Bullying is a serious and pervasive problem in our schools. Surveys indicate that 15 to 20 percent of children are bullied in school at some point. For those who are the targets of bullying, the incidents can be the most painful experiences of childhood, often leaving lasting scars. Victims can experience anxiety, fear, and even depression for years to come.
Bullying also can affect those students who witness the incidents -- the bystanders. Bullying can give rise to a climate of fear and anxiety in a school, distracting students from their schoolwork and impeding their ability to learn. Students who witness their classmates being victimized wonder, Am I going to be next? The possibility of being bullied can cause students to live in a state of fear, focusing on little else. That isnt surprising when you consider that children who were surveyed rated bullying the second worst experience of childhood -- second only to the death of a loved one.
Despite the pervasiveness and potential seriousness of bullying, it is a problem that often escapes detection by teachers. One study found that only four percent of bullying episodes were observed by school staff. Even when teachers are made aware of bullying, they sometimes turn a blind eye. They might view it as a harmless rite of passage that is best ignored. The reality, however, is that bullying is not harmless and it must not be ignored.
It is critical that teachers be on the lookout for signs of bullying. Although teachers might not actually witness a bullying incident (bullies are very adept at tormenting their victims outside the presence of adults), they should see the results of the bullying. A child who is bullied might show any or all of the following characteristics:
This column describes strategies teachers can use to deal with bullying in the classroom. If schools are to make real headway preventing incidents of bullying, however, the strategies need to be part of a school-wide anti-bullying campaign that has the commitment of staff, students, and parents.
For information on Dr. Shores new anti-bullying video series, see The ABCs of Bullying Prevention.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Act immediately if you observe or hear of bullying taking place. Dont let it continue on the assumption that children need to learn to stand up for themselves. Bullies are often bigger and stronger than their victims, who often lack the physical ability or verbal skills to adequately defend themselves. Allowing bullying to continue might result in the bullied child being hurt physically or psychologically.
Talk privately with the bully. Give the bully an opportunity to explain her behavior, but expect her to downplay her actions or place the blame on the victim. If you are confident that she was engaging in bullying, let her know that further incidents will not be tolerated. Tell her that you and other staff will be monitoring her behavior very closely and disciplinary action, including notifying her parents, will be taken if another incident occurs. (Or you might decide that the incident warrants disciplinary action rather than just a warning.) After putting the bully on notice, try to elicit her cooperation. Tell her you don't believe she really wants to hurt another child and ask for her ideas about resolving the problem. You might find that a sympathetic approach elicits kinder and gentler behavior. Bullies bully for a reason -- to gain status with or power over peers, to punish a child they are angry at or jealous of, to vent frustration with problems at home or in school. Try to identify what is behind the bullying and provide appropriate support.
Keep in mind that the purpose of disciplining the bully is to deter her aggressive actions not to humiliate or embarrass her. Insist that the bully return any items she has taken from the victim. You also might want to exclude the bully from places or activities where she has harassed other students, remove classroom privileges, or give her detention. Notify her parents immediately of what she has done and ask that they have a serious talk with their child about her behavior. You might want to consider having the parents in for a conference. Solicit their support for the steps you are taking in school. The principal also might decide the incident is serious enough that it warrants a suspension from school. On the day of the students return to school, she might be required to come in with her parents and sign a contract in which she agrees not to engage in any further bullying behavior. The contract should define the prohibited behaviors in a specific manner and set out consequences if she does not abide by the contract.
Dont neglect the victim. Just as the bully warrants your attention, so does the victim. Ask her what happened and listen sympathetically and attentively. Let her know that she is not to blame for the bullying. Encourage her to tell you of other incidents and reassure her that you will make every possible effort to stop it. You also might want to help her learn how to be assertive with bullies without being aggressive. Try role-playing, suggesting what she might do or say during a bullying incident to project a greater air of confidence. Make sure the student knows that she should not respond physically, however. Retaliation only escalates a bully's aggression. You might want to inform the victim's parents what happened and what actions you have taken. (Let the child know you will be doing that.) Give the student frequent pats on the back to boost her confidence and increase her feelings of comfort. Talk with her periodically to ask if the problem is continuing; if so, take action.
Survey the class about bullying. The results of an anonymous survey might help you gauge the extent and types of bullying taking place, as well as the places where it is occurring. Of course, that also can be done on a school-wide basis, and serve as a benchmark to assess the impact of any programs intended to lessen the occurrence of bullying.
Hold a class meeting to discuss bullying. With younger students, you might want to begin by reading a story suited to their age, such as The Berenstain Bears and the Bully. Make it clear that bullying other children is a serious matter and that it will not be allowed in your classroom. Talk with students about what bullying is; give examples of bullying and ask for examples from students. Consider writing their ideas on the chalkboard. Discuss how children who are bullied might feel; write those ideas on the board as well. Ask if any students want to share their experiences of being bullied, but do not let them talk about specific students. Ask students what they might do if they see another student being bullied. Encourage them to either take action to stop the bullying or report it to an adult.
Pay attention to students who are isolated from their peers. Isolated students are the most likely targets for bullies. Help those students become involved with their peers by arranging for friendly and accepting students to invite them to join in classroom or playground activities. You also might arrange for students who are loners to engage in activities together. Those students might need your help to learn what to say and do when interacting with peers. They might not know what to say to initiate an activity with a classmate or to join an ongoing activity.
Encourage children to be kind to one another. Praise children who act in a kind or sensitive way to classmates. You also might recognize children who display those behaviors by giving certificates or rewards at school assemblies. You can promote the kinder and gentler side of students by offering them opportunities to help others. Perhaps the most important step you can take to help children treat one another respectfully is to model that behavior in your own interactions with your students. That means avoiding the use of sarcasm or putdowns, for example.
Advocate for your school to develop an anti-bullying policy. Talk with your principal about putting an anti-bullying policy in place or bring up the topic at a staff meeting. The policy should specifically define what constitutes bullying, describe its impact on individuals, discuss ways of preventing bullying, and list a graduated series of consequences for those who continue to bully others.