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N.H. 7th Graders Participating in Unique Bully Experiment

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More than 100 middle school students from three New Hampshire school districts begin participation this month in a unique experiment aimed at reducing bullying and meanness in New Hampshire schools. 

The Courage to Care Program was developed by a collaborative team from UNH, spearheaded by Cooperative Extension specialist Malcolm Smith and youth development Extension educator Rick Alleva.

Staff from Cooperative Extension, the Browne Center, and the department of social work designed a curriculum to be taught to students during a nine-week period that emphasizes empathy, caring for others, understanding power, courage, and being respectful in cyberspace.  The team based the program on current research on how middle school students learn social skills.

“This is the most promising program I have been part of in my 30-year career of working with young people,” Smith said. “It gets at the heart and soul of teaching students how to get along.” 

In December, teachers and counselors from Kingswood Middle School in Wolfeboro, Gorham Middle High School and all three middle schools in the Fall Mountain School Administrative Unit attended a comprehensive program on how to use the curriculum as part of their classes.  These educators will receive ongoing support from the university team as they teach the program.

Students in the participating middle schools were asked to participate in a pre-test that indicates both their social and emotional skill levels while measuring their perceptions of bullying behavior in their school. 

While most students took the pre-test, only half of each district’s seventh graders will participate in the program at first, and the other half will serve as a control group to compare the effects of the curriculum on the students.  The tests are being conducted by Patrick Shannon, professor of social work.

Each lesson in this unique curriculum starts with a “video jolt” or a short video scenario that sets up a real-life dilemma faced by middle school students.  “The ‘jolts’ hook the kids into the lesson then we have a short discussion,” Smith said. 

That discussion is followed by a unique activity or game that serves as a metaphor for the lesson’s goals.  In the cyberspace lesson, for example, the students experience an activity called “Faceback,” during which students attach pieces of paper to their backs and others write positive comments about them literally behind their back.

The final part of the lesson is teaches courage concepts or social and emotional goals. Students are each then given a “Courage Book” that provides the week’s homework lesson and gives the students a chance to practice the skills they are learning to be better citizens.

“We used to teach citizenship in our schools,” Smith said. “And we used to focus more on teaching kids how to get along. As our pace of society has increased, our parental time decreased, and our school time has become more academic achievement oriented, we have forgotten the importance of teaching kids how to be nice to one another. This program gets back to that type of social and emotional learning.”

Educators and youth leaders from across New Hampshire will have a chance to be trained in the Courage to Care curriculum this summer at a series of trainings at the Browne Center.  For more information contact Smith at Malcolm.smith@unh.edu 2-7008.