In this regard, Koehler and Seger (2005) emphasize that because resources are by definition scarce, peer bullying represents a threat to the entire learning process across the board because teachers and administrators must spend inordinate amounts of time in an attempt to control problematic behavior rather than invest it in delivering high quality educational services. In fact, some of the most common responses to peer bullying in recent years have been to punish the offenders or to treat them with powerful psychotropic medications in an effort to mediate their behaviors (Koehler & Seger, 2005). When these approaches do not achieve their desire results, though (which is frequently the case), an escalation in negativity occurs in which schools use even ore punitive disciplinary and medication interventions in an effort to address the problem. This escalation also has a concomitant effect of creating a "we-them" mentality between the students and faculty that has been shown time and again to be counterproductive to the learning process. In this regard, Koehler and Seger emphasize, "Unfortunately, adversarial climates develop when adults rely on power and coercion to maintain control" (p. 122). Even very young children have a fine-tuned sense of justice and it is clear that students who are routinely exposed to negative school climate will tend to react negatively in other ways. This point is also made by Hyman and Snook who note that, "These traumatic experiences are more common in schools with a negative climate. Negative climates can create a 'student alienation syndrome.' Powerful solutions to school violence require creating positive school climates while punitive responses only intensify school alienation" (p. 133).
When students attend a school with a positive climate, they naturally feel an increased sense of belonging and that they are being treated fairly and are respected by their teachers and peers; while students in all types of schools at all levels understand the need for rules and regulations, students attending schools that are characterized by positive climates tend to regard the enforcement of these rules as being both fair and beneficial to them and other students (Hyman & Snook, 2001). There are a number of beneficial outcomes associated with positive school climates which are characterized by a paucity of ridicule, sarcasm, put-downs, and other verbal abusive behaviors on the part of school staff members and peers. According to Hyman and Snook, "While cliques are inevitable among adolescents, in schools with positive climates, staff make active attempts to minimize their effects and offer solace to outcasts. Bullying and scapegoating from both staff and peers are discouraged. Students in these schools often eagerly anticipate daily attendance despite the rigors of academic expectations" (2001, p. 134).
The interventions that have been attempted by many schools across the country using so-called "zero tolerance approaches" to peer bullying have failed to solve the problem and can even tend to make it worse by creating the negative school climate described above. According to Brendto and his associates, "As schools recognize that punitive zero tolerance practices are counterproductive, a positive school climate becomes the ultimate shield against school violence" (p. 200). Promoting a positive school climate can be achieved, at least in part, through the integration of a moral education component into the curriculum (Hazler & Carney, 2002; Smith, 1994; Sewall, 1999). While the authorities remain divided on what elements constitute the best approach to providing a moral education, there is some agreement concerning what the goal of moral education should be for young people today. In this regard, Garrod (1999) reports that a common perception of moral education is "the transmission of a set of moral norms and practices to young people. According to this approach, our objective in moral education is to develop in the young a clearly defined set of moral behaviors that reflect agreed-upon values of the society (the good, a bag of virtues, the do's and don'ts, the Ten Commandments, the good boy and good girl morality, what one ought to do)" (p. 12).
Many educators might argue, though, that simply instructing young learners about morality using a series of platitudes will not achieve the desired outcome, but may in fact be a waste of valuable classroom time that could be better used for other purposes. Nevertheless, when properly conducted, this approach to moral education can achieve the desired outcomes by ensuring that students recognize what is expected of them and by implementing metrics that can measure the initiative's effectiveness in reducing the incidence of peer-bullying in the school. In this regard, Garrod adds that, "This approach is extremely clear about what it wants to teach, what it proposes to achieve, and how success can be measured; indeed, it is probably the most clearly understood and popularly accepted notion of moral education in everyday life" (p. 12).
The following recommendations concerning developing a positive school climate using moral education elements in order to counter peer bullying are based on a comprehensive study of violent incidents in schools by Brendtro et al.:
1. Mutual respect. In a climate of safety, adults and students respect each other.
2. Connection to an adult. Each student has a connection to at least one adult.
3. Problem-solving focus. Problems can be resolved without fear, shame, or reprisal.
4. Code of openness. Students bring serious concerns to the attention of adults.
5. Peer helping. Students try to help friends and peers who are in distress (Brendtro et al., 2007).
The "connection to an adult" component of the foregoing listing appears to be a particularly important element when formulating interventions targeting peer bullying (Taffel, 2005; Robbins & Alvy, 2004). In this regard, Laursen (2007) emphasizes that, "Humans are born with an attachment brain, and when adults are not available, children will naturally try to satisfy their attachment need with peers. However, these attachments are different than attachments with adults; they are less secure and more superficial" (p. 4). When adult connections are not readily available, young learners may resort to forming their own cultures that are frequently in opposition to adult guided cultures. Therefore, in order to reestablish vitally important connections with these students, it is essential to develop school cultures where attachments with caring adults can occur as part of an overall moral educational component (Laursen, 2007).
One approach that can help overcome the adversarial climate that emerges when schools attempt to solve peer bullying problems with harsh penalties and medication is to incorporate a moral education component into the curriculum. In this regard, Leicester, Modgil and Modgil (2000) report that, "By rejecting the dualism of adult-child which reduces childhood to time spent and consumed in a sort of waiting-room for life [provides] a way through the impasse the traditional school throws up against moral education" (p. 63). Based on her experiences with promoting a moral educational component in the classroom, Peterson (2003) recommends incorporating a discussion group format whenever possible for a number of reasons. For instance, student discussion groups can provide a number of peer-bullying prevention-oriented benefits, including the following:
1. Helping students to discover commonalities with others, thereby lessening feelings of isolation and loneliness;
2. Helping students feel affirmed for their ability, even when they are not successful or productive in school, and while they may be experiencing episodic underachievement;
3. Helping students develop skills in articulating social and emotional concerns, which can benefit their personal relationships during adolescence and adulthood;
4. Helping students sort out stressors, potentially avoiding development of serious mental health concerns later; and,
5. Providing students with information about substance use and abuse, depression and suicidal ideation, eating disorders, various forms of abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder to fill in critical gaps in information about self-care or to correct misinformation (Peterson, 2003, p. 63).
The foregoing elements represent a good starting point for the inclusion of a moral education component into the KIPP curriculum, but there will be other elements added as well, including the need for mutual respect, appreciation of differences that may be in place, personal accountability for behaviors in the classroom, playground and cafeteria and so forth. The identification of these elements directly relates to the research problem to be considered by the study envisioned herein which is discussed further below.
Does a moral centered educational curriculum have a positive affect on peer bullying, among elementary school students in the 4-6 grades at KIPP Valley Charter School in Albany, New York?
The first sub-problem is to determine the impact of a moral centered curriculum among 4th through 6th graders with a history of peer bullying.
The second sub-problem is to identify what virtues of morality will be introduced to the curriculum such as kindness, sharing, responsibility for actions, and so forth.
Hypotheses to be Tested
The hypotheses to be tested by the study proposed herein are as follows:
Incorporating a moral education component into the KIPP curricular offerings will significantly reduce the incidence of peer bullying.