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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Hard Steps Not Yet Taken: Ending Bullying in Our Schools

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)
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While we have made progress in reducing bullying and related behaviors in many of our schools, the problem persists in too many others. This is partly because we see it as an "engineering" problem, when in fact it is more of a philosophical and moral one.

Since there is abundant guidance about what to do to end bullying, I wanted to get a different perspective from the voice of an advocate. Dr. Stuart Green is the director of New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention. Dr. Green has fielded numerous calls for over a decade from parents about children who have been bullied with slow or inadequate responses from their schools. This has been true even in states like New Jersey with strong, clear anti-bullying laws.

I asked Dr. Green to speak about the hard steps schools have not yet taken, but must take, to eliminate even the occasional ignoring or tacit support of bullying in schools.

Edutopia: Are there commonly used strategies that are ineffective, or downright harmful?

Dr. Stuart Green: Definitely. Children should not be advised to be "less sensitive," or to work harder to make friends, especially with those who hurt them. Bringing targeted children together is problematic, stigmatizing. It's one thing if children in similar situations seek each other out for support. It's another thing if schools gather targeted children together to provide counseling, for example.

Schools sometimes bring together children bullied and those who hurt them in order to work out their difficulties. That's essentially treating a mugging or a partner violence situation as if it was a communication problem. It also inevitably implies that both children bear equal responsibility for the aggressive act -- not true in the case of bullying -- or mugging! Even if the children involved (the child hurt, the child harming) seem equal (in social or physical power), if one child is more consistently aggressive, the relationship is unequal.

Further, having children discuss their victimization experience in front of the aggressor inevitably re-traumatizes the victim and empowers the aggressor.

What other kinds of things do schools do that don't really help?

It does not help to ask children (or parents) to write a report about a bullying incident. Hurt children commonly experience it as stressful and negative; it conveys being involved in a legal -- as opposed to educational and supportive -- environment. Bullied children or families asked to write statements also feel as if they -- rather than the school -- are making the case or bringing accusations.

What is your view of counseling for victimized children?

Counseling the bullied child is not enough. Once a child is targeted, having access to counselors is not sufficient. Adult mentorship is critical. A specific staff member should be designated to engage with a child, become aware of the child's situation, preferences, and needs. They should then actively work to increase the child's constructive involvement with the school. But this should be happening for all children.

When counseling (as a form of staff support) is offered only to the targeted child and only after the child is harmed, it conveys to the child and family that the school feels the child needs to change, and even that the child has been responsible in some way for having been harmed.

If counseling must occur, it should be made clear to the child and family that the counseling is supportive because what the child has experienced is traumatic, not because the school feels the child needs to change. Ideally, such counseling should not be known to other children and it is best for it to occur outside the school.

Are schools sometimes naïve about how to treat children who bully, maybe thinking that with a little bit of corrective action, he or she will "learn their lesson"?

Schools must promptly help children who bully. Children not helped to become less aggressive during school years are at significant risk for future life problems, including a higher likelihood of anti-social behavior and legal problems as adults. Children who both bully and are bullied repeatedly (referred to as 'bully-victims") are at most risk and need additional attention.

Sometimes children who hurt other children are popular with adults and have high social status in school. It can be difficult for teachers, as well as parents, to believe that (otherwise) high-performing and/or popular children can hurt peers, so confronting the issue is delayed. This is like not treating an infection that is contagious. It endangers the individual and allows the potential for harm to more people.

What is the biggest mistake you see schools make?

Over-focusing on incidents, not looking for patterns. While the law allows for single incidents to meet the definition of HIB (harassment, intimidation, and bullying), bullying, in reality, occurs repeatedly. In 15 years of taking calls from parents, I've never received one call in which a parent said their child was bullied once, never before and never after. Too often, a child is harmed for months, or even years, before schools take adequate action.

When an incident is noticed or reported, the school must assume a pattern may exist, and actively look for it. If bias is a factor (the child harmed has actual or perceived minority status of some kind), the school should consider there might be a gap in school culture, so that such minorities are made especially vulnerable in this school at this time.

In Summary

There is just no reason for schools to accept any form of bullying behavior. It is not a developmental norm, being a victim does not toughen up anybody, and letting students who bully "slide" only sets the stage for more serious and dangerous problems later on.

Schools must make hard, prompt, and professional decisions that will create a healthy, productive, and safe learning environment for everyone, regardless of ability or other personal characteristics. As my colleague, Larry Leverett, has taught me: no alibis, no excuses, and no exceptions.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)

Comments (5) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Ann Duckworth's picture
Ann Duckworth
I am a teacher who loves to help students continually improve their lives

In the younger grades where I taught, I used much very kind, caring treatment toward all of my students.This modeled to potential bullies I cared about those students who appeared weak in some way. I myself suffered a terrible stutter when the teacher did not like me, this left the bullies feeling more open to harass me as a student.
In the younger grades, I also used a quiet Canter Variation to make checks for any misbehavior seen in the classroom, playground, hallway, lunch room, etc. I used a keen eye all the time to ensure the safety of my students. I would reward the bullied student with their own reinforcer and couple that with the reinforcer that would have gone to the student doing the bullying.
I have learned that bullying is very real and is more complex than many, especially in middle class environments realize. In more average and some middle class environments, power, status, image carries very real value of currency. We are all in need of some sense of love and honor to fill the essential need for feelings of self-worth. This becomes a very real commodity in some students who feel lower in this area and in need. In some places, it is even seen as acceptable to act aggressively toward others using words, tones, and physical means to reap mental energy from others. Note, it doesn't matter to some students the right or wrong of it. It is all about taking what they feel are essentials to their feelings of self-worth.
I feel in some lower areas and some average areas, for boys there may actually be a form of emotional cannibalism for boys who appear weak in some way. There is such a vying for emotional feelings of self-worth in those areas, that boys tend develop means of defense while others, the bullies continually look for ways to build themselves up. I feel this bullying may even come from teachers and other adults who may be allowed to do so from the old belief, boys should be strong.
I feel in school where there is lack of support, skills and care from teachers, and a lack of preparation for academics, we then easily have a more draining of feelings of self-worth in some students. This can then create the perfect conditions of a draining of feelings of self-worth and a very quick decision by a bully to take some lost feelings of self-worth from another. It doesn't matter how cheap it is. The taking is seen from some modeling as correct.
I feel this problem of bullying also occurs in higher socioeconomic areas. However, there are generally more supports for those students.

We need to begin providing more hope for change for all students and using more authority and watchful eyes in all grades to ensure bullies are not allowed to hurt other students. I have seen far too many times in hallways, lunchrooms, playgrounds, restroom, and locker rooms where when there is no adult present, those bullies really take charge. There must be suspensions for repeated bullying.

Sam's picture

For my research project, I have chosen to write about bullying as I recon that it is a subject of concern in many schools which I have also seen the impact it can have on children due a family member who was continuously bullied at school due to her appearance. She was always crying and frightened to go back to school as she knew she was going to get bullied. At first practitioners were supportive but my cousin was still getting bullied by her peers. However, after her parents got involved and asked me to help with translating to practitioners due to not speaking very well English, how they felt and their concerns about their child, they decided on a successful strategy that stopped any further bullying from happening. Additionally, the reason why I have chosen this question is because I believe bullying is a common issue which arises in schools and I would like to demonstrate how practitioners deal with these types of concerns from happening. Conversely, this topic may be relevant to others including parents and practitioners by making a clearer understanding of how to stop or reduce bullying in schools. Throughout this research project I am aiming to set a clear understanding of what steps practitioners should take in order to prevent the issue of bullying from happening. I will also critically analyse my small scale research project and I will pilot one data gathering tool and evaluate the research activity which will be a survey based questionnaire. Any help will be highly appreciated

j_espadilla's picture

I've been experience of being bullied by others either physically or verbally abused. During those times, I've been so depressed and stressed of hearing their gossips and rumors about me. To the point that I've been so curious whenever I saw a group of people whispering to each other, that I always have this thought 'maybe I am the one who were talking about'. With this such idea, I've been so vulnerable and sensitive that resulting to become an emotional-disturbed one. As an initial effect on me, I've been became an anti-socialist which I've been avoided some places that were crowded and evaded in sharing my thoughts and ideas in which may lessen my self-confidence and self- esteem by their negative perceptions and prejudices unto my personality. I know to myself that recently I always feel those "side effects" of bullying a decade ago. As a result, I find myself having difficulty in approaching others even my friends. In this article that I have read, I know that most of us may relate on it, that with just one error in treating a kid, everything will change.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Manager

Bullying can be traumatizing and the effects of that trauma long-lasting. That's why I recommend visiting a mental health professional, even if it's years after the bullying. There's no reason to fight that struggle alone.

Lessia Bonn's picture
Lessia Bonn
I am Bullyproof Music

I was just at a teacher convention. One teacher said to my friend, "I don't have time to address bullying in my classroom. I don't have time to think about all that. There is just too much testing."

I hate the word bullying. I hate the word haters. I hate the glorification and simplification around this subject.

I recommend we FIND time to teach kids to understand themselves just a wee bit better. The rough kids I deal with continually soften way up when I catch them off-guard and make a simple little observation they can sink their teeth in. Knowing themselves better helps them empathize more with others because they feel more centered, and stronger from that.

This is a great list, but please, whoever-is-in-charge-of-all-this-testing... Give teachers five minutes to help kids to learn about themselves, the world, and the power of compassion.

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