If it helps only one person, is it worth it?

Image of America's top anti-bullying speaker Tom Thelen

Are bullying prevention assemblies worth it?

Over the past five years I’ve done bullying prevention assemblies at over 800 schools, and sometimes people will ask me, “Are bullying prevention assemblies worth it?” And the most common way to respond is something like, “Ya know… if it helps even one person, then it’s totally worth it!”

But is that really true? One the one hand, I agree with this idea because every life has infinite value. On the other hand, if it only helps one student, is it worth the financial investment and the time investment for the school? Honestly, I couldn’t live with myself if my school assemblies and bullying prevention curriculum only helped a small number of kids and teens. Thankfully I’ve seen the proof and received the thank-you letters, so I don’t doubt the effectiveness of my program. But sometimes I still wonder…

Recently it dawned on me that the answer to the question is a resounding YES.

That might seem strange, or idealist, or ever arrogant, but let me prove it to you. Let me show you how it’s worth it not just in sentiment, but in practical matters too, as in… dollars and cents.

1. It’s Worth It Financially

My yardstick for this is student retention. I’m really asking one bottom line question: If my anti-bullying assembly plays a small role in helping at least one kid stay at that school, rather than drop out (or switch schools) due to bullying, is it really worth it?

Or to ask a better question: How much money does a school lose in funding when one student drops out or switches schools due to bullying?

Answer: On average, U.S. schools lose about $11,000 in funding for each student who leaves the school permanently. No exaggeration. That’s $11,000. For every student. Every year. And some schools spend three and four times that amount, depending on where you live. This number includes all K through 12 grades, meaning we’re actually spending more on the older grades. You can look up the national numbers at this link, and see how your own state ranks at this link.

This number includes things like educator salaries, curriculum, transportation, food services, and heating and cooling costs. IT DOES NOT INCLUDE expenses such as repairs to the building, new school construction, and other capital expenses. It really does reflect what is actually spent on the education of one child for one year. And this $11,000 average has stayed flat for the past decade, even if you calculate in inflation.

At an average sized middle school with around 600 students, we’re talking about a budget north of $6.5 million. Every single year. Many school budgets actually exceed the budgets of the cities in which they are located. And yes, America spends more on education than any other nation on the planet, see this link.

So how much is it worth if one kid stays at that school? Answer: around $11,000.

2. It’s Worth It For The School Culture

We need to focus on improving the school culture itself – not just to reduce bullying, but also to teach students the attitudes and behaviors that prevent bullying in the first place. We’re talking emotional intelligence. We’re talking social and emotional learning. When schools create a more positive culture, every student benefits.

How much is it actually worth when one kid learns how to be more resilient? What if she learns how to regulate her emotions more effectively, which in turn reduces her anxiety, which in turn improves her test taking ability? Or what if one young man opens up to a school counselor for the first time? What if he learns to stay at that school by the sheer grit awakened within him?

The answer might be hard to measure, but you can feel it in the school culture.

The cool thing is this: there are more and more studies every year linking social and emotional learning to better academic performance. Which totally makes sense – if kids feel safe and motivated, they become more focused and they do better on tests. Conversely, if kids are anxious or worried at school, it becomes almost impossible for them to stay focused, and learning goes right out the window.

3. It’s Worth It For That One Kid’s Future

So then, is the question in its most basic form still true? Is it worth hiring the right school assembly speaker even if it only changes one student? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say YES. I know this to be true because it happened to me. I can think back to key moments in my life when some speaker gave me a wakeup call. I shudder to think where I would be today without those defining moments. They were huge for me, and they changed my future for the better.

As a youth motivational speaker I get thank-you letters from students and educators explaining how my program helped change the way they think, or even better, how it changed the way they behave. And to me that is the highest reward – hearing those specific stories of change.

As a country we need to put more emphasis on creating positive schools where every kid feels safe, resilient, and motivated. I’m proud to be a part of that movement, and I truly believe my program has an application for every single student in the room. My live speech is a spark, and my follow-up curriculum adds fuel to the flame, but it’s really the students and staff that “catch on fire” so to speak when they turn their thoughts and ideas into PLANS AND ACTIONS. That’s when they begin to change their school for the better.

And hey, even if it only helps that one single kid, I still believe it’s worth it.

Tom Thelen is the lead author of Mental Health 101 for Teens. Follow him @bullyingspeaker and at https://TomThelen.com.