Note to Teachers: You Are Part of the Bullying Solution

Posted November 24, 2010 by

As an elementary school principal for 30 years, I always believed that schools should have a strong stance against bullying. It has always been prevalent in our schools and it has too often been ignored.  Too many schools continue to be unresponsive.  Children have had to suffer through their own social hardships while adults, who are there to protect them, either look the other way, or provide only tacit support and consolation.

Bullying is a messy business.  It requires vigilant intervention and a strong commitment to ferret out the details of a bullying incident so that the victim and the bully can both be helped.  The main problem with dealing with bullying is that it usually happens when there is no adult supervision.  Playgrounds, the bathroom and the back of the school bus are major areas where bullying takes place at the elementary level.  But bullying can also take place right in front of an adult and still not be seen.  Bullies tend to perfect their assault methods and know exactly when it is safe to attack.  It only takes three seconds for a bully to hit, spit, kick, push, punch or threaten a victim.  Too often adults, at all levels of authority within a school, either look the other way or say that unless they saw it – then it didn’t happen.  When confronted, the bully usually goes into high gear with denials, or the counter punch of saying it was self-defense, or their best shot – “I was only fooling.”  The victim is then further victimized and dis-empowered by the situation.

Children who are victims of bullying learn very early that little help will be forthcoming, no matter what they do, and they learn not to tell anyone.  Parents, teachers, school aides, are then surprised when a child who has been a victim either rebels in a rage to strike back randomly, or snaps in a way that inflicts pain on themselves or on others.

Until now, schools have unfortunately been part of the problem, by not taking a strong stand against bullying.  If we are to make any progress in reducing the prevalence and severity of bullying, schools will have to become part of the solution.   Schools can do this by asserting their authority to address the bullying problem.  They must begin to actively implement the bullying policies that they already have.  Parents of bullies and victims must be notified immediately and behavior plans established for the bully.  The adults in our schools must begin to advocate for the victims.  Although this means taking some time away from instruction, it also provides an important learning opportunity for appropriate social interaction.  It is not OK to ignore a victim of bulling because the victim is “annoying other students.”

The student bullies in each school are almost certainly known by the educational staff.  Many are extremely difficult to confront and their parents may be equally difficult, and frequently argumentative and defensive.  Whenever possible, bullies should be approached privately.  They must, however, be confronted.  Each incident must be documented and reported, including the accompanying progressive consequences, so that a paper trail exists which documents incremental intervention.  Accountability drives behavior.

To make any progress in combating the increased prevalence of bullying, schools must do several things simultaneously.  They must establish rules and consequences for bullying and carry them out.  They must publish and disseminate, with a high profile, their bullying policies so that parents, staff, and students are aware of all components, rules, and consequences.  They must train their teachers, principals, and support staff to be vigilant child advocates and to follow through in implementing the policy, and to learn the warning signs of the bully and the victim.  They are right there in front of us.  We just need to notice them.   Schools need to teach their students to be caring and kind, while training them to know what to do to get help if they need it.  Since 85% of our students are the bystanders of bullying, we need to train them also to be a support to a victim by coming forward and contacting an adult.  These student-bystanders need to understand that their actions can help prevent major school-wide catastrophes.

Teachers need to establish classroom rules that reflect appropriate behavior and extend to all parts of the school.  They need to clarify the difference between telling and tattling, which is always a source of major confusion for children.  If a bystander tries to tell a teacher about a bullying incident, the teacher needs to listen and take action.  Telling the bystander to “mind their own business,” or telling the victim to “ignore the bully or stay away from the bully,” only helps to bolster the brazenness of the bully and eviscerates the victim.  Teachers need to become assertive when witnessing bulling incidents instead of ignoring them.

The most important message to students is that they need to ask for help if they are being bullied.  And they need to continue to ask and seek adult help until they finally get it.  Trust in an adult is paramount in a child’s sense of security.  Ignoring or avoiding telling someone is only a recipe for disaster.  One of the main unfortunate tactics of a bully is to scare the victim enough into not telling anyone.  Unfortunately, this usually works.  Children in middle school and high school are less likely to tell an adult because the peer pressure of being “a snitch” is too great.  These children would rather suffer in their own solitude than risk the added pain of increased taunting and being viewed by their peers as not cool.  This, of course, is a recipe for further pain and humiliation.

Let this school year be the beginning of a renewed vigilance to address bullying in our schools so that all children can feel safe and be able get the most from their education.  All adults in a school community must take responsibility for keeping our children safe.  We must begin to put the bullies on notice that their behavior is not acceptable.

About

Marc is a retired elementary school principal with over 30 years experience in urban and suburban schools in RI and CT. He has presented numerous workshops for children that stress the importance of speaking up and taking responsibility for getting help as the victim of bullying and as the bystander. Marc lives in West Kingston, Rhode Island with his wife and two cats. He is the father of five grown children and he is an avid sailor, potter, gardener, guitar player, and photographer. He has recently published a children’s book on bullying entitled The Playground Bully Blues.

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  1. Alli Report

    Marc, thank you for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I am currently co-chair of a community initiative around youth suicide awareness, education and prevention and, as you might imagine, bullying is a common topic as a contributing factor for youth at every age.

    At a recent state conference on suicide prevention, the keynote speaker’s address was all about bullying and how we need to address it as a society. The most powerful thing she shared – something I thought was unique – was that punitive action was not the solution to bullying. Typical “punishments” often create an outcome that is in complete opposition to the desired effect: i.e. the bully blames the victim for “getting him in trouble”, or makes them belligerent, or exacerbates underlying issues at play in the bully’s mental and emotional states. So rather than change the bully’s behavior, it merely gives more ammunition – one way or another – for continued abuse and bullying behavior. Her suggestion, which I thought was brilliant, was to use the incident as an opportunity to teach empathy. In her presentation she offered that one of the reasons that bully’s engage in the types of behaviors that they do is that they are unable to perceive or connect with the amount of pain they cause their victims. By using empathy building exercises as the “punishment”, you not only avoid the backlash that often comes with traditional punishments, you begin to teach that bully the very thing he or she is lacking – empathy for others.

    It’s something we are considering as part of our community initiatives to reduce bullying and to create an environment in schools where bullying is no longer widely accepted as merely a “right of passage” or as something people – students, staff and parents – have little control over. It’s an idea that I think has great promise and one I hope that we, as a society, will embrace. One that will allow us to raise emotionally healthy and connected kids in environments that nurture all children while encouraging resiliency on every level.

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  2. Lois Report

    You are right, Marc. Adults need to be vigilant and kids need to be empowered to stand up for each other and/or themselves when needed. If the adults step up and protect on a consistent basis, potential bullies will anticipate consequences and bystanders and victims will feel validated when getting help or standing up for themselves assertively when things go wrong. This typically also requires that adults insist that retaliation is never to be tolerated when a bully is identified. Understanding the line between reporting and tattling is a slippery slope for kids. In their early years, they are being told not to tattle, yet reporting is imperative when bullying is involved. A complicated challenge, but always worth the time and energy. Everyone benefits when everyone is clear that bullying is never to be tolerated – including the bully who can be instructed in new ways to win social acceptance in a socially responsible school climate.

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  3. Darah Zeledon Report

    Excellent points addressed and very pragmatic means of implementation as far as consequences. My children are attending one of the district’s highest rated elementary schools and fortunately, we receive a great deal of documents about this insidious issue. In the Parent Handbook, decisive disciplinary measures are clearly defined and the support comes first, from the county school board. Too bad 25-30 years ago, school faculty weren’t so cognizant or willing to interfere with student-student relationships. I can remember several incidents that had me tormented for weeks at a time, and not only did my grades and focus begin to slip, but it affected my sleep and appetite—and I was only 12! Thanks for your voice!

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  4. Paul Report

    Hi Marc,

    I just stumbled onto your posting on bullying – you have hit the nail right on the head! The bully won’t report and the victim often does not report. The third party, in this case the teacher, needs to step up and stop the bullying.

    Keep up the terrific work and check out my blog at http://paulwreeves.blogspot.com/.

    I had posts on bullying last February 13 and 20. If you get a chance, give them a read and let me know what you think.

    Keep up the great work with your posts!

    Paul

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  5. Peter Report

    It’s good to hear from an authoritative source inside the public school system. There is a great need for both definition of what bullying is and consistent policies. A resource that you might also refer to is Dr. Lara Mayeux’s blog at http://www.mayeuxresearch.com, she is a peer-relations scientist and professor of psychology at The University of Oklahoma and frequently comments on bullying and related topics.

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  6. Jane Balvanz Report

    This is an amazing article! I love the passion in your writer’s voice, Marc. Bullying is a passionate subject, and we who are in schools must never become passive about it. I will recommend to my principal that we read this at a future staff meeting and begin/continue a reflective discussion.

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