Desperately Seeking Civility in Our Schools

Call a Spade a Spade

First, one must not attempt to smooth over the jagged, razor-sharp edges of bullying behaviors and must be willing to call a spade a spade. Bullying in all forms is targeted aggression—plain and simple.

Bullying is not an adolescent rite of passage. Bullying is not a character-building experience. Bullying prevention programs are not “softening” children. On the contrary, experts believe that bullying behaviors, in addition to all forms of aggression, have the potential to cause or exacerbate mental, emotional, and somatic disorders.

Additionally, bullying behaviors pose a major risk factor for poor physical and mental health, and reduced adaptation to adult roles including forming lasting relationships, integrating into work and being economically independent.[1]

Lastly, no parent—no family—no school—no community should ever have to grieve the loss of life as a result of murder or suicide-related to bullying behaviors.

Incivility in America

Incivility is a behavior. Most behaviors are learned through modeling. Children model the behaviors of adults. Naturally, as a society’s collective behavioral temperament trends toward incivility, it should be of no surprise to adults that incivility among children, adolescents, and young adults will rise as well. 

The definition of civility refers to politeness or etiquette. When you do not really like someone very much but you manage to treat him politely, greeting him and behaving in a socially acceptable way, this is an example of civility.[2]

Popular adages have existed for over 2,000 years for the purpose of teaching civility to children, such as, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  And, “if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

These adages are more than folky quotations for inspirational memes and coffee mugs, they serve as the foundational stones upon which the pillars of civil societies are constructed. Strip away the utopian notions of civility as a world where unicorns gallop through flower-filled fields beneath rainbow skies and embrace it for what it is—as a means for the preservation of a functional society.  The evolutionary function of civility is not reinforced by kindness for the sake of kindness. The evolutionary function of civility is to minimize the expenditure of valuable resources (i.e., human capital, natural resources, etc.) that are required to defend one’s family/clan/tribe, etc. from a competing family/clan/tribe.

In 2014, the Civility in America survey found over 90% of Americans feel civility is a problem in this country, and nearly two-thirds believe incivility is at a crisis level. So, where does this leave the next generation of Americans? Where does this leave millions of elementary and secondary students?

Incivility in Our Schools

In relation to incivility and bullying among elementary and secondary students, the evolutionary function of civility exists in the form of social identity, group membership, and group rank. The journey from preschool to high school is rife with Spartan-like socially-charged aggressions. Anyone who is uncertain of this claim need only to attend an elementary-age competition of any kind or visit an elementary school playground during recess (the latter is ill-advised without the express consent of the school’s administration).

Elementary and secondary students are either searching for social identity, jockeying to gain membership in a group, and at minimum, establishing an alliance with a ranking member of a group. Take for example the middle school phenomenon. Imagine a school district that has four neighborhood elementary schools each with grades Kindergarten through five. Each school’s students have from Kindergarten through Grade 5 to establish their social identities, groups, and group roles. The school district has one middle school. Each year, all of the Grade 6 students from each elementary school converge at the middle school. Essentially, the Grade 6 social deck of cards is shuffled leaving its players frantically maneuvering to find their middle school social identity, group membership, and group rank among a larger, more competitive pool of peers. This may be why middle schools typically have the highest rates of interpersonal conflicts and incidents of bullying. The alpha group members from each elementary school are metaphorically dumped into the grade 6 schoolyard and left to their own devices to establish dominance and social order.

Unfortunately, elementary and secondary students are not developmentally equipped to manage even the simplest forms of interpersonal challenges. Most do not possess the emotional intelligence or interpersonal skill set required to analyze an actual or perceived threat, develop a strategy and implement a threat response, or to take the civil course of action and ignore the threat after conducting a strategic cost analysis of the risks and rewards associated with a response. Most elementary and secondary students are highly impulsive and motivated by fear, so, when confronted by an actual or perceived threat to one’s established social identity, group membership or group rank, one’s natural response is to eliminate the threat—to lock one’s sites on the target and annihilate it. Hence, the high rate of bullying behaviors and acts of incivility among elementary and secondary students.

Response and Responsibility

It is the responsibility of the adult members of the school community to respond to problematic behaviors regardless of their category. Bullying, acts of incivility, conflicts, etc. are all associated with problematic behaviors. Each problematic behavior is the function of a reinforcer. There is no standard unit of measure for bullying behaviors. Therefore, there is no standard one-size-fits-all response to bullying behaviors. The key is to manage the behavior as it is presented and as it is perceived by its victim(s) and observer(s). Behavior that may seem trivial to one may be traumatic to another. This is why it is critical for the adult members of the school community to respond to all reports of actual or perceived incidents of bullying as a problematic behavior that requires a response.

It is also the responsibility of the adult members of the school community to serve as models of civility to their students. Adult members of the school community who engage in aggressive, hostile, demeaning, or discriminatory behaviors while in the presence of students or on social media are only reinforcing the problematic behaviors of their students by serving as models of moral inconsistency—asking a student to do as they say and not as they do.

So long as national and local leaders engage in public displays of incivility, so shall our elementary and secondary students. Our elementary and secondary students are desperately in need of models of civility. It is the responsibility of the adult members of the school community to rise to the challenge and serve as models of civility for the benefit of our most valuable resource—our children.


One cool autumn morning, two brothers set afoot into the forest for a day’s journey to the next village. As most brothers are, these brothers were fiercely competitive. The younger brother rarely came out ahead and was always in search of a sure-fire way to best his older, stronger, and faster sibling. They walked all morning at a brisk pace. Neither was willing to fall behind the pace or show any signs of fatigue. They reached the half-way point of their journey and agreed to stop and rest for a few minutes. They sat side by side beneath the shade of a majestic oak tree. The younger brother spotted a pair of young trees a few feet away. He saw this as an opportunity to best his older brother in a challenge. He pointed to the pair of trees and said, “Hey Brother, look at those two trees over there.” The older brother took a sip of water from his canteen, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “I see them. What is special about those trees?” The younger brother replied, “I bet they are about 25 feet high.” The older brother nodded in agreement. The younger brother also recognized that the trunks of the trees were not very thick and would be easy for his sharp hand ax to fell. The younger brother smirked and said, “I bet you next week’s wages that I can hold the top branch of that tree in hand before you can hold the top branch of the tree next to it in hand.” Not being one to decline a challenge, the older brother closed the top of his canteen and replied, “I accept your challenge.” The brothers rose to their feet and walked toward the pair of young trees. The younger brother stopped approached his tree, dropped his rucksack to the ground, reached inside, and removed a shiny hand ax. Knowing full well that his older brother had not packed his hand ax, the younger brother thought for sure that he had finally found a way to best his older brother. “I never said how I would get to the highest branch in my hand,” the younger brother said with a sly grin. The older brother reached into his rucksack to remove a pair of thick leather gloves. He slid the gloves over his thick, strong hands and grabbed the young tree trunk in a bear hug and began to climb the tree. His younger brother began to chop and chop at the base of his tree as the older brother scaled his tree branch by branch. The younger brother chopped and chopped and just as he was about to fell the young tree he heard his brother’s voice call down to him from atop the other tree, “Hey little brother, I will be sure not to spend all of your next week’s wages in one place.” The younger brother dropped his hand ax and raised his head to see the sight of his older brother atop the tree with the highest branch in hand. He dropped to the ground exhausted. He wiped beads of sweat from his brow and waited for his older brother to climb down. After a few minutes, they gathered their belongings and continued on their journey. After a few miles of silence, the younger brother said, “I can’t believe I lost a whole week’s wages. I thought for sure that I could chop down that tree. I am so weak.” The older brother patted his younger brother on his back and said, “Little brother, never take to the ax to chop when you can don your gloves and climb.” 

The moral of the story…

Leaders do not bring success down to their level, they climb to meet success at its level. Leaders do not chop others down with insults, rumors or sabotage, leaders roll up their sleeves and work harder to climb higher. 


[1] Wolke, Dieter and Lereya, Suzet Tanya, et al. Long-term effects of bullying. 2015 Sep; 100(9): 879–885.  BMJ Publishing Group Limited

[2] “civility.” YourDictionary, n.d. Web. 02 November 2018.


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