Tackling Bullying in Schools

Antonio Buehler, founder of Abrome was invited to the Laura Bush Community Library to speak about how to tackle bullying in schools. This presentation leaned heavily on the bullying series we provided earlier this 'academic' year. Those posts are listed below. This video is shared courtesy of the library.

Five Steps to End School Bullying: Change the Context (Essay 6 of 6)

Bullying is not the only problem with schooling, but it is one that literally brings violence into children’s lives, and in worst case scenarios it ends lives. In this essay series we laid out five actionable steps that schools need to take to end school bullying. First, schools must incorporate age-mixing as a means to reduce hierarchy and competition, and increase empathy.[1] Age-mixing in three or four year batches is helpful but not sufficient. For maximum benefit, schools should consider age-mixing from Kindergarten through 12th grade, and perhaps even more broadly than that. Second, schools must eliminate competition, starting with grades.[2] Grades do not aid in the learning process, but they can shut it down, and they almost always create an unhealthy rank ordering of students. This ordering ultimately leads to various forms of bullying. Third, schools must give students full agency over their learning.[3] Allowing students to pick from some electives or to determine the sequence in which they learn something is not sufficient. The adults must be willing to step aside so that students feel as though they are in control of their lives, which lessens the likelihood that they will try to control the lives of others. Fourth, schools must respect their students.[4] This requires that schools commit to the principles of anti-oppression, trust students to take full control over their learning, and avoid manipulating student behavior through punishments and rewards. And fifth, schools must promote empathy in their communities.[5] They can promote empathy by embracing diversity, modeling empathetic behavior, and tearing down hierarchy within the schooling community.

In this series we have pointed out how these five steps promote superior learning and academic achievement, as well. That schools continue to reject the five steps to end bullying, when those steps would also improve the quality of education, raises some serious questions about the motives of the various stakeholders in the traditional schooling industry, both public and private. What could possibly be so important to traditional school administrators, school boards, politicians, accreditation agencies, and content providers that they would refuse to advocate for and take the steps necessary to build intellectually vibrant environments free of bullying? Part of the answer can be found in the realization that the bullying in schools does not come only from other students, it comes from the adults, as well.[6] Such bullying can range from a vice principal berating a student for violating a rule to a teacher embarrassing a student for not knowing the answer to a question, and in some of the more backward schools in America, to corporal punishment or the threat of criminal charges against students. 

So what is a parent to do when their children are trapped in schools where the adults bully the students and where peer bullying is promoted directly or indirectly through the practices and structures of schooling? Politicians, bureaucrats, and school administrators can talk about school reforms that will help reduce bullying over time, but parents do not have the luxury of waiting for years when their children are being subjected to environments of bullying in the here and now. Fortunately, parents can do for their children overnight in one simple step what tens of thousands of schools refuse to do by way of the steps we laid out. Parents can change the context.

If the waiters at your favorite restaurant made fun of the way you ate your food every time you went there for dinner, you would stop going to that restaurant. If you found out your trainer was telling everyone at the local gym what your weight is and how you are too lazy to get it down, you would stop using that trainer. If your neighbor’s dog attacked you every time you went over to their house, you would stop going to their house. We know that if something is hurting us that we should remove it from our lives.[7] We change the context. Yet when our children are being bullied at school, the idea of removing our children from school is unfortunately considered by too many to be an unnecessary overreaction that does more harm than good. Instead, society tells us to teach children how to cope with the bullying, to work with the school staff to find ways to limit the incidence of bullying, and to lobby the school board to address the problem of school bullying.  

Life is far too short and far too precious to leave children to suffer in schools, especially when we know that pulling them out of school will eliminate real harm from their lives. Change the context. Identify a local alternative school that has incorporated the five steps we have laid out. Change the context. If you don’t live near such a school, move. Change the context. If you cannot afford to attend an alternative school, downsize your life so that you can, or homeschool or unschool. Change the context. In doing so you will allow your children to recognize their personal worth, to feel in control their own lives, and to lead healthier and happier lives. As a bonus, your relationship with your children will improve considerably. They will recognize that you are on their side, proactively working to help them enjoy life. Change the context.


(1)   http://www.abrome.com/blog/2016/10/3/five-steps-to-end-school-bullying-age-mixing-essay-1-of-6  

(2)  http://www.abrome.com/blog/end-bullying-collaboration-not-competition  

(3)   http://www.abrome.com/blog/2016/11/25/five-steps-to-end-school-bullying-agency-essay-3-of-6   

(4)   http://www.abrome.com/blog/2016/11/29/five-steps-to-end-school-bullying-culture-and-philosophy-essay-4-of-6

(5)   http://www.abrome.com/blog/2016/12/19/five-steps-to-end-school-bullying-empathy-essay-5-of-6

(6)   Unfortunately, the media and education schools largely restrict their focus on bullying to that committed by students, not by educators. However, the bullying that comes from adults, the ones young people are told to trust, can be far more pernicious. This has parallels to how the media and education schools often focus on students and their families to explain away academic shortcomings, instead of turning the focus on the adults who run the system. Here is a report from Australia that provides examples of how adults often bully children in schools:  https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/emotional-abuse-hidden-form-maltreatment#sch.

(7)   We are not suggesting that standing up to bullies or trying to influence change in systems is not a worthwhile endeavor. In fact, the course we are suggesting in this essay will force schools to address bullying.

Election 2016: Democracy and Education

It is Election Day 2016, and as I look around at Abrome, I recognize that the people in our community who will be most impacted by this election are the ones who are too young to vote. Our Learning Coaches (the adults) each voted early, although I would be willing to bet that none of them did so enthusiastically. No matter what your political affiliation or orientation, I think most of us can agree that the 2016 election has brought out the worst in many, and that it highlights some glaring flaws in the American political system.

First and foremost, the political system is not democratic by any means. As I previously alluded to, not everyone has a say in who is elected. Children, high numbers of the infirm or mentally disabled, many homeless, most incarcerated felons, many ex-felons, residents of US territories, and foreign nationals are locked out of the process, even though they most often feel the brunt of public policy decisions.

Among those who can vote, the process is still not truly democratic. Voter turnout issues aside, a vote in New Hampshire carries more weight than a vote in Wisconsin, which carries more weight than a vote in California. This is a function of the Electoral College, and clearly violates the notion of “one person, one vote.” And even if all votes were equal, those who directly and heavily contribute to candidates have an outsized influence on the policy positions that those candidates take once in office.

Add on top of the undemocratic nature of these elections from the people’s perspective, the two-party system that has a tight grip on the electoral process makes the notion of democracy in politics a laughable one. The parties are semi-private organizations that cater to a tiny number of powerful constituencies that are out of step with the majority of Americans, but the overwhelming majority of voters believe that they must fall in line behind one of the main party candidates on Election Day.

So what does this have to do with education? Considering that schools are a key tool used to prepare young people for engagement in society, a considerable amount. Unfortunately, the roles current students are being trained to hold in society are not nearly as idealistic as we have been led to believe. Fundamental to the purpose of schooling was a sorting function to create different classes of people, most of which were to serve at the convenience of those who controlled society. While the makeup of the people who control society has evolved, and while there is a greater possibility for mobility from the lowest classes to the controlling classes today than when the schools were created, from a functional perspective modern day schools further entrench disparities instead of serving as a great equalizer. And as noted before, inequality is incompatible with true democracy.

There is a nation-wide collection of “Democratic Schools” that argues that by creating democratic settings in the schoolhouse, where every child has as much of a say as every adult, that we can create a democratic society where the people take control of the political machine. Although we love Democratic Schools, we disagree with this hypothesis.

Democracy is not a silver bullet solution to our problems, as any black man in East Texas or any homeless man in the streets of San Francisco might be able to attest to. Democracy in its worst form allows for the minority to be abused by the majority. It is essential that an enlightened society respect the rights of all people, in spite of biases and privilege. While we agree that there is tremendous value to be gained by giving young people as much of a voice as adults in schools—promoting democracy in education does not solve the problems of the status quo, and in many ways it serves as a distraction.

So how can education get us to a better future? Three powerful ways it can move us there are (1) by promoting empathy within the populace, (2) by creating an informed, thoughtful populace that is not easily moved by false promises or dogmatic rhetoric, and (3) by allowing all members of society to believe they can improve the human condition.

First, many of the problems of our political system revolve around a fear or hatred of the other. These manifest themselves most powerfully in an anti- stance against entire communities such as black people, immigrants, Muslims, Jewish people, people with mental illness, the homeless, drug users, and people who identify as LGBTQ, among others. Politicians recognize this fear and often times play on it, promising policies that will directly harm these groups so that the bulk of voters can feel safer in the status quo.

An Emancipated Learning environment that embraces diversity of people, ages, and ideologies would directly undermine the divisions that require a lack of empathy to sustain. When people are introduced to those they are told to be scared of, they quickly recognize that we are all far more alike than we are different. Diversity brings tremendous value to our lives in terms of enrichment, creativity, and connection. The age diversity component of empathy building cannot be emphasized enough. In most schools we segregate children by age, taking away a critical opportunity for them to develop empathy by way of caring for those who are younger than them.

Second, our current political system requires a largely uniformed or apathetic populace. This may sound pessimistic, but it is easily affirmed by looking at what politicians promise and what their donors advocate, and comparing them with the decisions politicians make once in office. While society is much better off now than it was a century ago, there are still large swaths of the American populace that are marginalized or oppressed by the political and private institutions that most accept as necessary. An informed populace that also has empathy for marginalized and oppressed communities would not tolerate the current structure of society.

An Emancipated Learning environment, free of a status quo promoting standardized curriculum, and free of hierarchical structures that demand subservience, allows Learners to seek truth in their world. It allows them to question narratives that are presented to them, and to have the courage to seek out alternative explanations, or novel solutions. These people are far less likely to be moved by empty promises or exaggerated threats.

Third, our political system is tailored to appeal to the belief that we cannot improve the world around us. We are left to look for saviors who will come in and manipulate the political institutions to organize society in a way that benefits us, most often at the expense of others. It is not a system that encourages people to try to create a better society for themselves. It tells people that a vote every several years is how one performs their civic duty, while suggesting that how they spend the rest of their lives is irrelevant (except when politicians decide to alter their daily behavior for the benefit of others). 

An Emancipated Learning environment would reject the notion that our value can be captured in a vote. Instead, it would remind us that we can all lead remarkable lives—lives in which we have a positive impact on the communities around us. It allows us to realize that we can be happy, healthy, and serve others so that we can all be better off. And these people are the ones who do not need to rely on the established institutions that have left them virtually powerless.

On Election Day 2016, our Learners are unable to vote on the person who is going to have an outsized impact on their lives over the next decade, for better or worse. But far more importantly, they are in an educational environment that allows them to recognize that they can transcend the limitations of electoral politics. These Learners know that they can purposefully and directly improve the human condition.


Photo: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Republican and Democratic presidential nominees (Wikipedia)

Five Steps to End School Bullying: Age-Mixing (Essay 1 of 6)

A 2013 CDC Study found that 19.6% of youths had been bullied on school property in the previous 12 months, and 14.8% had been electronically bullied.[1] In a 2011 National Crime Victimization Survey, close to 1.2 million students reported that someone was hurtful to them at school once a week or more. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, and bully victims are 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims. And while many parents focus on the violent bullying that is more often associated with boys, bullied girls are at an even higher risk of suicide.

When we launched Abrome, we believed that our model of emancipated learning would most strongly appeal to families that wanted their children to gain entry into the world’s top colleges and universities, without having to sacrifice their health and happiness.[2] However, it quickly became apparent that school bullying was the primary driver for the plurality of families that looked into Abrome. This subset of families wanted to end the misery associated with schooling. They were desperate for an alternative to schooling.

Bullying does not have to be a rite of passage for young people. There are a variety of factors that drive bullying, and educators and parents are able to influence, mitigate, and alter those factors to limit or eliminate bullying. This is the first of six essays that will lay out how we can end school bullying.

The first step to eliminate school bullying is to eliminate age segregation in schools. Unfortunately, by their very nature, schools segregate children from society. From the ages of 5 to 18, the expectation is that children disappear from society for the bulk of the day so that they can be schooled. While the motivations behind segregating children from society to school them were a mixture of noble and nefarious, the practical reality of segregation was an unnatural extension of childhood; an infantilization of young people.[3] While educators and parents cannot easily change the way young people are segregated from society, they can substantially change the segregation that exists within schools.

There has been ample research that shows that age-mixed classrooms produce substantial academic benefits to students.[4] However, less publicized is the benefit of age-mixing as an antidote to bullying. Age-mixing is powerful for what it brings into a classroom, and what it leaves out.

By mixing older children with younger children there is an injection of empathy into the classroom. Older children are drawn to serve as mentors and protectors of younger children, and they quickly hone in on the well-being of the younger children. This empathy also brings a level of calm into a classroom, no matter how visually and audibly chaotic it may seem. As Peter Gray points out, “the presence of little kids has a pacifying effect on big kids. Even when they’re not interacting.”

What age-mixing leaves out of the classroom is the social pressure to assert dominance over peers. Without younger and older children in a classroom, there is a natural tendency for young people to introduce new forms of hierarchy. This often results in unhealthy and abusive relationships among peers wherein family wealth, familial connections, athleticism, attractiveness, and brute force (among other factors) becomes the basis for social hierarchy. And the way these hierarchies are often validated is through mechanisms of bullying, which quickly and clearly highlight who is at the bottom of the hierarchy.   

It is worth noting, however, that age-mixed classrooms are not sufficient to stop bullying. First, there are other factors that will be addressed in the following essays. Second, age-mixing in two to four year bands is not nearly as beneficial as age-mixing between very young children and older adolescents. Because children mature emotionally, mentally, and physically at different rates, multi-year groupings of children may at times mimic what single-year groupings look and act like. A wider range of age-mixing is necessary to fully extract the empathy and concern that older children will have for younger children. Schools in our society are generally bound by the 5- to 18-year-old age range, and that should be considered the minimum range of age-mixing for a school. Ideally, our children would be able to interact with people outside of the 5- to 18-year-old range, on a daily basis, with the opportunity to regularly interact with infants and retirees, alike.[5] 

Age-mixing is a necessary step to effectively end school bullying. The greater the range of age-mixing, the better. 

1.   This study covered only high school students. The incidence of bullying is higher among middle school students.

2.   Anecdotally, we have observed that the families most focused on elite college placement seem to be believe that sacrificing the happiness and health of their children is a necessary trade-off for admission success.

3.   For example, one of the drivers behind compulsory schooling laws was an effort to protect children from child labor, which I would argue was a noble effort. Unfortunately, a nearly universal driver behind compulsory schooling was the attempt to condition or indoctrinate young people to become good citizens and loyal servants of the church or state.

4.   One of the most appealing features of the growing micro-school movement is its eagerness to embrace mix-aged classrooms. For micro-schools, this is often a necessity as they do not have the scale to have break out students by year group.

5.   In fact, despite the large anti-bullying industry that has popped up to help insulate schools from the liability associated with their bully-infested environments, the only intervention that has had a substantial impact on bullying is one that brings babies into the classroom.