Brian Ach /National Center for Learning Disabilities/AP
Kids on the margins have long had to deal with societal pressures and the need to conform to certain norms, but continued instances of bullying shows we need to do better. David Long, Tina Long, and "Bully" director Lee Hirsch are seen at the National Center for Learning Disabilities benefit dinner on April 18, 2012 in New York City. Mr. Hirsch was encouraging parents to download the NCLD's anti-bullying toolkit.

Kids on the margins need unpacking of societal norms

Kids on the margins have long had to deal with societal pressures and the need to conform to certain norms. But a recent focus on bullying and gender norms is a reminder that society needs to do a better job of recognizing and responding to such pressures.

In her latest TED Talk, social work research professor Brene Brown at the University of Houston cites the work of psychologist James Mahalik at Boston College: “What do women need to do to conform to female norms?” she rhetorically asks her audience? Mahalik found that, in the US, the top answers were “be nice, thin, modest, and use all available resources for appearance,” she says. “When he asked what men in this country need to do to conform with male norms, the answers were ‘always show emotional control, put work first, pursue status, and violence’.”

Those survey responses certainly gave me pause. Think about these gender norms in the context of youth bullying prevention, whether psychological or physical. Violence is normative in males, we see. “Use all available resources for appearance” is normative in females.

Hmm. Bringing these norms out into the light may help….

  •  It may help us see that violence, vying for status, and striving for appearance ideals are far from “just kid stuff”
  •  It may help us ease the burden on schools and parents just a little, and
  •  It may help us stop wasting time on blame games and start focusing on solutions to social aggression, such as social-emotional learning, the lion’s share of bullying prevention. SEL, or simply social literacy, teaches us to detect and manage our feelings so that we’re able to interact more harmoniously and effectively.

The Youth Voice Project, which surveyed more than 13,000 students in grades 5-12 at 31 schools around the country, seems to bear out the appearance piece (it doesn’t distinguish between genders in its results). The Project also shows that marginalization at school echoes marginalization of all kinds at the societal level. It found that 55% of kids who’d experienced moderate-to-very-severe mistreatment cited “looks” as the focus of mistreatment and 37% “body shape.”

After those focuses came “race” (16%), “sexual orientation” (14%), and “family income” (13%). ["Moderate" was defined as “bothered me quite a bit”; "severe" as “I had or have trouble eating, sleeping, or enjoying myself because of what happened to me”; and "severe" as “I felt or feel unsafe and threatened because of what happened to me.” About a fifth of all students surveyed had experienced regular victimization (2 or more times a month) and of that one-fifth, a little more than half were experiencing moderate-to-severe mistreatment. Here's my post on the study .]

From recognition to compassion

What to do? Well, a significant first step, I think, is recognizing what underlies the problem and responding intelligently to that. To begin to recognize together the “ideals” we’re all conditioned to have and the pressures on everybody – male, female, young and older – to “fit in” and conform to them is huge. Right there, we have cause for compassion (for ourselves, too) and empathy. At the school level, it’s clearly going to be social-emotional learning, or social literacy, that really gets to the underpinnings of bullying (in social media environments, social literacy is logically just as essential to functioning effectively as media literacy and digital literacy). What we gain in social literacy we gain in safe, constructive activity in social-media as well as home, classroom, and workplace environments.

“The argument that teaching children how to recognize and manage their emotions should be part of the standard curriculum of schools is backed by science,” writes psychologist Susan Rivers, associate director of The Ruler Approach SEL program based at Yale University. Social-emotional literacy in school clears space for learning as well as relating with each other better. “A systematic process for building emotion skills and cultivating mutually supportive relationships is the common element among schools that report an increase in academic success, improved quality of relationships between teachers and students, and a decrease in problem behavior,” Dr. Rivers continues. “Teaching children to say no – to drugs, to alcohol, to sex, to bullying – has little scientific support.”

Laws and policies may provide some support, unless they have a strictly punitive focus. The best support they can provide is to promote socially literate approaches to schools’ investigations into and handling of bullying incidents, ideally calling for social-emotional learning at schools – in other words, adding social literacy to digital and media literacy instruction. These three literacies overlap more and more. They’re the three-legged stool not just of new media literacy but of efficacy and success in this digitally informed, networked world of ours.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Anne Collier blogs at NetFamilyNews.

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