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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Learning From Politics: 5 Actions to Help Students Embrace Civility

By Nancy E. Willard — March 30, 2016 4 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Nancy Willard, Director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age.

Young people have been witnessing a horrifying display of lack of civility by some who seek the highest position in the U.S. Government. Too often, reporters refer to the displays of coarse and prejudiced behavior as “childish.” This reference is demeaning. The overwhelming majority of young people do not engage in similar behavior.

And they certainly do not admire those who do.

The displays of lack of civility by some running for public office provide a “teachable moment” to better understand underlying features of what is sometimes called “bullying.” Note that most often those who engage in such hurtful behavior are the strong and powerful--who are being hurtful to achieve social dominance. This is ethological-based behavior--animal-like aggression to achieve dominance (although many animals are more civil). The two general targets of such aggression are those who are different, who are cast as “deviant,” and rivals for power.

Educators are expressing increasing concerns about the harmful impact of such lack of civility on our young people. How can we help to empower young people can embrace civility and foster positive relations?

5 Actions to Embrace Civility
One of the most important steps is to recognize the actual norms and values held by young people. The vast majority of young people do not admire those who are hurtful or those who support those being hurtful. The vast majority of young people admire those who are consistently kind and respectful and who step in to help if they witness someone being treated badly or left out. Further, young people admire those who, if treated badly, respond in a powerful , positive manner, as well as those who, if hurtful, stop themselves and make amends.

There are five action areas we can help young people focus on to embrace civility and foster positive relations.

Reach Out - Young people can assist those who have been treated badly or left out by reaching out to be kind and including them. Young people can be encouraged to better understand the challenges faced by those who are perceived of as “different"--recognizing our commonalities and embracing our differences. Also, young people can help those treated badly think things through to develop a positive response to aggression that avoids retaliation. Further, young people can help others resolve conflict.

Say Stop - Generally, it is only safe for young people who also have significant personal power themselves to directly challenge those who are being hurtful to achieve social dominance. However, working with a group of individuals who are concerned about such hurtful behavior to communicate the importance of civility can be very effective. Further, sometimes the friends or allies of those being hurtful can privately advise them of the need to stop.

In seeking to stop hurtful situations it is helpful to understand and recognize how people rationalize their hurtful behavior. Characterizing hurtful behavior as a prank, ascribing blame to others, denying that harm was caused, or characterizing the target as deserving to be treated badly are the most common ways people make excuses for their hurtful behavior.

Report Concerns - Young people play an important role in recognizing when a situation present serious concerns for the well-being of others and should be reported to those in higher positions of authority. Digitally recording evidence of such concerns, if safe to do so, can support an effective response.

Stop, Own it, and Fix It - While it is doubtful that those politicians currently modeling uncivil behavior will take this step, young people who have been hurtful can learn to stop themselves, acknowledge personal responsibility, and take steps to remedy the harm that was caused. Often, thinking about how one would feel if others treated them in a similar manner--the Golden Rule--can be helpful in deciding to stop and remedy the harm. Reflect on the possibility that the reason a version of the Golden Rule is in every religious and spiritual doctrine on the planet is that it serves as a guide to raise human behavior above ethological-based aggression to achieve dominance.

Be Positively Powerful - Those who are treated badly can become more powerful and respond in positive ways. It is important to recognize that while it is not possible to control how others might treat you, it is possible to control how you respond and, thereby, to prevent harm. Choosing not to give those who engage in hurtful acts the power to control how you feel about yourself is important. So is the ability to calm yourself and to think things through to avoid impulsive retaliation and develop a positive response.

Young people who are treated badly can gain greater personal power by reflecting on the good things that are happening in their lives, recognizing and building their personal strengths, focusing on their future goals and ambitions, and standing tall and proud. Reaching out to be kind to others is also a powerful strategy to shift from being a “victim” to being part of a positive community.

Educators and others who work with young people can use the current nasty “teachable moment” as an opportunity to help young people decide to forge a more kind and respectful path for themselves and their communities.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.