When to Sweat the Small Stuff
A new paradigm to end bullying
Posted June 20, 2016
It’s 8:00 AM and Faye,* a seventh-grade teacher, watches one of her students put her notebook on her desk and sit down. This arriving student, who often complains of stomachaches at school, has been sick and missed the last few days of school.
“Oh great. She’s back,” one girl sarcastically mutters to another. Two boys laugh. Other students look at each other and roll their eyes.
What does the teacher do?
Rose** (not her real name), now in high school, has written essays about suffering through unremitting bullying in elementary and middle school. Rose, always interested in theatre, is now an accomplished actor—according to bullying research, theatrical children are among those most often picked on at school. Rose transferred to a different elementary school to escape the bullying, but at her new school, children made fun of her name, made antisemitic comments, and one boy, as she describes it,
“made fun of everything about me, which in turn made the other boys think that being mean to me was fun…”
Rose cried often at school, and suffered from daily stomachaches. Her teachers tried to help by counseling her be less reactive, but did not stop the other children's aggressive behavior. Once, when a boy hit her and they were both sent to the principal’s office, the principal’s solution was for Rose to stay away from the boy. Teachers and administrators had fallen into the trap of using Rose’s behavior and demeanor as an excuse for how others treated her, and as a result, they failed to protect her, and perpetuated an unkind school culture. It was only when Rose began high school in a different town with a new group of children and different teachers and administrators that the bullying stopped.
Rose’s experience is not unique.
In 4th grade, Suzie was picked on relentlessly at her new, small school. She found it hard to make friends there even though she had no problem making friends anywhere else. Sometimes the class played "Suzie has cooties," and anyone who touched Suzie or anything that Suzie touched had to wash their hands. She was excluded and mistreated so frequently that she was unable to stop herself from sobbing in front of the other children. The school administrator told her parents that Suzie's outbursts weren't normal and were upsetting the other children. Parents gossiped that there was something wrong with her. Toward the end of the school year, two girls in her class who were not returning the next year apologized to Suzie. They both explained that a popular girl, Liza, warned them when they arrived that if they wanted to have friends in the class, they couldn’t be Suzie’s friends. It was an unwritten rule in the grade, the girls told Suzie: no one was allowed to be Suzie’s friend. Suzie’s mother reported this to school administrators and teachers—she had already detailed how Suzie was being treated throughout the year. The Head of School repeatedly told her that Suzie was overreacting, and needed counseling to deal with her dramatic emotional outbursts. Suzie went to counseling, but the bullying continued.
Education expert Caltha Crowe says that when a teacher dislikes or is irritated by a particular child, or has an opinion that the child is a problem, not only does it make it harder for the child to succeed, the teacher can react to that child in ways that give tacit permission for other children to dismiss, disregard, mistreat, and even bully that child. Such an environment would be stressful for anyone, but is particularly stressful for someone with no power and no way out.
Children who are mistreated at school suffer both emotionally and academically as they increasingly need to pull their attention away from learning in order to focus on merely surviving the painful ordeal of school. They can also become withdrawn or emotionally labile—crying easily and reacting strongly to perceived insults and injuries. Naturally, parents and teachers want to help children let things roll off their backs more easily. But teachers and parents can become preoccupied with wanting targets of aggression to be less easily upset, rather than dealing with the underlying problem, and this only serves to exacerbate the child’s experience of being both targeted and unprotected.
Bullying experts Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon report that one of the biggest mistakes teachers and administrators make is to advise targets of aggression to change how they react or behave. Children who mistreat other children almost always view their aggressive behavior as warranted, and place the responsibility on the target. (“If she wasn’t so annoying, we wouldn’t have ganged up on her.”)
Whenever adults focus on the targeted child’s behavior instead of the aggressors’ behavior, even with the intention of helping the targeted child be less sensitive, adults give a clear message that they endorse the aggressors’ assessment that the target is the reason for the mistreatment. This only serves to inflict further psychological damage on the targeted child. When children who are bullied are the subject of interventions, they can start to see themselves as the reason for the bullying, and run the risk of taking on the role of victim in a way that can follow them even if they change schools.
Instead of making the target of aggression the subject of interventions, experts insist adults must prioritize eliminating aggressive behavior, and ensure that targeted children know the mistreatment is not their fault. (As if by magic, when aggressive behavior is eliminated, often “overreactions” disappear too.) This is especially important when targeted children are the annoying or less likable children; because without realizing it, educators, just like the children who bully, often point to targets' annoying behavior as the cause of other children's aggressive behavior. To put a fine point on it, aggressors, not targets, are the cause of aggressive behavior.
Davis and Nixon report that effective interventions include listening to targeted children, encouraging them, supporting them, checking back with them over time to see how they are doing, and most importantly, making sure they don’t blame themselves.
Teachers are often resigned, though. They believe that because a certain amount of “mean” behavior will always be a fact of school life, a bully-free environment isn't realistic. This may be, at least in part, the result of the tendency for teachers to overestimate how much they intervene when children mistreat each other. Seventy-one percent of teachers in one study reported they “nearly always” intervened when students mistreated each other, but when observed by a researcher, teachers intervened only 14% of the time in the classroom, and 4% of the time on the playground.
The “rhetoric/reality gap” compounds the problem. Plastering school walls with posters about the importance of kindness, making kindness part of a school’s mission statement, and preaching kindness to students in social-emotional classes is not the same as creating a school culture of kindness. But without tools and strategies to engender habits of kindness in children and create a school climate in which every child belongs, parents, teachers, and administrators can easily mistake rhetoric for action.
Caltha Crowe, author of How to Bullyproof Your Classroom, writes, “When adults do not step in… the meanness escalates, with classmates encouraging the mean behavior through watching, laughing, and even joining in.” When aggression is unchecked, Crowe reports, it grows “to permeate a classroom and becomes the accepted mode of interaction. Mean acts and words become the norm.” In other words, how children behave toward each other at school is in large part a result of the environment in which they find themselves, and that environment is created by teachers and administrators.
Teachers are often concerned that spending too much time dealing with one child’s social problems will interfere with getting through the curriculum. However, when one child is showing signs of interpersonal distress, spending the necessary time supporting that child not only mitigates the potential damage done to that target of aggression, it also models compassionate behavior, and creates an environment in which bullying tends to decrease. Where teachers create warm, supportive relationships with their students—especially targets of mistreatment—bullying is reduced. In fact, according to some experts, teacher attachment is the strongest predictor of bullying levels.
Crowe, a consultant with the Center for Responsive Schools, leads workshops for educators in which she trains teachers how to create a classroom culture of kindness—a “Responsive Classroom.” Creating the right climate at school, she says, begins with teachers and administrators becoming painfully aware of their own biases about their students, and their own tendencies to relate to children in ways that model less than kind and compassionate behavior, thereby allowing mean behaviors to proliferate. It takes courage for educators (who never intend to be the source of the problem—and almost never think they are) to develop the self-awareness required to see the ways in which they have been complicit in creating a culture of unkindness at school.
After the school administration recognized that Suzie’s 4th grade experience had involved true bullying, they assured her parents that they would not allow it to continue in 5th grade. Suzie arrived at school the next year hopeful that things would be better. She immediately made a friend—a new girl to the school—but soon the old patterns reemerged, and Suzie’s friend was targeted, too. Only later would Suzie and her friend learn that Liza had threatened kids that she would start rumors about anyone who was Suzie's friend. A rumor was started that Suzie, who loved animals, had rabies, and was crazy. Later, a rumor circulated that Suzie’s friend was a pervert, but teachers intervened quickly and that rumor was quashed.
Suzie asked her teachers for help, and Suzie's parents reported the incidents to the administration, hoping to help them see that some children at school were making it difficult for other children to be openly kind to Suzie. But things kept getting worse. Some boys decided to enforce the rule that no one was allowed to be Suzie’s friend by “accidentally” bumping into Suzie’s friend and whispering, “choose your friends wisely.” Eventually Suzie’s parents moved her out of the school. Only when it was clear that she wasn’t coming back did some mothers reach out to Suzie’s mother to tell her their children knew Suzie was being bullied, and since Suzie wasn't at that school anymore, wanted to be her friend—now that the other kids at that school would never know.
Bullying is about power. Children who mistreat other children continue to do so when there is a social reward—they gain status through demeaning other children. When teachers implement the Responsive Classroom approach, they establish each child’s individual accountability for being kind and inclusive, ensuring the classroom culture is safe and welcoming to all, and that everyone has the sense that he or she belongs. As a result, children are unable to gain status through being unkind because the rewards for mistreating others are absent when teachers respond to unkind behaviors swiftly and consistently.
Successful models for creating a culture of kindness start with responding to every instance of unkindness. (Yes, you read that correctly. EVERY instance of unkindness.) Researchers at The Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center have found that small, disrespectful and derisive behaviors that teachers tend to write off as not worth their time (such as children laughing at a child, whispering, or rolling their eyes) are “gateway behaviors” that lead to more aggressive behaviors and bullying.
“Gateway behaviors facilitate or reinforce bullying—they make disrespect seem normal (which facilitates bullying) or even rewarded (like laughing along with a bully). The difficulty is that there are usually no solid rules against gateway behaviors, so adults often ignore them. But research shows us how toxic they can be.”
The approach is so successful in eliminating not only bullying, but even name-calling and small unkindnesses, that a new fifth-grade student at a Responsive School asked, “Why is everyone so nice here?”
The good news is that the time taken to ensure that children are kind and included is well spent. When children learn in a nurturing environment in which they feel a sense of belonging, they achieve at higher levels than when they have to contend with the stress of surviving yet another day of middle school. In other words, academic achievement is enhanced in a culture of kindness, and to create a culture of kindness, teachers, administrators, and parents have to sweat the small stuff. ♦
* The Faye scenario is fictional.
** All the names in this article are fictional.