Using virtues to ward off bullying behavior

This is a tale of two anti-bullying programs. (Actually, it’s only the tale of one, but it starts out as the tale of two.) 

The first was launched at Harvard University last month. The second was launched in the Archdiocese of St. Louis last year. The first was founded by Lady Gaga and backed by Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey. The second was founded by Catholic educator Lynne Lang and backed by St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson and Catholic School Superintendent George Henry. 

Gaga’s program has a flashy name, adapted from her song “Born This Way.” Lang’s program has a clunky acronym, VBRD, which stands for Virtue-Based, Restorative Discipline. 

One of those programs is not your normal anti-bullying program. It’s a whole new way of approaching how children relate to each other, and accomplishes much more than simply curtailing bullying. Which is it? 

Hint: It doesn’t take its name from a No. 1 Billboard hit. 

Creating virtuous climate

While Born This Way and most similar secular programs promote tolerance and acceptance of all behaviors, lifestyles and choices, VBRD’s core goal is making children into saints. It seeks to form students in the Christian virtues, setting them on the path to holiness and teaching them how to repair the harm done by destructive behavior. 

Lang, who has worked for 15 years in the fields of violence prevention and health education, conceived the idea for VBRD when one of the archdiocesan school principals approached her about implementing restorative disciplinary procedures in the school. Lang wanted to expand that effort by providing a foundation for building Catholic identity. As she began to see the effect it was having on students, she realized she was “on to something.” 

“We were seeing changes in the kids and changes in the staff. The whole climate of the school was changing,” she said. 

Addressing root causes

The reason for that, Lang explained, was threefold. 

First, the program aimed to change more than just the behavior of students. It aimed to help the adults in their lives better love God and practice virtue so they could help the children do the same. 

“The solution to bullying rests in the hearts and minds of adults,” Lang said. “Kids learn their behavior from us, which means we have to change something in ourselves so we can model something better for them.” 

Second, the scope was broader than traditional anti-bullying programs, seeking to address all forms of anti-social and disruptive behavior. 

Third, was what Lang described as “the virtue piece” — not simply telling students what not to do, but modeling Christlike behavior for them. 

“We’re not waiting for a problem to start,” said Lang. “We’re laying a foundation for life, helping them understand the virtues and develop a firm disposition to the good. We’re also helping them recognize the impact of their behavior on their relationship with others and with God. It’s addressing the root cause of the problem to promote systemic change.” 

In July 2011, Henry brought Lang on board full time, naming her the director of school climate for the Catholic Education Center and encouraging her to develop the initiative as a model for all schools, with an eye toward using it to help meet one of St. Louis Catholic Schools’ primary goals: strengthening Catholic identity. 

The program was fully launched in five schools this past fall, with five more schools implementing pieces of the program as they refine it further. 

Adaptable program

In each school where VBRD has been implemented, it looks a little bit different, with each school able to make adjustments based on its unique needs. 

Some schools, such as Holy Trinity, spent all last year prepping teachers, staff and parents for the program, learning more about the virtues together and developing ideas for how they could hand on what they learned. Other schools used the spring and summer before school to prepare themselves. The teachers and staff of Good Shepherd in Hillsboro, for example, did a book study on Father Benedict Groeschel’s “The Virtue Driven Life” (OSV, $10.25) in August. 

Each school also decided on which of the virtues they wanted to focus, how much time to spend on each virtue, and what specific activities to do to re-enforce those virtues. 

Common elements, on the other hand, include a regular focus on prayer; partnering younger students and older students to help each other learn about the virtue; hands-on activities such as drawing pictures, journaling, writing short stories and even making short movies; rewarding students and commending them for displays of virtue; and applying virtues in a community setting. 

When disruptive behavior does occur, the schools don’t simply punish the students. They bring all the students involved together, discuss the causes of the problem and what virtues were absent, then look for ways to repair the harm done to the relationship. 

More mature approach

Mariann Jones, principal of Good Shepherd, said the results thus far have been remarkable. 

“Not only are we seeing a decrease in incidents, but when incidents do happen, there’s an increase in the maturity with which students handle the problems,” she said. “They are quicker to realize what harm they’ve done, and really want to make things right.” 

Nina Ashby, a second-grade teacher at Holy Trinity, is also enthusiastic about the program. 

“I’ve got little ones telling each other when they aren’t ‘using their virtues.’ They’re really getting it,” she said. 

And the students aren’t the only ones getting it.  

“At first some of the parents were resistant to the program. They didn’t understand it and were worried about the extra time commitment it would require of them,” Ashby said. “But now I’m hearing from parents about how their children are reminding them at home about the virtues and how it’s helping them live those virtues better.”

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.