Bullying among school-aged children is widely regarded as an epidemic problem in the United States. If there was a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem, it would have been suggested and implemented long ago. You wouldn't be thinking about it and I wouldn't be writing about it. Getting a handle on bullying in schools and in cyberspace is a complex challenge that leaves many educators and youth care professionals feeling overwhelmed and helpless.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that “big” solutions are trumped each and every day by the small, powerful acts that trustworthy adults can use to signal to individual kids that their dignity is paramount and that their safety will be prioritized.
“But I don’t have time to deal with bullying in my classroom,” I hear teachers say. “I’ve got standardized testing to worry about and math to teach!”
No worries. The most impactful things educators and youth care professionals can do are often the least time-consuming. Training peer mediators, designing ornate bulletin boards and keeping up with complex reward systems are no match for the 1-minute check-in or the 15 seconds it takes for an aware teacher to let an entire class know that put-downs will not be tolerated. The hopeful news about the epidemic of bullying is that while no magic wand cure-alls exist, there are all kinds of quick and easy things adults can do to truly make a difference in the lives of kids.
1. Agree to Agree: What is “Bullying?”
Okay, so, forget for a just moment that I said “big solutions” are not the answer. I’ll get back to that. In the meantime, one of the top priorities for lawmakers in the past decade has been to define bullying (unwanted aggressive behavior repeated over time that involves an imbalance of power) in legal terms. Because of these efforts, 49 states now have anti-bullying laws on the books. In 1999, only Georgia had such a law. Now that is progress!
Anti-bullying legislation at the state level has laid the groundwork for local schools and communities to develop specific policies that clearly define unacceptable behaviors, specify desirable behaviors, and outline discipline procedures. Perhaps even more importantly, this “big” solution has shed light on the wide range of behaviors that fall under the bullying umbrella. Whereas the gold standard of this behavior was once limited to physical violence, adults now know for certain that cyberbullying and relational aggression can be just as painful and even more destructive.
It wasn’t an easy task to establish a legal consensus on bullying from state to state, but now that it has been done most everywhere in the U.S., educators and youth care professionals have a relatively simple challenge: Identify bullying swiftly and respond to it promptly. (More on how to do that coming up…)
2. Increase Adult Presence in Common Areas
One recent study reports that in school settings, bullying is missed by adults 96% of the time. "How can this be?" you may ask. Easier than it seems, I am afraid. While most teachers are very focused on what goes on in their classrooms, the majority of bullying occurs in locations like the lunchroom, the locker room, the playground, the bathroom, the hallways, the bus and, perhaps most infamously, online. When professionals tell concerned parents that they are not aware of bullying incidents taking place in their classrooms, they are usually quite accurate.
A small change that makes a big difference in schools and treatment programs is to increase the presence of watchful adults in common areas. This is not to suggest an expensive big brother approach in which additional staff are hired or kids are watched like hawks at every moment of their day. Rather, placing observant teachers in the hallways between classes, trained recess aides on the playground at recess, knowledgeable monitors on the buses before and after school, and astute food-service workers in the cafeteria at lunch is a proven way of reducing a bully’s opportunity to act. What’s more, the increased physical presence of adults in common areas lets vulnerable kids know that adults are actively engaged in keeping them safe wherever they are.
3. Deal with Cyberbullying
It’s a fact of life in the 21st century that kids are connected to each other 24/7. A generation ago, young people who were bullied in school could count on hours spent at home as a respite from ridicule. Today, kids are ever-connected through texting, instant messaging, and social media sites; sadly, there is little rest for the bully-weary.
A giant mis-step in recent years has been for school personnel to claim “It didn’t happen on school property…this isn’t our problem…there is nothing we can do.” This abdication of responsibility by adults gave bullies incontrovertible evidence that they were in charge of the school; that their actions outside of school could control the culture inside the classroom, yet no adults would do anything to stop them.
One of the most important things that educators and youth care professionals can do is to deal with cyberbullying head-on, acknowledging its deep impact on the school’s culture and setting standards that hold kids accountable for their online behavior.
4. Build Relationships with Kids
Most educators and youth care professionals I know chose the profession because of the paycheck. Right. We came to this type of work because we have a passion for making a positive difference in the lives of young people and we know that the key to doing this is building trusting relationships with them. Unfortunately, sometimes along the way, we get awfully busy with professional obligations and find ourselves transformed from human beings into human doings. Tasks take up most of our time and personal connections become a luxury we believe we cannot afford.
Don’t believe it. Connections with kids are the essential pre-requisite for any progress we are going to make with them. One of the most basic things you can do to really be there for a child is to put aside your “To Do” list for the first five minutes of your interactions with kids. Instead of an agenda, greet kids with a smile. Use 1-minute check-ins with your most vulnerable kids to find out how they are doing on any given day. Really listen to their answers. Make time to build relationships with all of your students, clients, and kiddos. It will get you everywhere.
5. Take Reports of Bullying Seriously
This summer, I received an email from a mother whose child attends a school at which I was scheduled to give a presentation. In no uncertain terms, she warned me that if I was going to come in and tell the kids that it was OK for them to “tattle like crybabies every time someone called them a name,” then I should not bother coming at all. It was one of those emails that I couldn’t even finish reading the first time through, and then I couldn’t stop reading later on, because I had to make sure I was understanding her message correctly.
After several re-readings of the note, I had the opportunity to communicate directly with the parent and explain to her this:
Any good bullying program recognizes that conflict is inevitable and that sometimes kids (and adults) misuse their power. My role is to help children become competent to handle those situations so they don't feel that that they need to go to an adult until they have tried to handle situations constructively on their own.
On the other hand, I explained, there is tremendous power behind name calling, social exclusion, peer isolation, and other instances of aggression among kids. By mid-elementary school, kids are much more likely to hide instances of bullying from adults than to “tattle” on their peers, due to their overpowering fear of being labeled as a “crybaby” and experiencing further ridicule. When kids do have the strength to reach out to adults, it is absolutely our obligation to honor their courage through the simple act of taking their reports seriously.
Incidents of relational aggression and cyberbullying should be regarded as seriously as physical aggression. When adults respond quickly and consistently to kids, they send the message that bullying is not acceptable. Research shows this simple act of believing kids and taking their reports seriously can significantly halt bullying.
6. Stop Bullying Whenever You See Bullying
This is the place where professionals and parents tend to feel the most helpless. “I know it when I see it,” said one teacher. “Our in-services have been good about teaching us to recognize bullying. But I still don’t really know how to make it stop,” she confessed.
This teacher is not alone. Many adults struggle with crafting just the right lecture to deliver to kids when they overhear an incident of bullying, but often the most effective approach is the one that takes less than 15 seconds to deliver:
• “It’s not okay to say that to someone in my classroom. Are we clear?”
• “Sending that kind of text about a classmate is unacceptable. Are we good?”
• “Leaving one kid out of the group is not going to work. Let’s fix this and move on.”
The benefits of these brief statements?
• They don’t humiliate anyone but they do let everyone know that the adult is astute, aware of classroom dynamics, and not afraid to step in.
• They send a strong signal to the bully that his behavior will not be tolerated.
• They assure the kid who is bullied that he has a safe place and a trustworthy adult in the school.
Oh, and did I mention that these uncomplicated statements allow a teacher to get right back to the lesson while simultaneously heading off all kinds of future issues from occurring on her watch?
In schools where anti-bullying programs exist, bullying is typically reduced by 50%. Educators and youth care professionals can incorporate social skills lessons into any part of a young person’s day—whether it be the focus of a school period, a small part of an unrelated academic lesson, or a theme running through a service project. Adults who make the time to teach social skills help set standards of tolerance and create cultures of kindness.
8. Turn Bystanders into Allies
Last Spring, I read an article online about a young man named Scott Shaver who was crowned Prom King at his San Diego high school. What is special and inspiring about his crowning is that it marks the extent to which this young man with autism has been embraced by his “regular education” classmates. Scott’s mother credits his school’s “Best Buddies” program, a popular club that matches special needs students with regularly enrolled classmates. “Best Buddies” is a perfect model to demonstrate that when it comes to creating standards for kindness and dignity in schools, solutions don’t have to be costly or complicated. Real change is about culture shifts and culture shifts occur person to person and heart to heart.
9. Hold Positive Friendships Up to the Light
Bullying is very often context-specific. A child who is the target of relentless bullying in her school classroom may find herself accepted and valued by her basketball teammates—or vice versa. One of the simplest, yet most powerful things that adults can do for kids is to teach them about what positive friendships should feel like (e.g. A friend is someone who you can laugh with; who helps you to feel good about yourself; who doesn’t put you down) and then provide opportunities for kids to bond with peers who meet these criteria.
Helping kids cast a wide net—to seek out friendships both in their neighborhood, at school, on a team, through a club, and with a youth group, etc. is a great way to expose kids to multiple peers and all kinds of friendships. When a child does connect with a positive peer, be sure to hold that friendship up to the light.
10. Talk About It!
A friend and former colleague recently confided in me that she was all set to begin using my Friendship & Other Weapons curriculum in her parochial elementary school when word came down from school administrators that “the School doesn’t want to talk to the kids about ‘bullying.’ It implies that there is a problem.”
Open sandbox, insert head.
When there is denial of the problem, kids cannot be safe. They cannot learn and they cannot develop skills for managing the conflict that is an inevitable part of being human. Denying the existence of bullying is nothing short of empowering the bully and failing vulnerable children.
Adults have to get beyond politics and policies in order to truly be there for children. Opening up a dialogue about conflict, about friendships, and about how to successfully navigate the sometimes-choppy waters of both is a simple way to show kids that you understand what is important in their world and that you care enough to listen to their experiences.
In her workshops based on Friendship & Other Weapons, Signe offers professionals, parents, and kids further detail on the strategies listed above as well as additional ideas on how to teach kids to STANd Up to bullying, approach bullies effectively, deal with cyberbullying, and create cultures of tolerance in schools and communities. For more information, please visit www.signewhitson.com.