying at different schools.

Catholic middle school students are not free from the effects of bullying. While research shows that overall students in private schools tend to be less cliquey and more accepting than those at public schools (which means a smaller likelihood of bullying), the recent deaths of Bowman, Fitzpatrick, and Beal are tragic evidence that bullying can go too far even in the face of anti-bullying policies, small caring communities, and religious education.

To be clear, bullying is not the same thing as typical and age-appropriate teasing many of us recall enduring over parts of our childhood. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines bullying as repeated, unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Middle school seems to be the most difficult period to get through: According to a 2015 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey, almost a quarter of middle schoolers reported having been cyberbullied (compared to 15 percent of high schoolers).

There is good news, however. A recent study of 109 Maryland schools across 10 years indicates a significant decrease in reported cases of bullying. One potential reason is an enhanced focus on educating students as whole people—not just keeping up test scores. This type of curriculum, called social emotional learning (SEL), teaches both students and adults how to prevent bullying before it happens and provide overall healthier environments in which to learn and grow.

The focus on SEL in schools was catalyzed in 1994 with the formation of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), which studies, advocates for, and provides training in SEL curriculum. Through group discussions, writing work, partner exercises, and teamwork, teachers and students work on self-management, social awareness, decision-making, relationship skills, and community building. In focusing on these areas, SEL can help students understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. SEL can help create a community that provides emotional education for potential bullying victims and bullies alike. And it’s taught in many Catholic schools.

Navigating emotions

The concepts of SEL start with the basics and grow more complex over the years. “When we teach problem-solving to little guys, we use three steps: ‘Tell me what the problem is,’ ‘Can you think about something you could do to address the problem?’ and ‘Can you do it?’ ” says Paul LeBuffe, vice president for research and development for Aperture Education and the author of several social emotional assessments for schoolchildren, like Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA). When confronting an issue, older students learn to consider, “What’s the problem? Who are the different stakeholders involved? What are various alternative solutions that you could think of?” says LeBuffe.

A typical middle school SEL lesson for Tracy Lyons, a therapist and consultant at California education and mental health nonprofit Acknowledge Alliance, starts with an exercise to quiet the students’ minds. Then they take on a topic such as how to focus on what they’re good at or even how their brains operate. “It’s really amazing just learning about the prefrontal cortex and how the amygdala can hijack your brain,” she says.

The students learn how to cope with their feelings as well as friendship, communication, conflict resolution, and decision-making. The lessons usually end with an activity centered on teamwork and decision-making. Especially effective is the Helium Stick exercise, wherein a group of middle schoolers work to lower a tent pole to the ground using only their forefingers. While attempting to make sure the pole doesn’t slip off, participants will often inadvertently raise it.

“It brings up a lot of emotions,” Lyons says. “The students get frustrated really quickly, and then there’s generally a lot of yelling. It looks and feels like chaos,” she says. But then the activity pauses and the students are asked to identify their emotions, how their emotions impact their communications, the actual stakes at hand, and how they can shift their perspective to make different choices in the moment. And the pole is lowered to the ground.

Parents of a certain generation may have memories of cheesy, ineffective conflict resolution workshops in the school cafeteria, but Lyons says that in her experience “the students are really into [SEL activities]. Even in middle school, they can act kind of tough and disinterested, but most kids have kind of a front.” What helps is that the material is relatable, she says. “They totally know what it’s like to lose control and yell at someone, to read a text and misunderstand what’s happening. They get it.”

Lyons says that everyday teachable SEL moments can help middle schoolers harness emotions and put things into perspective that they might otherwise dwell on. “[SEL] should be infused into the culture of the classroom,” she says.

From the perspective of teachers, good social emotional skills are important for a number of reasons. “The research evidence would indicate that when you have students who have social emotional skills, teachers spend more time on instruction and less time on behavior management,” LeBuffe says. In addition to more instructional time, teachers enjoy a more pleasant classroom climate with less classroom discord. Plus, LeBuffe says, research shows that students with high SEL skills often show higher academic achievement, which is then good for schools in general.

Teaching personal responsibility

One of the issues that makes bullying so slippery for schools to handle is that cyberbullying means children can be tormented anywhere, anytime—not just on school property. “I think the biggest game-changer in bullying is cyber [bullying],” says Gail Hulse, principal at Pope John XXIII School in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. “It feels anonymous. You don’t see the reaction, you’re imagining the tone. It’s really scary.”

Lyons says that with SEL, middle schoolers benefit from discussing what is lost in purely electronic education. “We blow everybody’s minds when we bring this up,” she says. “Body language is 70 percent of our communication. Tone of voice is 23 percent. Words are just 7 percent.”

SEL helps students address the out-of-school forces that might affect them in the classroom, Lyons says. It gets at “what the life of a person, especially the life of a middle-schooler, is all about: ‘Who cares about math? Am I going to be able to sit with my friends at lunch? What did she mean when she said that thing to me just now?’ That’s real.”

With SEL, help is offered to everyone involved, not just the victim of perceived bullying. “If a student is identified as a bully, how is a bridge built toward that student, and how do you show empathy toward him?” asks Lyons. A student engaging in bullying behavior isn’t likely to change unless he can identify, as Lyons says, “the emotional landscape within the bully, helping him verbalize it and identify it.”

SEL doesn’t just aim to prevent bullying now but also tries to avoid behavior issues in the future, says LeBuffe. “We might address bullying by teaching personal responsibility and getting kids to understand from a very early age how their behavior impacts other people. Ideally that helps to prevent bullying but also helps to prevent, as kids get older, things like date rape, plagiarism, employee theft. We teach them good responsibility decision-making early on.”

The lessons students learn through SEL will also help them as adults. “The same skills that we teach in social emotional programs that kids need in school are also the skills employers are looking for,” says LeBuffe. He cites a scan study in which the U.S. Department of Education asked employers what skill set they most want employees to have. Half of the 16 skills were academic, like numeracy and literacy, but the other half were social emotional skills. “[They wanted] individuals who had a sense of responsibility, who could work well in groups, who accepted criticism positively,” he says. But beyond school, beyond work, young people with healthy social emotional development are on a path toward a more successful future and a stronger community. “Personal responsibility addresses a lot of issues, not just bullying,” says LeBuffe. “It moves us in the right direction.”

A complement to Catholic teachings

Not every Catholic school has a formal SEL program, although many school leaders feel that the lessons are implicit. “We have a program: It’s called Jesus Christ,” says Hulse of John Paul XXIII School, who says that she thinks an SEL curriculum is ideal for schools where students and parents display a marked variety in value systems. “We are all very much on the same page. That doesn’t mean we all follow [the teachings of Christ] all the time, but when we mess it up, we have a really clear line of why, what’s not working here, and what we should be doing.” This general principle, Hulse believes, is a guiding force in social emotional learning at her school.

At other Catholic schools SEL and religious education coexist. Lisa Young, school counselor at St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic School in Chicago, thinks SEL creates a more empathetic atmosphere among her school’s diverse student population. “We have people coming from all different parts of Chicago who have different needs,” she says. SEL works well at a school like hers where there is a broad range of economic, cultural, and educational diversity because the curriculum makes the students more aware of their actions.

“When children do the bullying, they don’t realize it,” she says. Social emotional learning, she says, “brings them to that emotional point.” Middle school students (and probably most people in general) need a reminder that our actions affect other people. “It’s just an a-ha moment: ‘I didn’t realize I was doing that; I was acting before I was thinking,’ ” says Young.

LeBuffe, who is Catholic (although SEL is not affiliated with a faith tradition), says SEL and religious education support each other. “Teachers in [parochial] schools have a strong emphasis on the whole child—not just on academic achievement but the student as a more complex, multifaceted person,” he says. “The SEL approach is consistent with what those teachers want to be doing—nurturing the whole child and not just academic content.”

A key tenet of SEL is not just addressing the negative actions and emotions but also embracing the positive ones. When teachers notice students practicing good SEL they should recognize it—as Lyons puts it, “reinforcing by catching students in the act.”

In general, part of what makes SEL so effective is that it cannot work unless teachers and school leaders model it in teacher-to-teacher interactions as well. “If students are being told that you’re supposed to have empathy, but then they’re witnessing the adults in their life that are not practicing that, that’s a stronger message,” says Lyons. “In the Catholic Church, one of the precepts is that we give religious training to children by word and example,” adds LeBuffe.

In other words, with either formal or informal SEL teachings, in order for it to work, both teachers as well as students must walk the walk.

LeBuffe thinks SEL lesson plans can offer more skill-based learning than religious education can. “You can talk about the spiritual work of mercy that comes with being patient with others, but how do you do that? What skill, what techniques, what tools do we give our kids so that we can actually demonstrate these values we’re trying to teach?” he asks. With SEL, he says, teachers “give the kids the tools that they need.”

Additionally, SEL helps bolster lessons that are in line with the church for students who may not actually be Catholic. “We have some students who aren’t Catholic and we don’t discriminate,” says Young. But with the help of SEL, “They still learn the same things.”