Bullying among school-aged children is a widespread problem in the United States. If there was a magic wand, 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. Bringing an end to bullying involves comprehensive school culture shifts as well as convincing young people (and the adults in their lives!) to use social power fairly and justly, at all times. Changing human dynamics, as we all know, is neither easy nor swift.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that time-consuming, complicated 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.
At the risk of oversimplifying a very complex and nuanced issue among young people, but at the hope of creating a go-to roadmap for educators, counselors, youth workers, and parents, here are six simple strategies for upgrading our approach to bullying in schools:
Understand the difference between behavior that is spontaneously rude, mean, or inconsiderate and actions that are relentlessly and intentionally cruel. While none of the above are desirable and all should be stopped by caring adults, the latter are hallmarks of bullying and require focused interventions. Lumping all bad behaviors into the bullying basket breeds cynicism and diverts time and resources away from vulnerable kids who need them most.
2. Connect with kids
Too often, adults are unaware of incidents of bullying because socially-savvy aggressors operate under their radar and socially-vulnerable kids are too disconnected to talk about them. When a young person believes that an adult genuinely cares about his well-being, he is more willing to risk sharing painful peer experiences. Bottom line: Relationships matter!
3. Make time
The number one protest I hear from adults when I suggest “connecting with kids” is that they don’t have enough time in their day to do so. Paperwork, deadlines, standardized tests, and never-ending task lists take up so much time that personal connections with kids become a luxury adults believe they cannot afford. Refuse to believe it! To Do’s will always be there but young people rarely stick around after an adult has ignored or dismissed them.
Seriously. Little things are big things in the world of young people. If you are still worried that you don’t have enough time to connect with kids, try something as simple and quick as smiling at each and every young person that you encounter in a day whether at home or at work. While you are at it, make eye contact and say hello to them, preferably using their first name.
Please know that I am not de-valuing the pervasive and life-altering issue of bullying when I give this advice; rather I am suggesting that something as momentary and uncomplicated as a warm, daily greeting from an adult can help a young person feel acknowledged, valued, and worthy—and that that is a foundation for protecting a child from the impact of bullying. #beknownforbeingkind
5. Be Present
Adults cannot be everywhere in the lives of kids, but we can strategically and purposefully place ourselves in the locations where bullying most often occurs. Even though the majority of bullying occurs in school, up to 75% of it occurs outside of the classroom. Effective adults plan to walk the halls between classes, mingle with students in the cafeteria, keep a watchful eye during recess, sit amongst kids on the school bus, and yes, develop programs to monitor student behavior online. Any/all of these actions listed above are effective both because they facilitate connections between adult and kids and because they reduce a bully’s opportunity to act.
6. Intervene on the Spot
I met a teacher once who confided in me that he had read up on everything he could about how to spot bullying in his classroom and his school had done a thorough job training him how to report suspected bullying…but he admitted to me that what he was really want to learn was what to say and how to be helpful in the moment when he witnessed bullying happening.
Indeed, many adults struggle with crafting a helpful message when they witness an incident of bullying. Ready for more good news? Often the most effective approach in stopping bullying is the least wordy one.
Take the time I observed a 9th grade biology teacher as he, in turn, observed three students harassing a classmate about the doodles the teen was drawing on his notebook cover:
In that moment, the teacher had a few choices. He could choose to ignore the slurs and pretend he didn't even hear them. This would have been a plausible choice, as class had not yet begun and the teacher was standing a fair distance away from the kids.
Or, the teacher could have chosen to yell at the taunting students, calling them out on their hateful speech. This, too, would have been a justifiable choice, yet the public discipline would likely have caused the three adolescent students to try to save face in front of their peers, laughing off the teacher's authority and further mocking the student.
Instead, the teacher chose to use a brief intervention. He looked up from his desk, looked the three boys straight in the eye, and in a calm voice, stated, "It is not OK to use that word to put someone down in my classroom. Is that clear?"
In under 10 seconds, the teacher's choice to use direct, dignified words told the verbally aggressive boys that they were not going to get away with bullying, communicated to the vulnerable, artistic student that that particular classroom was a safe place and that that adult was trustworthy, and gave all of the bystanders a perfect example of how to speak out and stand up for others effectively.
Brief statements work because while they don’t humiliate or alienate an aggressor, while they do let everyone present know that the adult is observant, aware of peer dynamics, and not afraid to step in. On-the-spot interventions send a strong message to all young people that bullying behavior will not be tolerated.
Signe Whitson is a Certified School Social Work Specialist, author, and national educator on Bullying Prevention.For more on-the-spot, practical intervention strategies, check out Whitson's 8 Keys to End Bullying series, including resources for parents, professionals, and students. For live workshop and training opportunities, visit www.signewhitson.com
Whitson, S. (2014). 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents & Schools. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.