October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Bullying is a complex topic, so I’m going to split it into two posts.
First, so that everyone is on the same page- what is bullying? According to the National Bullying Prevention Center, “Bullying is behavior that hurts, harms, or humiliates a student, either physically or emotionally, and can happen while at school, in the community, or online. Those bullying often have more social or physical “power,” while those targeted have difficulty stopping the behavior. The behavior is often done with intent and typically repeated.”
The key to understanding bullying behavior is that there is always an imbalance of power. That imbalance could be physical (the big boy intimidating the smaller boy) or social (the popular girls writing hateful messages online about the quiet girl). Since most peer relationships start and are developed at school, educators can play a huge role in reducing the likelihood of bullying.
Five Things Schools Can Do to Reduce Bullying
- Create inclusive schools and classrooms. Every student should feel welcome and accepted when they arrive at school every day. School can address student differences in many ways. My district, as well as many others in low-income area, provides free breakfast for all students; in elementary schools, students eat together in the classroom. This practice protects students who cannot afford breakfast from standing out. Another way to create inclusive schools is to make sure extracurricular activities are varied and open to all . Students that are more reserved or see themselves as different will benefit from activities that focus on their interests (such as anime or creative writing) or provide support (such as a Gay-Straight Alliance group).
- Avoid a focus on competition and comparison. Schools should avoid activities that are overly competitive in a way that creates an imbalance between those who do well and those who do not. Students who struggle academically and are placed in classes where teachers focus on public student comparison have fewer friendships (I studied this for my dissertation, so ask if you want more information). Schools and teachers should focus on cooperation so that students work with each other toward common goals. Additionally, academic and behavior concerns should be discussed privately with students so that no one in singled out in front of their peers.
- Build relationships with every student. By focusing on positive relationships with students, you can ensure that everyone is on equal standing. There are so many ways that teachers can build relationships. Greet students at the door, ask about their day, and probe when you feel that something is wrong. Get to know your students by learning about their families, interests, and dreams. Every student in every class should feel that at least one adult genuinely cares about them.
- Talk to students about bullying. Honestly, I think the events done by schools this time of year can be excessive. If schools do an effective job with #1, 2, and 3, this step should be simple and straightforward. Since everyone is included and treated with respect, teachers send a clear message that any sort of bullying behavior is unacceptable. If bullying does take place, students should know that it is safe to tell a teacher or staff member. Having said that…
- Follow through on reports. Students often tell adults about incidents of bullying, but sometimes the reports are dismissed or downplayed as normal peer conflicts. It is critical that schools take the time to learn more about the incident before jumping to conclusions. In addition, adults may also be influenced by their own perceptions of the students involved. If educators take student reports seriously, situations can be stopped before the bullying intensifies.
Of course, we can’t completely prevent bullying- if we could, it wouldn’t exist. So in part 2, I’ll discuss how to support students and prevent future problems when bullying is reported.