Work in partnership with youth to address bullying

As schools and communities gear up to address issues of bullying, adults are encouraged to involve youth as partners in these efforts. Don’t let adultism create barriers to your anti-bullying efforts!

A new school year brings many opportunities for revisiting school policies focused on ensuring that all students feel welcome, included and safe.  This year, Michigan’s schools are required for the first time to have clear anti-bullying policies in place as a result of Public Act 241 – also called Matt’s Safe School Law.

As schools and communities gear up to address issues of bullying, adults are encouraged to involve youth as partners in these efforts. Too many anti-bullying efforts are adult-driven and grounded in “adultism.”  According to John Bell of YouthBuild USA, adultism is reflected in stereotypes and negative attitudes of youth that are based on the assumption that adults are better than young people, and that adults are entitled to act upon youth without their agreement.  

Adultism is a form of social control and is reinforced by many institutions (including schools and families) through laws, customs, policies, programs and practices. While youth definitely need healthy supports and guidance from adults, adultism disempowers youth. Young people consistently report that the messages they get from the adult world are that they are not as important, are not taken seriously and that they have little to no power.

A powerful strategy for addressing adultism and creating healthier relationships and communities is the development of youth-adult partnerships.  More than tokenism or involving one or two young people on a board or committee, youth-adult partnerships involve youth in significant, authentic and meaningful ways.  Issues of trust, power and authority are addressed and youth and adults are expected to learn from each other.

Research on youth-adult partnerships, including findings from a report from the Forum for Youth Investment, shows benefits to youth – as well as to adults, organizations and communities.

Benefits to youth:

  • Strong sense of self
  • Decrease in risk behaviors
  • Increase in critical thinking, teamwork and organization skills
  • Increase in social capital
  • Enhanced sense of safety and belonging
  • Better understanding of diversity issues
  • Broader career choices
  • Long-time commitment to community engagement

Benefits to adults:

  • Changes in assumptions and stereotypes of youth
  • Better understanding of diversity issues
  • Increased capacity for working within a framework of shared power
  • More competent and confident in working for community change

Organizations and communities benefit by gaining fresh perspectives from youth, increased relevancy of efforts, deepened connections to the vision and mission of organizations, and a heightened sense of community spirit.

Bullying efforts are particularly suited to youth-adult partnerships. Young people often know more about what’s really happening around these issues because they are the ones most impacted by mean-spirited, hurtful language and behaviors and the climate of fear that is created when bullying, bias and harassment go unaddressed.

Rather than relying on stereotypes of youth, labeling them as bullies or victims, or trying to “control” their behaviors, adults can strengthen their anti-bullying efforts by tapping the assets, strengths and wisdom of young people. 

Adults are encouraged to work in sustained partnerships with youth to address the complex issue of bullying – and to create schools and other settings that are safe, affirming and fair for all youth and adults.