Monthly Archives: April 2017

School wide SEL to Prevent Bullying

What are the social-emotional skills that can that work against the impulse to harass or exclude? What about the skills that build a predisposition toward empathy and compromise?

Developmental psychologist Stephanie Jones, whose lab explores the impact of high-quality social-emotional interventions, helped us trace the connections between SEL and bullying prevention.

Which social-emotional skills help children accept peers who are different from them?

They need empathy and perspective-taking skills, but those begin with a basic understanding of the emotions of self and others. This basic understanding of their emotions will enable children to think about a situation from multiple sides and imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes.

Which skills do children need to recognize and stand up to harassment or teasing?

Children need several things: awareness, knowledge, and skills that enable them to recognize hurtful words and actions or to identify unfairness and conflict; and strategies that help them identify what they see and resolve arguments or discriminatory situations. Basic awareness and practice with conflict resolution strategies can help children know what to do when they see these situations.

Schools can help develop both of these skills by creating a schoolwide culture that has clear norms and expectations. For example, a school should be very explicit and concrete about (1) what bullying behavior and discrimination looks like, (2) that it is not allowed in the building, and (3) what children should do when they see it.

What are some classroom practices that can help build these skills?

To build awareness of emotions: Have a “Feelings Tree” in the classroom (or in a more public place, such as the cafeteria or playground). Encourage kids to talk about the complex feelings that can arise during the day such as jealousy, frustration, anger, prejudice and injustice.

To build empathy and perspective-taking: Engage in simple exercises like asking children what it might be like to stand in another person’s shoes. These questions can help them understand, appreciate, and respect the perspectives, beliefs, needs, wants, and feelings of other people. Encourage kids to be “feelings detectives” and try to figure out how a character in a book is feeling.

To build conflict-resolution skills: Teach young children (as early as preschool) simple ways to share and take turns. These lessons help create a basic toolbox for responding to conflict in proactive and positive ways. Older children (first- to fourthgraders) can learn a larger set of conflict resolution strategies, such as how to compromise, how to decide when to walk away, and how to communicate through conflict. In our SECURe project, we teach elementary students a process called the Peace Path, which involves students telling each other how they feel, brainstorming solutions, and together choosing a strategy, trying it out, and reflecting on the outcome.

Students Surviving and Thriving

For students who identify as LGBTQ or are gender non-conforming, school can be a difficult, even dangerous, place. Especially in the wake of shifts in federal guidance on transgender students, educators can make a difference by openly supporting these students.


LGBTQ students can feel “isolated and alone and rejected” when peers and teachers don’t accept them, says Tracie Jones, who runs student diversity and inclusion programs at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). Children as young as kindergarten can be bullied for not fitting in with typical gender expectations. Transgender students are especially vulnerable, facing more hostility in school than peers who identify as gay or bisexual. According to a 2015 survey [PDF] by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 77 percent of transgender youth were mistreated at school (ranging from verbal harassment to prohibitions on dressing according to gender identity to physical or sexual assault); according to the Human Rights Campaign, transgender youth are twice as likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol [PDF] as straight, cisgender peers.

All of this affects learning. LGBTQ students who are harassed or excluded have lower GPAs than straight peers and are half as likely to pursue post-secondary education. “If you’re constantly in that space of fear, there’s no chance of being able to reach the content and the learning that’s going on in your classroom,” says Tina Owen-Moore, who founded the Alliance School in Milwaukee with the explicit mission of providing an environment that would support LGBTQ students.

Even coming to school can be difficult. When Owen-Moore started the Alliance School in 2005, attendance rates were at 61 percent. Many students who enrolled simply were not in the habit of coming to school because they didn’t perceive it “as a safe or welcoming place,” she says.

Vocal support from teachers and administrators can make a world of difference. Now the Alliance School has an attendance rate of 91 percent, and students are applying to college and focusing on their careers, rather than just trying to “get through” high school. “It’s so important to build a place where young people can thrive instead of just survive,” says Owen-Moore, now pursuing a doctorate at Harvard.


To reach their full potential, these students need to feel safe and accepted. Here, we provide guidance for educators and school leaders about how to help, collected from Harvard’s Tracie Jones and Tina Owen-Moore, as well as from Michael Sadowski’s Safe is Not Enough, Teaching Tolerance, Welcoming Schools, and the Human Rights Campaign.

  • Educate yourself. Teachers and school leaders need to know what it means to be transgender, genderqueer, or to simply not believe in gender. LGBTQ students are in every school, in every grade, and educators must be prepared to understand them.
  • Respect students’ requests. When a student asks to be called by a different name or pronoun, teachers need to respect it, even if they’re initially uncomfortable or unsure. Says Jones, “It’s better to try, mess up, and own that mistake” than to not listen to the student. “Students need to understand that you are doing your best to ally with them.”
  • Use inclusive language and practices. Even if there are no openly LGBTQ students in a classroom, teachers can strive to look past gender. Rather than call a class “boys and girls,” they can use “team” or “scholars.” They can avoid statements that group the class into genders, such as “I notice all the boys are…” or “I wonder why only the girls….”
  • Ensure the entire school is supportive. Messages of tolerance and welcome should be spread throughout the school, not confined to certain classrooms. All adults in the building — teachers, administrators, cafeteria workers, custodians — should understand what it means to be an ally for LGBTQ students. And if possible, all school systems, lists, and data platforms should reflect students’ wishes on their gender identity and names.
  • Continue to follow the earlier federal guidance on Title IX. The Trump Administration has recently ruled that it won’t direct schools to allow transgender students to use facilities corresponding with their gender identity. However, says Moore, schools can still choose to give their students that right, as directed by the Obama Administration in May 2016.
  • Provide lessons and programming on LGBTQ issues and themes. It’s not the responsibility of LGBTQ students to educate their peers. Instead, educators should infuse curriculum with LGBTQ history and current events, teach students what it means to be transgender and explain problems with the gender binary, and have students read works by LGBTQ authors. Give LGBTQ students the choice to share, but don’t make them the subject of the learning.


  • A deeper dive into the discrimination and harassment that LGBTQ students face, from GLSEN’s 2015 National School Climate Survey
  • A comprehensive report of LGBTQ youth’s experiences and how adults can best support them, from the Human Rights Campaign
  • Resources, strategies, and background information on gender and the importance of supporting transgender students, from Welcoming Schools
  • A toolkit on allying with nonbinary youth and a fact sheet on being transgender, from Teaching Tolerance

Citizenship and Schools

In divisive times, the work of teachers and school leaders grows ever more challenging. What happens at home, in the media, and in the political sphere makes its way into schools, affecting policies, classroom conversations, and relationships among students and staff. This spring, faculty and students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education have been working on projects to support educators and students — strategies to build empathy, encourage conversation across difficult topics, and protect vulnerable students. They’re sharing examples of this work — extending a community conversation about equity in education — on One and All, a website that responds to the current climate of uncertainty in the country. We asked Dean James Ryan to talk about the project and about the role of schools today.

Despite (or maybe because of) the polarization of our politics, we’re seeing a growing recognition of the value of connecting with people whose experiences and views are different from our own. What is the role of educators in this conversation about diversity and inclusiveness, in your view?

I think educators have long recognized that embracing and cultivating diversity across a range of identities, experiences, and beliefs is a necessary starting point. As a teaching and learning community at the Harvard Ed School, we’ve tried to push past that recognition and to think concretely about actually how to fulfill the promise of diversity in our schools, our organizations, and our society. Fulfilling that promise means looking beyond the mere fact of diversity and creating the conditions for equity, belonging, and thriving.

The Ed School started this work in 2014, with a series of workshops, seminars, new courses, and a common reading project that explored those questions. The following year, we used a four-part “arc of learning” to better guide the activities, and we expanded or deepened our offerings and changed our student orientation and the professional development we offered to our faculty and staff.

This year, we decided to focus the conversation on two issues that are especially important to education: racial equity and viewpoint diversity. We made this decision well before the presidential election, but the election has created opportune moments to examine both issues.

Educators have a responsibility to work toward a society in which age, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any of the other characteristics that make up our identity, cease to be seen as problems and instead are recognized as sources of strength.

Injustices on the basis of race and ethnicity — both overt and subtle — have their origins in our nation’s history and continue to undermine efforts at guaranteeing opportunity for all. At the same time, education has great potential to combat and reduce racism in society. As educators, there are actions we can take to create more racially equitable institutions.

As for viewpoint diversity, which I refer to as “learning through disagreement”: I believe we can and should do more to prepare our students — and ourselves as faculty and staff — to have meaningful and respectful conversations about education policy and practice across intellectual and political differences. No matter what positions we advocate for individually and collectively, we will benefit from experiencing and practicing discussion across intellectual and ideological divides.

After the election, which surprised a lot of people, I heard from faculty and students about some general desire to do something, but no one was quite clear about what to do. Like everyone, I was reading news reports about incidents of harassment and discrimination at schools. It wasn’t clear to me whether this represented a significant increase in those incidents, or whether it just represented the fact that they were getting more attention. But either way, the problem is real, and it’s been around for a long time, and the election highlighted it and I think in some respects exacerbated it.

I thought that one thing the Ed School could do is connect with educators who are struggling with these issues on a daily basis. I thought we had something to offer, given the range of faculty expertise here. But I also thought we had something to learn, which is why from the very beginning I wanted this to be a two-way conversation. So it’s not that we’re in Cambridge sitting back and telling everyone else how they should deal with bullying and discrimination, but instead we are hearing and learning from stories of what’s happening in classrooms and schools, and collecting good ideas that we could then share with others in a way that is of practical use.

So we created a multimedia website that offers resources and strategies for protecting students who are particularly vulnerable to bullying and harassment. The stories and videos on the site also look at ways to create a learning climate where all viewpoints are respected and where the rights and dignity of every person are protected. Several of the videos explore ways that teachers can lead productive classroom conversations across controversial or challenging topics.

Opportunity to achieve

On average, Asian American students obtain higher grades, perform better on standardized tests, and are more likely to finish high school and attend elite collegesthan their peers of all other racial backgrounds, regardless of socioeconomic status. It’s a success rate stemming from powerful family commitment to education, behavioral psychologist Todd Pittinsky says in a recent Phi Delta Kappan article, reflecting the view of many scholars who have looked at this trend. Individual students and families vary, of course, but what can we learn from success — while taking care to avoid generalizations?


As educators have become increasingly aware of the stagnating black/white and Latino/white achievement gaps, schools and districts have committed to addressing those gaps by supporting initiatives that can create equity, such as preschool interventions, extended school days, and summer programs.

But the white/Asian American achievement gap is either ignored or misconstrued. “When Asian American students outperform other groups, researchers often begin to pathologize it,” notes Pittinsky, a professor Stony Brook University and lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “‘These poor Asian kids, look at the damage being caused by their parents and their achievement,’ they think.”

While Asian Americans do score lower than white students on some measures of psychosocial wellbeing, Americans as a whole score so abnormally high that, globally speaking, Asian American scores are “actually quite normal,” says Pittinsky. And, he notes, researchers often fail to report other psychosocial measures of wellbeing, such as teen pregnancy and obesity, in which Asian Americans do as well as or better than peers from other ethnic backgrounds.

Degrading Asian American success “may reflect a biased assumption that what’s normal in America is for white students to be at the top.” It ignores what Asian American families are doing well to help their children succeed — strategies that all schools and parents can learn from.


In his article, Pittinsky lays out five values and expectations Asian American families commonly hold that help their children succeed in school. Research has shown that these families are more likely to:

  • Attribute their children’s success to hard work, rather than intelligence
  • Prioritize education above all else, often making extraordinary efforts for their children to attend good schools
  • Respect educators to a greater degree than other cultural groups do, and to explicitly teach their children to do so
  • Emphasize the importance of success in school, and to teach their children that being a student is their main role
  • Reserve praise for excellence, teaching children that self-esteem is earned, not a right


Pittinsky has several suggestions for how families and educators serving students of all backgrounds can learn from Asian American success.

Lessons for Families

  • Remind children that being a student is their job. Prioritize homework time, ask to review assignments, and praise hard work, especially when children feel discouraged or apathetic.
  • Remember that afternoons and weekends are valuable learning time. Visit libraries, museums, and community centers, showing children that they can and should always be learning. Families should “think about what they can uniquely contribute to their children’s effort and perseverance outside the school building and outside school hours,” says Pittinsky.
  • Model a love of learning. Read for pleasure, and ask your child questions about what he is learning in school.
  • Don’t think of school as in charge of children’s education. Instead, “own the education” of your children, and “consider yourself to be the main resource” for their learning, says Pittinsky.

Lessons for Educators

  • Acknowledge what parents are doing to help their children succeed. Praise their efforts reading with their children, helping them with projects, and reaching out to teachers with questions. Make sure families understand that their engagement is valued.
  • At the same time, make it clear that family engagement is necessary for success. Teachers and administrators, says Pittinsky, “need to make sure they don’t overpromise to parents what the school can do without the families as serious allies. It’s a real mistake for schools to let parents think that the school ‘has it’ as their job to educate their kids.”


Still, it’s vital not to draw generalized conclusions about Asian American successes.

Achievement gaps only look at averages between groups — and “no individual person is an average,” says Pittinsky. Teachers need to understand each student as an individual learner with a unique set of strengths and weaknesses. The “model minority stereotype” about Asian Americans can mislead teachers to believe that none of these students are struggling academically or socially.

And, he says, it would be wrong to criticize other ethnic groups on the assumption that they don’t support their children to the same degree that Asian American parents do. Poverty, systemic racism, segregation, or under-resourced schools can all make it extremely difficult for families to assist their children’s academic growth. And this likely won’t change without a large shift in social services and public policies.

But there are lessons for all families here about the importance of emphasizing education. Says Pittinsky, the most honest strategy for addressing academic inequities today is “an approach that involves not just giving adult family members a sense of security that the school is working for their children, but an “all hands on deck” sense of urgency — of just how important education is and how helpful and important it is for education to be reinforced at home by the most important adults in any particular child’s life.

“The more a parent gets involved,” says Pittinsky, “the more that’s going to help any student of any ethnicity.”