Students "bother" their classmates in a variety of ways. They poke them. They pull their hair. They grab something from them. They trip them, push them, interrupt them, call them names, spread rumors about them, and ridicule them. Whatever form the bothering takes, however, the incidents frequently come to your attention.
The most efficient way of dealing with the problem is to encourage the complaining student to stand up for himself and tell his classmate to stop the bothering behavior. If that doesn't work, however, you might need to become involved -- before a small problem turns into a large problem.
Be careful, however. Don't automatically assume that the student being complained about is a culprit. The complaining student might be making a mountain out of a molehill, or be motivated by a desire to get another student in trouble. The complaint might reflect a conflict between two students, neither of whom is blame-free. Also be careful about punishing a student if you have not observed the misbehavior.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Screen a student's concern before dismissing it. Be especially attentive to reports suggesting that a student is being bullied, especially if you hear similar complaints from other students. If you are not sure whether to get involved, tell the student you will get back to him and then keep a watchful eye on the students to observe their interactions.
Encourage the complaining student to assert himself. If a student tells you that another student is bothering him, encourage him to tell the classmate to stop. Suggest what he might say ("You're really bothering me and I'd like you to stop," for example), and role-play with him, if necessary. Tell him to see you again if the classmate continues to bother him after being asked to stop. If he comes back to you and says he told the classmate to stop but the behavior continued, give the offending student a consequence if you have observed him bothering the complaining student (see below.)
Provide the student with a consequence. If you have observed a student bothering a classmate without apparent provocation, and if the student has continued the behavior despite your request to stop, give that student a consequence. The consequence might be loss of part or all of recess, an after-school detention, or loss of a privilege. Or you might have the student call his parents in your presence and inform them of his behavior. Let the student know in advance that you will assign a consequence and tell him what the consequence will be. Be matter of fact and to the point.
Have a one-on-one talk with the student. If you observe a student bothering a classmate, take that student aside and ask him in a calm, emotionally neutral manner to explain his behavior. Let his comments guide your response; that response which be a simple appeal for cooperation or a conflict-resolution meeting with you and the two students. Whatever the student's answer to your question is, help him understand that his behavior might interfere with your teaching and cause other children to avoid him.
Figure out what is motivating the student. In trying to answer that question, find time to closely observe the student's behavior. Note the circumstances surrounding the behavior, including: what happened right before and after each incident, when the incidents most commonly occurred, where the student was when he engaged in the behavior, and whether or not he targets a particular student. The offending student might be trying to get your attention or the attention of other students, divert attention from academic problems, or get back at a particular student. If you can identify the underlying cause of his behavior, you've got a better chance of eliminating it.
Move the student's desk. If the student continues to bother his neighbors despite your requests to stop, consider moving his desk away from other students' desks. You might even move him to a study carrel placed at the side of the classroom. Tell the student that he can return to his regular seat if he is cooperative in the new location for a designated period of time.
Restrict the student's physical contact with classmates. If a student is bothering other students as he roams around the room, limit his movements by designating a work area for him that he cannot leave without your permission. Place a square or rectangle of masking tape about a foot or so beyond his desk on all four sides. Tell him that the tape marks his "office," and he must stay within those boundaries. Make sure the student cannot make physical contact with other students from his work area.
Find ways to give the student positive attention. If you conclude that a student is bothering other students to gain your attention, look for opportunities to pay attention to him when he is displaying positive behavior. In particular, acknowledge him when you see him treating his classmates in a kind, respectful, or helpful manner, even if it's only a small gesture. If you are successful in doing that, he might feel less compelled to seek attention in inappropriate ways.