SIOUX CITY | Kristin Whitsel slips Slowdown Snail onto her hand and asks her kindergarten class why he's there.
Without hesitation, a little girl answers that the puppet reminds them to slow down and not be so bouncy and talkative.
Whitsel nods her head in agreement.
"He reminds us to slow down and think, think, think about how we treat others," Whitsel said.
In another wing at Sioux City's Spalding Park Elementary School, Tina Buhrman teaches her fifth-graders about supportive behavior through a scenario in which an aunt's playful teasing embarrasses her nephew in front of his friends. She shows her class a picture of a young boy placing a comforting hand on his friend's shoulder.
"By letting other people know you care about them, you can be a better friend," Buhrman tells her students. "You can say, 'It's OK,' and that can make a world of difference."
Both teachers were using a lesson out of Second Step, a social skills program used in the Sioux City Community School District's elementary and middle schools. The district's high schoolers participate in Mentors & Violence Prevention, or MVP. Both programs offer age-appropriate discussions on how to respond to bullying and harassment and treat others respectfully.
The programs illustrate what all schools face: the challenge to offer bullying prevention education that students at every grade level can understand. The best way to tackle bullying isn't necessarily gathering students of all ages into a gymnasium to listen to a speaker.
"I think schools really want and need more guidance on what is helpful. Really, what's important is that whatever work is done, it is done in a way that gets at good practices in bullying prevention," said Penny Bisignano, an Iowa Department of Education consultant specializing in bullying prevention and intervention.
Sioux City's elementary school students begin with the basics. Kindergarteners start with how to be quiet and listen. As students advance through elementary school into middle school, weekly lessons focus on more advanced concepts such as empathy and how to handle emotions. At each grade level, scenarios are presented to help illustrate the lesson.
Marilyn Charging, the district's director of pupil services and equity, said Second Step builds on those skills from year to year. Using a program geared toward each specific grade level makes it easier for kids to understand.
"I think this was really good because it was age-appropriate," Charging said. "I think it's easier to address in elementary."
Jim Vanderloo, Sioux City's director of secondary education, said the MVP program addresses situations specific to high school students.
"These conversations are high school conversations. You would not see these conversations at the elementary school level," he said.
Not all schools have the resources of a large district such as Sioux City's. Administrators in smaller districts find ways to stretch their dollars while providing programming that reaches students at all grade levels.
"We try to find speakers and presenters that can hit all age groups," said Scott Bailey, superintendent at Kingsley-Pierson Community School District in rural Plymouth County.
Bailey said his district strives to provide age-appropriate programming. This year, the district implemented a new program of adviser/advisee groups that meet 15 minutes each day and are led by staff members.
"I think our staff has been very positive with things we've been doing," Bailey said.
That adult/staff component is key to whichever route schools take to address bullying and harassment, Bisignano said. Before any action can be taken, a school's staff must be trained to recognize what bullying is and isn't and how to intervene when it occurs.
"I think we're still working across the state to get that across," Bisignano said.
Vanderloo said the MVP program hasn't eliminated bullying but that it has helped students and faculty members deal with and reduce problematic behavior. School administrators continue to seek ways to reach more students and educate their staffs.
"We look at what needs we have and aren't being met and address it accordingly," Vanderloo said. "The goal is to have better behavior."