You already know it’s bad, but what can you do about it? In the grown-up prevention world we can look at it from at least two sides: victimization prevention and criminalization prevention. The latter term’s a bit harsh when applied to kids behaving badly, but the perspective generally applies: in the first case, with victimization prevention, we look at ways to empower kids to avoid becoming victims; from the flipped viewpoint, we look for ways to re-frame kids’ thinking to persuade them not to engage in bullying.
Where to begin?
At the elementary school level this is relatively easy – kids are at their most receptive, are most eager to please and very much want to fit in. Beyond that point it can be exceedingly hard, but the alternative is to duck and cover – and pay up when the civil law suit rolls around. Assuming we agree that would be a lame approach, here are a few suggestions:
1. Spell it out. This is their first time around being kids. They may be mimicking behavior they’ve seen at home or in movies, completely clueless that anti-social behavior is not appreciated. They may even think bullying is a way to make friends. So tell them directly, in the first week of school: no bullying. Ask them to help define it, but help it along: bullying is when you frequently hurt other people, physically or emotionally. Examples include pushing, calling names, ostracizing, or otherwise being mean, either in person or over the internet. (Here’s a nice, short, to-the-point clip, suitable for launching discussions, from a fine group of folks at http://deletecyberbullying.eu/ :
2. Does bullying violate basic school expectations: i.e. be safe, be responsible, be respectful? How about if you don’t get caught, is it still bad? (Yes.) Why? Because people will see you as a mean person, and they won’t want to be your friend. And we all like to have friends. Someday you may need a friend to help you, and bullying won’t help you get there.
3. Offer your friendship. If anyone, anywhere, does things to hurt you, that’s not acceptable. If you come tell me about it, I’ll do my best to make things better and to make you safe. A sincere, personal offer is much more likely to be taken to heart than being referred to a third party. On the other hand, there are plenty of reasons a student might rather report anonymously, or talk to someone they don’t see every day, perhaps out of embarrassment. The key is, encourage them to talk to somebody they think can help.
4. Build an understanding of cause and effect. Discuss the implications—what’s wrong with this picture? What’s the result of bullying? People will see you as a mean person instead of a kind person. You’ll end up with fewer friends. If you are ever being bullied, there won’t be anyone left to be on your side.
5. Build empathy skills– Discuss, in groups, bullying scenarios. The group discussions are valuable because kids learn a lot from hearing their peers thinking out loud. How would it make you feel if someone did this to you?
6. Integrate discussions into story telling. This is my favorite approach, if done right. Nobody feels put on the spot, hectored or blamed. We set up stories, and as part of the process discuss whether particular responses to challenges are safe, responsible, respectful, kind, etc. (for more on this, see my blog on interactive storytelling.)
7. Discuss the role of bystanders. If you don’t do anything, the bully thinks you’re either impressed by what they are doing, or too scared to act. The brave thing to do is to stick up for the person being bullied. If that’s too scary, go tell a teacher, or someone else who can help.
7. When bullying does occur, it’s time for a chat with the individual parties involved, but separately. Do NOT force the victim to be part of the discussion if they’re scared of the offender. There’s a high risk of setting them up, akin to what a domestic violence offender experiences when forced to confront the offender. The power differential is a big deal, and the victim knows that there may be retribution down the line. So it’s a conversation between me, (as a teacher, or mentor, or adult friend) and the offender. Especially if I’m confident I know what happened, I don’t ask “did you do this?” The temptation to deny it may be too strong to resist. I prefer to move past that. “I learned that X happened on the playground. Why did you do that? (I don’t know. I was mad. He took the ball. I just don’t like him. He won’t be my friend. I was in a bad mood. Everybody hates me.) Where did you get the idea that your action would be helpful? I’m disappointed when I see any of my kids do mean things. Can I help you figure out better ways to get what you want, or deal with feeling angry? I’m going to check in with you for a while and see how you’re doing with all this, okay?”
8. That last point is a big deal. Kids WANT to be on somebody’s radar, preferably in a good way. They want a cheerleader, somebody in their corner. It’s important to be seen as a resource and a friend, not a disciplinarian.
9. All of this sounds fine in theory, but somehow gets all tangled up, at least in the hardest cases, where behaviors are deeply ingrained, or kids’ abusive home lives are spilling over into the school setting. In those cases, a deeper intervention may be called for. One aspect of this may be that parents discount the seriousness of the offense—they were bullied as kids and that taught them to fight back. They turned out okay, right? For conversations along those lines, here’s a video clip that may be worth sharing:
For a wealth of resources on the topic, check out this excellent British site (pictured at top of this post): www.bullying.co.uk