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Bullying Prevention: Tara Fishler on Best Practices

EducationWorld asked a number of authors, college professors and other experts for their take on bullying prevention and whether schools, states and the country are getting it right--or wrong. Below is what conflict resolution expert Tara Fishler shared regarding best practices. See how other experts answered similar questions. Also, don't miss EducationWorld's additional resources that address school-based bullying.

By Tara Fishler

Tara Fishler, founder of Customized Training Solutions, is a conflict resolution specialist providing mediation services and training to schools, businesses and nonprofit organizations. She has taught mediation and other skills to thousands of students, faculty, administrators and parents from elementary through graduate school.

Most states now have some form of anti-bullying law that requires K-12 schools to put in place various policies and practices to prevent and respond to student bullying. Do you think these laws are making a difference? If they aren't currently, could they, or will they?

bullying prevention best practices

Having the laws is a start; the challenge is that anti-bullying becomes one more unfunded mandate. Most schools want to have anti-bullying programs and acknowledge it as a problem, but don’t have the resources to do a comprehensive job.

What are state anti-bullying laws getting right/wrong when it comes to actual evidence-based best practices for preventing and responding to bullying?

The laws don’t help schools decide which program(s) are effective. The best programs work with teachers, administrators, students, lunch staff, bus staff, security, parents and everyone else who works with students. Even the strongest programs, like Olweus and Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, can’t be fully effective unless they can, over time, change the culture of the school.

Doing one lesson, staff day or parent workshop cannot be expected to change how people relate to each other. Most grants are for 1-3 years. It takes 3-5 years to see the effectiveness of most programs. That’s not to say that there aren’t improvements along the way; it just takes time to become entrenched as the philosophy of the school community.

Are there things that K-12 schools have to do to successfully prevent bullying, but that can't be covered or mandated in a law?

Schools that have succeeded in reducing bullying have changed the culture to where students who bully are seen as “uncool.” It becomes reverse peer pressure.

Schools can succeed in preventing most bullying (nothing is 100%, in my experience) when they create an environment where empathy and community-building are valued and bullying is not tolerated by students (not just adults). Zero-tolerance policies are as effective in preventing bullying as Prohibition was at preventing drinking. Just because adults say they won’t tolerate it, doesn’t mean it won’t happen. It just means that kids may get more creative and subversive in their methods.

They also need to teach and support staff, not only to spot bullying, but also to give them ways to handle it effectively. Currently, even in schools with “good programs,” if you ask kids if there is bullying, they will undoubtedly say, “Yes.” There are real and perceived problems with retaliation for students who tell. I teach that there is a difference between “tattling” to get someone in trouble vs. “reporting” to keep someone safe. Even when a child does report appropriately, the reality is that school personnel may not be able to effectively prevent retaliation. It may take place on the bus or online. It may be so subtle that adults miss it. While we can have bus monitors and/or police involved, it comes down to children understanding the harm they are causing and wanting to take responsibility for it. 

I believe there are two types of bullies. The first type is one who is insecure and doesn’t understand the impact of his/her actions. Restorative justice models can be effective in reforming this type of bully. The second type is a person who seeks to harm and doesn’t care (really, not just a protective shield the child puts up) about the consequences to him/herself or the target(s). This type of bully may grow up to become a workplace bully, forever seeking power wherever s/he can take it. Unless they can develop empathy and take responsibility for their actions, these types of bullies are not likely to change.

That being said, most of what people think of as “bullying” is actually teasing. Neither is good, but each should be handled differently.

Bullying has become the buzzword used even by preschoolers. It also has mistakenly become a catch-all description for what actually can be a wide range of student conflicts. Children, parents and school personnel often jump to the conclusion that when a conflict develops between children, it must be a bullying scenario. However, although true bullying does happen in most schools, the vast majority of conflicts actually fall under the categories of teasing or disagreements.

It’s important for school personnel to know the difference between bullying and teasing. Bullying is defined as behavior that is intentional, aggressive and negative; is carried out repeatedly against one or more targets; and occurs in a relationship where there is an imbalance of power between the parties involved. If one or more of these elements are missing, it is generally a teasing situation.

Most student conflicts can be handled effectively by well-trained and supervised peer mediators. However, true bullying, which can have extremely negative short- and long-term effects on targets, needs the attention of a trained adult. When handling a bullying situation, the adult should speak to each child privately. Adults need to understand that targeted children often have a very real fear of escalation of the bullying as a result of the adult’s involvement, and significant efforts must be made to ensure the safety of the target, both on and off school property.

Laws aside, what are K-12 schools currently doing right/wrong when it comes to preventing and responding to bullying? What are some common mistakes that schools make?

Some schools are heading in the right direction when they encourage teachers and students to intentionally take time to build a relationship. In studies of preventing lethal school violence, the two best prevention techniques are (1) a relationship between the student and a teacher and (2) other classmates reporting anything they have knowledge about that would be detrimental to another person.

These relationships can be built from an “advisory” program, or it can be a “check in” at the beginning of class to see what kind of day each person is having. It can be special “office hours” or times set aside for personal interaction. When students feel there is a person in school they can trust, incidents can be greatly decreased.

Many schools look at anti-bullying programs as another “box to check off” in the long list of school mandates. Lack of funds, time and personnel resources account for only part of the problem. The reality is that many teachers, administrators, counselors and parents don’t know what to do when a child reports bullying. As a parent of four, even I don’t always know the best way to handle claims of bullying. I do explore the nature of what was going on and how my child feels about it. Ultimately, I ask my kids what they would like me to do. I have yet to feel that any of them have been in an unsafe situation. Difficult social situations? Yes. Bullying, where there was an actual power imbalance? No.

Children do need to be taught how to navigate the challenge of managing relationships, including those with people whom they may not like or who may not like them. However, all people have the right to learn and teach in a safe environment. When children feel safe and cared for, they become available for learning and teachers are able to teach. This is how attendance, grades and test scores go up. When we foster caring communities, all of that can be accomplished.


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