Bullying in Schools, and What To Do About It
Tips to Help Parents and Teachers Quell Bullying
Bullying is, unfortunately, a common pox on many childhoods and even adulthoods. It can also have devastating mental and physical effects, including depression, anxiety, easting disorders, self-harm, trust issues, social disorders and drug use. These issues don’t go away immediately after the bully is taken out of the picture, either; lasting effects from bullying may last for years after the damage was done. The most tragic cases, bullying can force victims to become so desperate that they see suicide or retaliatory violence (even school shootings) as their only way out.
A solution to completely eliminate bullying in schools is unrealistic; parents and teachers can’t supervise every interaction between every kid. The extensive amount of research done on the subject, however, can offer parents and schools effective means of addressing it enough to make a generally healthy, happy and safe learning environment.
What is bullying?
Before we can know how to effectively prevent and/or respond to bullying, we first must understand its origins.
Merriam Webster defines bullying as the “abuse and mistreatment of someone vulnerable by someone stronger, more powerful, etc.” The strength and power of the bully over the victim may be real or perceived — bullies may torment a bigger, older, more popular, more athletic or smarter kid if they can convince their victim he or she is weaker, or deserving of such treatment.
Television and cinema often portray bullies as people who come from bad homes, or who have been bullied themselves. There’s a good amount of truth to this.
Before we can know how to effectively prevent and/or respond to bullying, we first must understand its origins. Click to Tweet
What can parents and teachers do about it?
In their book, “Bullying in Schools: How Successful Can Interventions Be?” educational researchers Peter K. Smith, Debra Pepler and Ken Rigby look at several approaches to bullying that schools have taken, and analyzed the results of each one to come up with a list of both good and bad tactics.
Anti-bullying programs are separated into categories, and each has its pros and cons:
- Curriculum-Based Reform
Rather than pointing out individuals, anti-bullying and nonjudgmental practices are taught to the entire class. Lessons may be on what constitutes bullying, how it affects victims, and consequences for certain bullying behaviors. Such programs may institute routine “character traits of the month” practices and reward students who demonstrate what it means to be honest, friendly, respectful, unique, etc.
The philosophy behind this approach argues that if everyone is more educated on bullying, it may result in a positive, open-minded school culture in which students are less likely to bully and more likely to defend their vulnerable peers. The authors suggest that younger students’ curriculum (kindergarten through third grade) focus on positive character traits and the effects of bullying, while older students’ lessons can be on more practical matters such as bystander behavior, anger management and legal consequences.
- The Punitive Approach
These programs focus more on identifying and punishing bullies. Some schools may set up peer-driven honor courts to decide if the school’s bullying policy has been broken, and if so, what the policy says the punishment should be. Punishments range in severity from simply being forced to apologize to being suspended from school or even criminally charged.
This approach is common policy for many schools, but unfortunately, it is largely ineffective. Punishment alone is purely reactionary, and until it is coupled with prevention and intervention efforts, it will only serve as a Band-Aid for the wound. Additionally, if the bully comes from a harshly punitive home, it could traumatize him or her further.
Honor courts can be valuable tools to teach students about civics, ethics and the legal process, but they can actually make the unwanted behavior of the “defendant” worse, as it forces the bully to see his fellow students as enemies against him or her. Punishment is indeed necessary at times, but it should be left to the discretion of adults, or at least student jurors who the bully doesn’t know.
“[I]t is often difficult to devise and apply clear rules relating to some forms of bullying, such as excluding individuals from groups and rumor spreading,” the authors write. “A miscarriage of justice resulting in resentment on the part of the bully may lead to a redoubling of efforts to continue the bullying in less detectable but equally damaging ways.”
- Increasing Resiliency
This approach can be very effective if done the correct way, but it is also easy to implement it rather poorly. Increasing resiliency may include exercises to build confidence, discover one’s individual talents, encourage self-reflection, and improve communication.
There is little evidence to show that bullies will be completely reformed by this approach, but it has shown considerable positive results for victims. Nonetheless, it is advisable that these efforts be directed at all students, and not aimed only at strengthening those seen as vulnerable. If properly done, all students can benefit from these exercises, even if only in small ways— usually the one trait that bullies and victims share is a lack of self-esteem.
Ultimately, the best approach may be a mixture of any or all of these. Whatever policy your school takes on, ensure that it is administered consistently and equally. If changes need to be made, they should be done in small steps to soften transitions and provide a sense of structure and routine for students. Bullying won’t change until the school culture does, and that takes time, patience and dedication from all involved — students, parents, teachers, school counselors and law enforcement.