Students lead the way to positive school cultures

Issue: Volume 99, Number 13

Posted: 14 August 2020
Reference #: 1HA9pY

Students are a school’s most powerful resource when it comes to creating a welcoming environment.

We’ve all heard the stories, we’ve all seen the statistics: bullying is negatively impacting on the lives and learning of as many as one in three young people. But Sticks ’n Stones, a youth-led organisation committed to “making bullying a thing of the past”, is an example of how young people can lead change and play a significant role in creating a safer, kinder Aotearoa. 

These rangatahi have created two student action packs, one for primary and one for secondary schools, which harness the power of student voice, and set out strategies for student-led bullying prevention and response initiatives in schools. These will soon be available on the Bullying-Free NZ website(external link).

Packs contain three strategies for making positive change: Spread the word; Take the lead, and Make a change. Each strategy is supported by games and activities. Sticks ‘n Stones knows these work because they’ve already been run by students in New Zealand schools. Key messages include ‘Kindness costs nothing but means everything’ and ‘He kōtuinga mahi iti, he hua pai-ā rau: Small ripples create big waves’.

The design process reflects the ethos of Sticks ’n Stones: that young people are key to informing positive change in schools and the wider community. 

“Young people made all the decisions from content to colour, layout and design,” says Sticks ’n Stones co-founder and chief executive, Karla Sanders. 

“It was a wonderful and practical way of working, and the Ministry was so open and real about that approach. It was an incredible experience for all of us.

“Without young people being involved, there is no way we can change what is happening, we have to do it with them. You can talk at young people as much as you like, but if we want to change attitudes or behaviour, we have to listen to them.”

Especially when it comes to wellbeing, she says.

“What we know is that more and more young people turn to their peers when they’re in distress, so if we can empower them to know what to do, they don’t have to hold onto this,” says Karla.

“When we talk to young people who feel isolated, we have learned that it’s the smallest acts of kindness that make them feel connected.

“The part that you played in changing someone’s day with a small act of kindness let them know that they’re not alone, and they’re less likely to feel helpless. When we have most students doing this, what we create is a school where everyone feels safe to be themselves and can take risks without fear of the social consequences,” she says.

Words can hurt

Sticks ’n Stones started in 2013, with a group of 30 volunteers from five schools across Central Otago. Sticks ‘n Stones now delivers bullying-prevention training to almost 800 young people aged eight to 18 each year, and creates bullying-prevention tools and resources designed by young people, for young people. 

The organisation has also launched an app, ICON, to tackle online negativity; undertaken peer-to-peer research into bullying, and partnered with Facebook to share the Sticks ’n Stones advocacy programme nationwide. 

Sticks ’n Stones was named in response to the saying, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’. 

“The truth is, words do hurt,” say the team at Sticks ‘n Stones. “We have seen first-hand the harm that words can do. We are a new generation, with a new way of communicating, and with that comes new problems. It is so important that young people are actively and meaningfully involved in developing solutions and preventing harm.”

Making a difference 

Dunedin nursing student Abby Golden, 19, has been with Sticks ’n Stones since she was in Year 10. Abby is now co-chair of the Sticks ’n Stones board, as well as continuing to help out with fundraisers and the ambassador programme.

“I can honestly say that the work I do with Sticks ’n Stones has shaped me into the person I am today. I have gained so much confidence in myself and my abilities, and I’ve discovered a passion for working in my community, helping and advocating for others, which in part is why I chose nursing. I’ve been able to work with young people from across New Zealand as well as some incredible youth-focused organisations and professionals who are committed to preventing bullying, both online and off,” she says.

“Project-wise, I’ve had some really cool experiences travelling to various conferences and working with amazing people, but nothing beats that moment when you can see that you’re making a real difference to someone.

“Whether it’s helping someone to understand the perspectives of other people and seeing them realise that what they may see as a harmless joke can actually really be really hurtful to the other person involved, or seeing a young person open up and become more resilient, more confident in themselves and their ability to speak up and stand up for others too.” 

Simply inspiring someone else to take the lead in their school and aspire to make a change makes a difference.

“I think that’s the ultimate goal. Of course, there’s the aim to create a bullying-free New Zealand where we’re all accepted and respected for who we are, but if I can inspire one other young person to step up, take action and really make a difference and then they can do the same for another, and another, then we’ve got a chain of young people taking ownership and speaking up to make this world a better place.”

Useful resources

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 8:22 am, 14 August 2020

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