Guest post: Stop Bullying by Promoting Pro-Social Skills on the Playground

Jill Vialet is the founder and CEO of Playworks. Vialet has worked for more than 25 years in the nonprofit sector, during which she focused her entrepreneurial skills on conceiving of and growing two successful nonprofit organizations.

For too many children, violence in the news, on television, on the Internet and even just beyond the schoolyard fences, is a part of their daily lives. The last thing we need is for our children to be exposed to violence in school. Unfortunately, violence does occur in schools every day, in the form of bullying. Bullying is defined as  the “intentional aggressive behavior that tips the balance of power and  is often repeated over time.. And according to the National School Climate Center, every seven minutes a child is bullied on a school playground.

When bullying, teasing and name-calling are present on a school campus, it contributes to an environment in which students’ physical and social-emotional safety is at risk. It is the responsibility of the school, and in the best interest of the grown-ups working there, to create safe communities that ultimately help contribute to learning.

The good news is that there is a way to prevent bullying, one that focuses on recess and extends into the classroom. At Playworks, we have been promoting safe, healthy play on schoolyards for the past 16 years. A recent study by Mathematica Policy Research and Stanford University showed that Playworks schools not only prevent bullying, but increase students’ feeling of safety and inclusion.

Unlike traditional anti-bullying programs, which tend to focus on individual behaviors rather than systemic change, Playworks improves the overall school environment. Our goal is a school experience that is inclusive, feels safe and provides experiential opportunities to develop social and leadership skills. We’ve found a few elements are important to creating safe, inclusive schools:

  • Place trained and caring adults on the playground who model behaviors of respect and inclusion, and hold kids accountable to meeting these expectations.
  • Reinforce the use of positive language and high fives. Every great religious tradition has made this practice a central tenet, and our experience is that kids are willing and enthusiastic participants in this more positive culture.
  • Put kids in charge. Once a structure is in place and expectations are established, student leadership can succeed. Leading on the playground represents an important opportunity for natural leaders who have not found other positive outlets to really shine.
  • Finally, take the time to teach the rules and agree upon an inclusive process for establishing teams and resolving conflicts. This replaces the routines of established social hierarchies with healthier routines.

To eliminate children’s exposure to violence, we need to look at our schools and stop bullying before it happens. Instead of focusing on the individual, we need to take a look at the environment. By promoting pro-social skills–healthy interactions among young people that make cooperation, empathy and teamwork habitual–we move beyond bullying, providing youth the same qualities they need to thrive in the 21st century.


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