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8 Steps to Combat the Bullying Epidemic

Ann Marie Gardinier Halstead

Professor, Author of the bullying-prevention play Have You Filled a Bucket Today?, Huffington Post blogger
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A photo of elementary school children holding hands and laughing.

October was National Bullying Prevention Month in the U.S. But shouldn't every month be bullying prevention month? Shouldn't we do more about this problem -- this epidemic -- than raise awareness about it during one month out of 12?

I don’t think "epidemic" is too hyperbolic a term to use in this context. Indeed, the American Medical Association has labeled bullying a public health concern. I have come to care about and advocate for this issue because I am a mother and a teacher. My research has taught me that many of the current approaches to the problem simply aren't working. I teach college courses in theater for youth and theater for social change, and I have seen first-hand that the arts can play an important role in bullying-prevention programming. I have also learned several other key lessons about bullying and bullying-prevention programming that could make a difference for our kids and our schools.

1. Teach Acceptance

Teaching tolerance should not be our goal. No one wants to be tolerated. People want to be accepted. Let's aim higher and have faith that our children will meet our expectations. Let's strive to teach acceptance, both at home and in our schools.

2. Modernize Our Thinking

The old method of addressing bullying with a student assembly at the beginning of the school year just isn't enough. School culture has changed, and one only has to look at the headlines to see the tragic consequences of bullying, especially given the prevalence of cyber-bullying. It's evident that our approach needs to change as well.

3. Adapt Our Strategies

Even some of the current methods are ineffective. For instance, the American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force concluded that zero tolerance policies have not improved school safety or school environments, and that a different strategy is necessary (PDF, 98KB).

4. Compassion and Curriculum

Methods that seem to be more successful are those that are both positive and integrated. First, rather than focus on punishing the perpetrator and preventing contact between the "bully" and the "victim" (see #5), let's focus on teaching positive social behaviors, such as respect, compassion and kindness. Second, bullying-prevention programming should be integrated, intentionally tied to curriculum and possibly to a school-wide theme or philosophy as well.

5. Avoid Labeling

We need to stop labeling children. If a child is repeatedly called a bully, imagine what that can do to his or her self-esteem and self-perception. Let's focus on discussing the action -- the bullying behavior -- rather than labeling the child a bully (or victim). Small changes in our language can make a big difference in how our children view themselves.

6. Involve the Community

Students need to hear that bullying is wrong and unacceptable, and they need to hear it from multiple voices. Solving the bullying crisis cannot be the job of teachers and administrators alone. Schools shouldn't have to function as if they're entirely separate from their communities. As such, schools might consider bringing in guests and experts from outside the classroom to present on the topic of bullying. These presenters could include parents, local officials, college students, performers, and even local celebrities. Children need to hear from diverse voices that the entire community -- beyond the school walls -- is dedicated to cultivating a safe, inclusive, and supportive learning environment for them.

7. Include the Arts

We need to get creative. It is well documented that young people respond favorably to the arts, and that participation in the arts has both cognitive and affective benefits for children. Investigate what role the arts might play in bullying-prevention programming at your school. If funding is a concern, you can do this economically. Rather than bringing in guest artists, your school could perform a bullying-prevention play and/or related songs. In art class, the children could paint pictures of what a no-bullying school would look and feel like to them.

8. Start Early

We need to implement bullying-prevention programming at the kindergarten level -- even at the pre-school level. Waiting until the later elementary school years is too late (and we know that middle school is far too late). At the most basic level, we need to provide our children with the appropriate language for expressing their feelings, and encourage them to do so. Furthermore, we can teach our kids about being upstanders (people who take action, especially when the easiest course is to do nothing) if they see another child being bullied.

The bullying epidemic will persist until we do something about it. We need to own this problem, as communities and as a society. This will take time, resources, and a commitment to making changes in our schools (and in our homes too). But aren't our children worth it? Shouldn’t we do everything in our power to help them? Many children are afraid to speak up. Let's pledge to be upstanders and give voice to all of the voiceless children. Better yet, let's empower children to find their own voices. Let's not wait until the next National Bullying Prevention Month. Let's act now.

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rsmb912's picture


This technique sounds like a real winner. I love to hear the positive enforcement of schools. It tells me that action is being taken and officials are working together to prevent an ongoing problem.

Ann Marie Gardinier Halstead's picture
Ann Marie Gardinier Halstead
Bullying-Prevention; Arts Education; Service Learning

Thanks for all of your feedback, everyone. I'm glad to see that the article is helpful and that it has sparked discussion and the sharing of ideas and resources. Another program that has been very successful for elementary school students is bucket filling, based on the award-winning books of Carol McCloud (the original is Have You Filled a Bucket Today?). The concept is that we all have an invisible bucket inside us and we fill someone's bucket by saying or doing kind things. In contrast, we dip someone's bucket by saying or doing un-kind things. Kids really respond to the concept and use the language of bucket filling to express themselves and solve conflicts on their own. Many schools across the US and abroad are using bucket filling as their school theme/philosophy. Carol McCloud has an organization called Bucket Fillers, Inc. with wonderful free resources for schools: I have written the theatrical adaptation of her books, also titled Have You Filled a Bucket Today? ( Schools can produce the play themselves and theatre companies also produce it and tour it to schools. We are finding that the play helps to further enhance the message of bucket filling and kindness.

Ann Marie Gardinier Halstead's picture
Ann Marie Gardinier Halstead
Bullying-Prevention; Arts Education; Service Learning

You're very welcome, AAndrews. I'm thrilled that you think the tips will be helpful. T.O.R.C.H sounds like a fantastic program-- Keep up the good work!

rsmb912's picture

This sounds like something that would beneficial in the group home in which I work. We work with at-risk youth that have trouble expressing themselves positively sometimes to peers. I feel that this would help them move towards better social interaction among peers.

Pdx Guy's picture

Good info in the article. I'd like to ad to it though. I was bullied as a child and I believe one of the things we should do is help our bullied kids get their self-esteem up. I read an ebook on Amazon written by a guy who was bullied as a child. It's a good read. I'd recommend it to anyone

lyalscj's picture

I really enjoyed this article. I teach at a school where the students have emotional, social and behavioral issues. This article was very insightful on providing different ways to combat bullying. I really found the section of not labeling bullies as bullies to be very informative. I never thought of the psychological effects that labeling a bully as a bully could have on a child. I also liked the section about compassion and curriculum. I like the fact that it focused on teaching the child the skills such as respecting others and not focusing on punishment as a form of dealing with the topic of bullying. I am definately going to the ideas in this article in my classroom for the upcoming school year. What are other ways that I could prevent bullying within my classroom?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I've really liked Kim John Payne's Social Inclusion approach. He has a no-blame method (based in Waldorf education) that I think is very effective. You can read more about it here: or just google Kim John Payne Social Inclusion to see some of the related youtube videos and blog posts.


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