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Accentuate the positive

Kristen B. Morales

November 8, 2017

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Just like a game of telephone, one negative action can easily get blown out of proportion.

Katherine Raczynski, director of the UGA College of Education's Safe and Welcoming Schools initiative, knows this all too well. She works with schools and educational organizations across Georgia to improve school climates, drawing from her extensive research in bullying prevention, and has seen many examples of students assuming their peers accept negative behavior because nobody else steps up to say anything about it.

But in reality, she says, students are often overwhelmingly against it.

“When you poll kids, they say things like, ‘I think students should always treat each other respectfully’—they believe this silently in their heads but don't quite know how to respond to mistreatment in the moment,” says Raczynski. “I love to present these survey results to teachers and school staff as a question: 'What percentage of students believe in this statement?'”

Adults may guess 50 percent, but the actual number is usually closer to 95 percent.

“So it's interesting to challenge those perceptions,” she adds. “We need to think about what's going right as well as what's going wrong.”

This is just one of the many ways the College's Safe and Welcoming Schools initiative is turning bullying prevention on its head, looking at positive ways to improve school climate and proactively work against negative actions before they start. Along with serving as professor-in-residence for the Clarke County School District on countywide prevention methods, Raczynski also chairs the annual Safe and Welcoming Schools Conference to highlight research in this area, collaborates with organizations such as 4-H to create peer-led anti-bullying curricula, and is leading an effort to promote cultural awareness in the classroom through the Northeast Georgia Regional Educational Service Agency.

Kids are willing to work to prevent bullying, says Raczynski. It's up to us, as adults, to help create a space that encourages autonomy and creativity, and it’s also important to give kids developmentally appropriate tools to react to a situation. “When you're talking to a middle or high school student, clear expectations of ‘we don't bully’ are not enough,” she says. “When there is conflict and lower-level issues bubbling under the surface, there are lots of ideas kids can use to keep them from escalating to more abusive patterns.”