At the 2013 Tennessee School Counselors and Administrators Institute I attended, there was much talk about bully prevention programs. The school where I work has such a program, and we have been utilizing it now for almost a full school year. The problem is, I’m not sure if the problem of bullying over the years has gotten better — or worse.
The point of bully prevention programs is to educate the public, teachers, parents, and students about the harmful effects of bullying. This has the potential for a very positive outcome since many people do not know what bullying actually is. A simple and working definition of bullying can turn the behavior of some students around. It is typically defined as “any repeated, intentional, and aggressive behavior towards someone on the part of one or more persons.”
Also, by regularly discussing bullying, and the dynamic it often occurs in, students can work to avoid the behavior, ensuring they do not feed into it and can thereby work to curb it in their schools. Why wouldn’t this be a good thing? Well, as with many good ideas, there are some unintended consequences.
First, kids know what bullying is (well, sort of) and suddenly every mean thing someone does to them is called bullying. Remember, for it to be actual bullying, it must be a “repeated behavior.” You can’t call it bullying if it isn’t repeated over time. You can call it rude behavior when someone is impolite or bumps you in the hallway, but it’s not technically bullying when it only occurs once. Should it be addressed? Yes. Should the student be reprimanded? Yes. He needs to be taught some manners, but incidents like this do not always need to be called bullying. The truth is, your child is always going to meet rude people in life, and needs to learn how to deal with it — and with them.
Secondly, with the discussion of bullying alive and well in your school (that’s good) everyone is suddenly a victim (that’s bad). The point of bully prevention programs is to get students to think of their behaviors and stop bullying first. Then, they can work to influence others. It’s a ripple effect. However, this assumes that children have a high level of self awareness. They do not. They are quick to blame other people for their own mistakes. The unintended consequence? Many of the “victims” I speak to are involved in “bullying” behavior themselves. Everyone is a victim now, but no one sees their own bullying behavior, so it is a self-fulfilling cycle with no end in sight.
Third, since everyone is a victim and since the children are taught to get help from adults, we may be further handicapping them from being able to handle bullies on their own. I think it’s important to teach your child a variety of ways to handle bullies. They can ignore the behavior, they can use humor, or they can be assertive and address what they do not like about what the other person is doing, for example. (Depending on the situation.) There are certainly times when an adult must step in, but in some cases kids may be getting help from grown-ups too quickly. By not being empowered to appropriately handle these scenarios on their own, children miss out on gaining the self-reliant skills necessary to maneuver in a hostile world.
With a little fine-tuning of our focus and dialogue, I think we can slow down bullying behavior even more. Children have been trained to look outward for the bullies, but in our quest to identify and label bullies, have we forgotten to teach our kids to also look inward? It seems we are discouraging kids from handling things on their own in order to stop bullying. This is off the mark. We want children to tell adults, but let us not forget the most important lesson: bullying stops with each individual kid. We need to teach them to promote positive behaviors among their peers in order to “starve” the negative behaviors that everyone wishes would just go away.