Puyallup: Sumner

Sumner School District focuses on the whole child to prevent bullying

Maple Lawn Elementary School kindergarten teacher Heather Elwell accounts for students before they go out for recess. October is National Bullying Prevention Month, but in the Sumner School District prevention begins in kindergarten.
Maple Lawn Elementary School kindergarten teacher Heather Elwell accounts for students before they go out for recess. October is National Bullying Prevention Month, but in the Sumner School District prevention begins in kindergarten. The News Tribune

It used to be that bullying in schools was accepted as a rite of passage — something that children just had to work through or endure.

But now a growing movement made up of nonprofits and those in academia are demanding change. October is National Bullying Prevention Month, but in the Sumner School District prevention begins with systemic change focusing on the whole child, starting on day one in kindergarten and carrying through senior year in high school.

John Norlin, the district’s program administrator for the GO! Project (Growing Opportunities for Hope), said where society goes wrong is looking for the next best program to take care of bullying.

“The number one way to lessen bullying is to create a strong system to focus on the whole child,” Norlin said. “It’s why we’re seeing a national focus on Whole Child initiatives over the last two years, centered on social and emotional learning and teaching strong relationships. That is our number one bullying prevention piece.”

Sumner School District is in its third year of a three-year rollout of the GO! Project. Clayton Cook, an expert in social and emotional learning from the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota, is serving as a consultant and helping to implement the program district-wide.

“He will come in three to four times a year to do presentations with all teachers on late-start days and working on implementation with GO! Teams,” Norlin said.

Sumner is one of only a few districts locally that use Second Step, a bullying prevention curriculum that is founded on the systemic principles of social and emotional learning.

Sumner is one of only a few districts locally that use Second Step, a bullying prevention curriculum that is founded on the systemic principles of social and emotional learning. The curriculum is utilized in 35,000 schools in the U.S. and internationally, including schools in the Seattle area.

Norlin said the curriculum is built into K-5 students’ daily and weekly schedule. At the middle-school level, the curriculum is worked into the advisory program. All schools follow positive behavior expectations posted in all classrooms and common areas.

“It’s positively stated, and we’re explicitly teaching it,” Norlin said. “Along with positive behavior intervention and support, every school has a positive motivation system for catching kids that are doing good things and rewarding them.”

Teaching positive behavior, of course, starts with the teacher in the classroom. Teaches are taught 16 practical classroom management strategies that create a positive environment for children.

One example of a classroom management strategy is the teacher standing at the door greeting children as they arrive to class.

“They’re role modeling how to create positive relationships with the kids,” Norlin said. “When a kid comes in, there is structure. Clayton Cook said if you have teachers greeting at the door and they’re connecting and students have a task when they arrive, in an hour-long class period you will get 20 percent more active engagement. They’re less likely to act out in negative ways.”

Two other areas in which positive behaviors are reinforced are through leadership enrichment and peer-to-peer mentoring.

Norlin said intentional character development is ensured across all grades by providing leadership opportunities to all fourth- and fifth-graders, requiring leadership classes in sixth, seventh and eighth grades, requiring a high-school level class on character development, and holding a middle- and high-school leadership conference each year.

Clayton Cook said if you have teachers greeting at the door and they’re connecting and students have a task when they arrive, in an hour-long class period you will get 20 percent more active engagement. They’re less likely to act out in negative ways.

John Norlin, Sumner School District program administrator for the GO! Project

Peer-to-peer mentoring is set up for sixth-graders coming into middle school and ninth-graders entering high school. The web crew is the middle school program, and the link crew is the high school program. On their first day at school, sixth-graders and ninth-graders, respectively, are paired with an upper classman.

Throughout the year, sixth-graders and ninth-graders have multiple opportunities to check in with their respective mentors both formally and informally, Norlin said.

Over the last several years, Sumner School District’s middle school and leadership conferences have become well-known in the greater Puget Sound region. Thousands of students from other western Washington schools have come to attend the conferences. These students learn about character development and leadership. Student leaders in the Sumner schools lead the conferences.

This year the two conferences will merge to become one on March 8. The keynote speaker will be bestselling business leadership author James C. Hunter.

Norlin expects their highest attendance yet, so he is seeking a large venue to hold the event.

The intentional work the district has done is really starting to show. Norlin can see it’s working when people are greeted by students at the front door of the school, or when others notice students cleaning up the bleachers after a sporting event.

“It’s a systematic approach that is intentional and not accidental across the whole district,” Norlin said.

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