Adolescence will never be one-size-fits-all, but social scientists are in general agreement that it has three phases:

• Early (10-13): Physical and hormonal changes; black and white thinking; peer approval starts to matter more than parental praise.

• Middle (14-17): Full tilt puberty; romantic and sexual desires; delayed frontal lobe = delayed gratification issue; peer approval overpowers parental authority.

• Late (18-21-plus): Enhanced impulse control; future-oriented; self-conscious identification of personal values.

My 45-year experience as a field technician has shown me that:

•  Emerging teens are conflicted between what is right versus what is cool.

• Older teens can get locked up in self-absorption.

As educators (and parents), our job is to help kids sort out the former and transcend the latter. Toward these ends, an inspiring school culture is indispensable.

Such a culture demands the absence of some elements (bullying, prejudice, cheating, indifference) and the presence of others (respect, creativity, effort, inclusiveness).

Consider bullying: Even if a school manages to make bullying absent, it does not necessarily follow that an uplifting esprit de corps will be present.

It is not hard to see why all 50 of the United States have enacted anti-bullying legislation:

• A recent National Center for Education Statistics survey shows that 1 in 5 public school students reports being bullied (1 in 4 for girls).

• The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 33 percent of all middle school students have experienced cyberbullying.

• A 2017 GLSEN National School Climate Survey shows that 60 percent of America’s LGBTQ students feel unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation.

Lest Mainers dismiss those numbers as “from away,” a 2019 News Center Maine story reported on a national study that has ranked Maine 5th (of 50) in number of reported cyberbullying victims among teenagers 13-17.

A recent University of California study evaluates and ranks 53 U.S. anti-bullying programs. That there are 53 anti-bullying programs highlights our lack of a national consensus regarding a response. It also raises the question: Does this proliferation of programs fuel the solution or the problem?

Contemporary anti-bullying programs typically fall into a “make it absent” default zone, one heavy on identifying and penalizing behavioral violations. Hence, it is perhaps not surprising that conventional state standards for social and emotional learning are commonly heavy on compliance, obedience and cooperation and light on ambition, chutzpah and pursuit of dreams.

As bad as bullying is, “safe” is a pretty low bar. Kids need to jump higher if they are to test their abilities, hopes and dreams.

From New Math to No Child Left Behind, we Americans have been thinking about educational reform for generations. Here’s how the whole scene looks to our students: “They care more about what I can do than about who I am.”  (“They” = Us.)  

How do we reverse this? By creating school cultures that value attitude over aptitude, effort over ability and character over talent.

For the past year, I have been privileged to partner with a group of rural Pennsylvania public school educators in translating a school culture improvement program called the Discovery Process into a virtual offering for schools across the country.  An old-fashioned idea ahead of its time, students meet daily in mixed-age homerooms where they share a common character language and engage in core activities including intramurals, performing arts and community service. As practiced for 20 years in these schools, students consistently:

• Feel more included and have a sense of connection to the school and to one another.

• Demonstrate better coping skills in day-to-day interactions with both peers and adults.

• Benefit from better rapport between younger and older students: Fifth- and and sixth-graders look up to seventh- and eighth-graders rather than fear them, and seventh- and eighth-graders rise to expectations as positive role models and leaders.

Furthermore, advancements in learning have been attributed to fewer disciplinary distractions and sharper classroom concentration.

As one Pennsylvania school principal says, “We used to have a lot of fights, but since starting this program, they have basically stopped. And as for bullying, we don’t even talk about it. It just doesn’t happen here anymore.”

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