Prevention work in schools

What challenges are you experiencing at your school? What mechanisms for inclusion and exclusion have you identified? Your school’s efforts to combat intolerance must centre on what the teachers, school leadership and students deem to be important. Here you can read about how prevention can involve more than just isolated measures: how classroom teaching combined with a cohesive approach to the learning environment can help ensure inclusion and create a culture for critical thinking.

  • Prejudice – a challenge to education and democracy

    Prejudice and group-based hostility pose a challenge to schools on several levels, ranging from harassment in the classroom to how schools prepare students for participation in tomorrow’s society.

    Firstly, schools are obliged to work proactively to promote a good social environment. According to the Norwegian Education Act, every student should be able to feel safe and that they belong. Prejudice and group-based hostility, however, result in exclusion and insecurity. Teachers have a duty to speak up and act when intolerance manifests itself in the form of offensive language or actions. Schools must also have procedures in place for how to respond.

    Secondly, students are also members of society outside school, when doing sport, online, at social events etc. Schools have a role to play in encouraging students to embrace inclusion and participation outside school, too, even though the formal requirements to do so are less stringent than in a teaching situation.

    Thirdly, schools are tasked with helping students to adopt values, attitudes, knowledge and skills needed for participation in tomorrow’s society. Almost lyrically the Norwegian Education Act describes how schools must open doors to the world and to the future. Its objects clause contains a number of key words, including democracy, diversity and scientific thinking.

  • Dembra’s principles for prevention

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    What helps prevent anti-Semitism, racism and anti-democratic ideas? How can teachers and schools do more to create an inclusive school environment? Dembra is the response to research-based answers to these two questions, summed up in five principles:

    Inclusion and participation

    Exclusionary attitudes and prejudice towards the “other” create a sense of identity and affinity with the “we” group. This means that we must build welcoming and inclusive communities that are not based on negative perceptions of the “other”. Democracy, student participation and inclusion are therefore important instruments when trying to prevent marginalisation, discrimination and harassment.

    Knowledge, critical thinking and curiosity

    Prejudice and group-based hostility are linked to both historical and current perceptions in society. Knowledge of these perceptions is necessary to be able to interpret, prevent and deal with attitudes in schools where they manifest themselves. Curiosity is an important attribute that provides motivation for acquiring new knowledge when encountering new and perhaps unknown phenomena. Exclusionary attitudes and extremist ideologies are based on stereotypes and on a one-sided, often conspiratorial, world view. Critical thinking and reflection challenges and nuances rigid mindsets. The fact that knowledge, curiosity and critical thinking are important preventive tools shows that the core activity of schools – enabling children to attain and master fundamental skills – is preventive in itself.

    Intercultural competence (diversity competence)

    Students and teachers need to be able to interpret, communicate and act in diverse contexts. When it comes to prevention, the primary goal is not to learn about the differences between groups. Rather it is to learn how to identify, accept and reflect on differences as well as similarities across, but also within, different groups.

    Ownership and institutionalisation

    The teachers and school leadership must themselves identify the school’s needs based on their experiences, own practices and school environment. Ownership and motivation are key to making progress, and schools must take responsibility for the measures they take. Inclusion in the school’s plans, a long-term approach and institutionalisation throughout the school are key factors for making advances in terms of prevention. Literature, methodology and teaching plans that are perceived as relevant and topical trigger motivation and a desire to try things out.

    The school as a whole

    The school leadership’s and the teachers’ work on prevention will have the greatest effect if it is allowed to permeate the school at all levels, from individual knowledge, skills and attitudes to classroom teaching, school management and the school’s partners such as parents and the local community.

  • Five levels for development in schools

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    Prevention work in schools is much more likely to succeed in both the short and long term if the management and all staff come together to develop their collective knowledge, attitude and skills with regard to learning, teaching and co-operation. In this context it involves everyone associated with the school in one way or another: school leaders, teachers, other staff, students and partners such as parents and members of the local community.

    The effects of such comprehensive school development – also known as school-based professional development – are well documented. Research on professional development in schools has identified multiple factors that help bring about lasting change (see Postholm 2012, Flygare et al. 2011, amongst others).

    Dembra employs a model comprising five levels for development in schools:

    Level 1: Skill and knowledge amongst teachers and management

    Prevention begins with individual learning and the principle of learning about, for and through. It is important to learn about anti-Semitism, racism and other forms of discrimination in order to be able to prevent these phenomena in our schools. At the same time it is important to prevent discrimination through democratic principles such as open debate, participation and co-determination.

    Teachers teach best when they draw on and reflect on their own practices. This requires a willingness to learn to change patterns of behaviour in the face of new knowledge. This is also true in relation to prevention. Colleagues and a good learning culture amongst the teachers in every school are important.

    Level 2: Classroom teaching

    The classroom should be a safe space for differences of opinion and democracy in practice. It is important that democratic principles such as participation regardless of background, mutual respect and open debate are combined with teaching methods that involve and engage in order to encourage knowledge, reflection and good relationships.

    The classroom should be a safe space for differences of opinion and democracy in practice.

    Learning is at the heart of every school. Learning is also important in terms of preventing group-based hostility. In the classroom it is possible to use exercises and materials designed specifically for the purpose of prevention, such as Dembra’s learning resources. However, prevention takes place in other forms of learning, too, such as when the teacher includes the students, listens to them and enables them to have a say and by practising critical thinking in all subjects.

    Level 3: School culture

    An open and democratic school culture that involves relationships between management, teachers, students and parents is essential to systematic and comprehensive prevention work and school development.

    Lasting development should be founded on the school’s own experiences and requires a long-term effort.

    There is no formula for how this can be best achieved, since every school is unique in terms of its make-up of students, size, experiences etc. One central principle, however, is that lasting development should be based on the school’s own experiences and requires a long-term effort; isolated and off-the-shelf initiatives rarely have a lasting effect.

    Level 4: Management

    School-based skills development requires unambiguous and focused management. Prevention work is no exception in that respect. If the school’s efforts are to have an effect, the management must get involved in the project and give it their support.

    This level also includes general and long-term planning. The school rules or an action plan to combat offensive behaviour / bullying are important instruments in the school’s prevention work.

    Level 5: School partners

    Schools do not exist in a vacuum. It is important to involve parents/carers and members of the local community in the prevention work. Sharing knowledge and co-operating with other schools also helps promote development when it comes to prevention. External expertise can also have a positive impact, provided the expertise builds on the school’s own circumstances rather than provide ready-made recipes.

    Schools do not exist in a vacuum, and it is therefore important to involve parents/guardians and members of the local community.

    There is no contradiction between disseminating knowledge and skills on the one hand and working with the classroom or school environment on the other. Everyone needs knowledge to be able to recognise harassment and skills to be able to prevent, counter and combat such phenomena. School development requires the school leadership and all staff to engage in a process in the workplace with a view to strengthening the school’s collective democratic preparedness as a way of preventing discriminatory attitudes and behaviours.

  • Democracy in practice and schools as “communities of disagreement”

    Every effort in relation to democracy, student participation and inclusion has a positive impact on prevention. A democratic culture in which everyone has a voice and where the minority is being heard by the majority should not simply be something that the students are trained for; they should also experience it in practice while in school. Schools should teach students about democracy to enable them to participate in the democratic society of the future. However, democracy is also a resource that students can learn from. Things they can learn from democracy include respect for differences, inclusion and standing up against exclusion.

    Schools as “communities of disagreement”

    Democracy is not all consensus and harmony. It can also involve fighting over the same resources, conflicting interests and compromise. Schools are in many ways microcosms of such a society. Lars Laird Iversen has dubbed this a “community of disagreement” – a feeling of unity and affinity with a group that does in fact contain considerable disagreement. He sees schools as institutions with unique opportunities to nurture that very sense of community despite differences of opinion. In the classroom students can develop confident identities that are not based on hatred and stigmatisation of others.

  • Dealing with hateful speech in the classroom

    The significance of inclusion and participation has specific consequences for how to deal with bigoted speech in the classroom. If someone is being insulted by somebody’s else’s words, it must be stopped immediately. However, the target of the bigoted or hateful words may not even be in the classroom. In such cases the teacher must ensure that the person making these statements is included rather than excluded, both through the teacher’s immediate reaction and through further action taken by the school. A reprimand is in many cases not the best reaction, although the teacher may feel that they need to make it clear what is and isn’t acceptable. It is far from certain that this kind of response is the best way of preventing prejudice. On the contrary, the teacher’s reaction to hateful speech in the classroom should be determined by whether the student feels safe and included.

    In her article “Wisdom and prejudice – changing attitudes in the classroom”, Solveig Moldrheim writes about concrete responses that teachers may consider. She points out that the teacher’s response should reflect whether the student feels safe and part of the group or is on the fringe and not included. In the former scenario direct condemnation of the hateful speech may be appropriate. In the latter censure may push the student away and create a breeding ground for developing even more prejudice. Instead, she recommends trying to get to the intentions or other underlying factors behind the student’s words to be able to give the student affirmation without validating the hateful nature of what they said.