Scenario 1: Jane is an average girl in seventh grade – she does well in school; is cute but not stunning; is a bit shy but will participate in class. For some reason, a group of “popular” girls has decided to shun her. They whisper about her behind her back and roll their eyes every time she participates in class. Soon, everyone in class joins in: no one will sit at her table, she’s not invited to get-togethers or sleepovers, and she sits alone at lunch time. She tells no one what is happening to her.
Scenario 2: Doug is new to the school and has entered fifth grade. He’s smaller than most of the other kids in the class and a bit of a know-it-all. He tries to make friends by playing the class clown. He is quickly rejected by everyone and the class bully begins to pick on him viciously. The boys in the class rally to the bully’s side…. they sing nasty songs about him, rip up his homework, steal his lunch, and trip him every chance they get. Soon kids are uploading ugly pictures of him to Facebook and writing derogatory comments about him online. Doug talks to his parents about the problem. He tells them he has no idea how this started and is too frightened to come to school. His dad steps up to the plate, marches onto the school grounds and threatens the kids in his class. Things only get worse for Doug.
Much of this type of bullying is done secretly and quietly. Teachers may not even notice it going on. But if they do see what’s happening, they often feel at a loss as to how to help the victim. If they step in and do something, they’re afraid the victim will be seen as the “teacher’s pet” and things will get worse. Bullying is clandestine and hard to prove – teachers are (justifiably) afraid to accuse the bully without concrete evidence, so they’re hesitant to get involved. Often they’ll choose to turn a blind eye and hope things will get better.
But usually, things don’t get better. They tend to get worse.
So, what can schools do about this growing problem? Many schools decide to invite a speaker in to talk to the kids about bullying, its effects, and why they should be nice to each other, hoping that after the presentation, things will improve. Although this sort of Band-Aid may make everyone feel good for a time, within a few days the effect has worn off and things are backed to normal.
It’s not enough to simply treat bullying when it occurs. We need to proactively work against it on several levels, taking strong preventative measures before bullying happens, such as educating everyone (teachers, parents, and students), actively teaching empathy and understanding to our students, and having protocols in place to handle bullying as soon as we’re aware that it’s happening.
- Teachers must know all the different manifestations of bullying in order to recognize them and talk about them with their students.
- They should be taught the typical symptoms the victim may show, so that they can recognize when a child is being bullied, even if that child (like the one in the first scenario) is too frightened or too embarrassed to say anything.
- Teachers need to learn strong listening skills in order to help a child feel understood. Too often a child complains about bullying only to have the teacher brush them off.
- Teachers need to know that bullying is at its worst during classroom transitions, between classes, during recess, and before and after school. These are the times when they need to be vigilant. Catching the bully in the act is an important step in stopping the problem
- Many parents have no idea how best to help a child who is being bullied. Their advice ranges from “just ignore them” to the ever-popular “hit them so hard they’ll never forget.” Or, in the worst case, they jump in to solve the problem, as the father did in the second scenario. This type of “help” inevitably makes things worse.
- Parents need to know that bullying is serious and should never be ignored, but they shouldn’t advise their child to “hit back”. Self-defense can be dangerous. Often the bully is bigger and tougher – hitting the bully could lead to a fight in which the victim is badly hurt.
- Parents should be taught to listen carefully to their child, reassure them that they are not alone, and then contact the school for help.
- Kids need to be taught about bullying well before it happens.
- Teachers should hold regular classroom meetings where students can talk about their feelings, learn about the roles of the bully, the victim and the silent witness, and discuss all types of bullying and the consequences.
- During read aloud and classroom discussions students need to be taught empathy. Kids who can put themselves in someone else’s shoes are kinder and more understanding of others.
- Children need to know the difference between a little problem and a big problem and how to handle each of them (Kelso’s Choices is an effective program for helping kids learn about how to deal with small problems themselves)
- They also need to be taught effective ways to defend themselves and the importance of speaking out. Kids should know that bullies thrive in silence; keeping quiet gives them power.
- Teaching students from the moment they enter school empowers them and gives them the language they need to defend themselves. Letting them know there is zero tolerance and that they will be protected makes them feel safe.
- Schools also need to teach bullies – helping them understand why they act the way they do and finding other ways to handle their emotions. They need to know that what they’re doing is wrong and there will be consequences for their actions.
Dealing with bullying is not a one-shot deal. It’s a multi-pronged effort that must go on constantly in schools. Everyone must be aware of the dangers and keep an eye open for it. The occasional speaker who comes in to talk about bullying is a great addition to a strong anti-bullying program, but it can never be the sole answer to the problem. Bullying won’t disappear completely, but when teachers, parents, and students consistently work together, they can make an incredible difference.