President's Message

President’s Message: Addressing Disrespect Among Our Nation’s Leaders

Volume 45 Issue 2

I find the discrepancy between state and federal bullying legislation and the behavior of some of our nation's leaders appalling. As a consequence, our children are getting mixed messages. Antibullying legislation promotes the idea that bullying behaviors should be addressed. Yet some leaders and others running for elected office bully each other continuously and are not held responsible for their behavior. While it is important to acknowledge that our elected officials have done much to support our nation's school children by addressing the problem of bullying, some have been very poor role models.

You may be wondering why I am writing about our nation's political climate in Communiqué. My concern is that the negative behavior displayed by some leaders has the potential to adversely affect school climate. In fact, as I travel the country colleagues tell me, with increasing frequency, that the negativity has resulted in some of their students behaving as if bullying behavior is an acceptable and even a desired way to get what they want. At a personal level, I find it especially disheartening that my two teenage children observe current political discourse that too often involves bullying behaviors. I struggle to explain how it is that these behaviors are apparently rewarded. My kids have been taught that rewards are tied to positive, not negative, behaviors and any bullying they might display would be met with big time consequences.

The discipline of school psychology can do much to counter this poor role modeling. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) explicitly recognizes the strong relationship between positive school climate and student learning and success. We can play a critical role in helping to establish safe and supportive learning environments and set the tone that negative behaviors should not receive all the attention; positive behaviors should. When you look at the origins of the common school movement, one of its most important goals was to create an informed electorate. An informed electorate is one in which all perspectives are understood, common goals are identified, and a mutual give-and-take approach to problem solving and reaching common goals is valued. As I have told my children, it is not okay to stand by and watch negative rhetoric continue to be reinforced. They can choose to be part of the solution by making the choice to treat each person with respect, even if they disagree. By helping to establish this type of climate in their peer groups, classrooms, and employment settings, they are, one step at a time, helping to change our society toward a more positive climate and culture.

While as an individual I may not be able to change this extremely negative and hostile political discourse, I can appreciate that small steps change lives; actions I take as a mother and a school psychologist influence the actions taken by our youth and, hopefully, help to foster a more civil society. ESSA specifically allows for various funding streams (e.g., Title I, II, and IV) to be used for activities that promote positive school climate. Specifically, we can continue to advocate for universal programing that emphasizes a positive school climate (one that values respect for individual differences and opinions, positive interactions, collaboration), and positively reinforces interactions that maintain personal integrity. We can provide guidance to our children, students, and staff members on the importance of positive role modeling. We can help youth learn to approach difficult dialogue with civility and utilize positive leadership skills to succeed in reaching goals that foster the common good. We also have unique expertise in restorative practices, social–emotional learning, and mindfulness, which teach and reinforce skills that our students hopefully carry into their adulthood interactions. And just as important, we can highlight the impact and behaviors of the many leaders who are modeling positive interactions as they advocate for American citizens, in addition to others who effectively contribute to our society.

This will not happen overnight, and there are many tough issues facing the world in which we live. With each small step we can make a positive difference, and there is no better place to have influence than in our schools. In the words of noted American historian Howard Zinn: “We don't have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts when multiplied by millions of people can transform the world.”

Melissa Reeves is the president of the National Association of School Psychologists