Sunday, December 6, 2009

Thoughts on Bullying

Probably everyone knows that an anti-bullying bill is currently pending in the Massachusetts legislature, and I'm sure they will probably pass some version of it this session. Obviously, I am against bullying!! The bill, though, seems to assume that schools -- teachers and administrators -- simply are not bothering to do anything about bullying, as its primary mechanism seems to be to require schools to keep data and write reports about bullying incidents. If one assumes that schools are working to prevent bullying, the requirement to collect data and write reports doesn't change the tools available to schools but simply takes time away from time actually working with students (which is what I fear the main effect of the law will be); thus, the assumption of the law must be that schools need to be forced into addressing bullying. In my experience, this is not accurate. My observation, at least in our district and in the districts in which my friends work, is that teachers and administrators are working very hard with students to help them improve how they treat each other.

Bullying, though, is a complex problem. First of all, much of the time the students who are bullying don't necessarily see themselves as bullying others, at least at the younger ages -- whenever I talk with a student who has been engaged in this behavior, he mostly sees himself as responding to something negative from the other student, and/or "just teasing" or "just fooling around." Frequently, too, students are not able to see their actions from the other student's point of view and understand that what they said was hurtful (seeing something from another point of view is developmentally a fairly abstract skill, as any teacher knows who works with students on being able to read their own writing from a reader's point of view). In addition, students regularly see put-downs and insults in movies, on television, and on the Internet portrayed as humorous and a normal part of the way people talk to each other, so sometimes they are simply modeling what they are seeing elsewhere and trying to be funny in front of their peers. Finally, both students and parents are often reluctant to "tell" when students are being bullied, both because students have learned that they should not be "tattle-tales" and because they fear that it will get worse if they tell.

I think there are a number of things that are important in working on this issue. First, in working with students I usually avoid using the label of "bullying" and simply try to convey the idea that saying something "mean" to another student is never acceptable. Second, I talk with students and parents about the whole process of stopping bullying, which sometimes involves more than one intervention. If, for example, I intervene in a situation and the bullying stops permanently, that's wonderful! Sometimes, though, it stops for a while and then starts up again. At that point, it is essential that the student being bullied or her parents let me know, so I can move to the next level of intervention; if they don't, that reinforces the idea for the students that "no one will do anything" about it. On the other hand, we have found that if students and parents work with us and we persist through however many levels of intervention we need to, we have had great success in stopping bullying.

That brings me to my last point on this -- I believe that it is essential for parents, teachers, and administrators to work in partnership on this problem, and to persist in conveying the message to kids -- over and over and over again -- that it is unacceptable to "say mean things" to other kids. Equally important, I think we need to begin emphasizing to students that they should also not be passive bystanders and let bullying happen. If something suddenly changed tomorrow so that everyone who saw bullying happen (at either the kid level or the adult level, actually!) intervened and objected, the world would become less safe for the bullies and more safe for everyone else. So I think communication (encouraging kids to tell, parent-school partnership, encouraging kids to object to bullying when they see it, conveying the message that "saying mean things" is not acceptable) and persistence are the keys to solving this problem. And in our spare time we can certainly also write reports about it, but let's have parents, teachers, and administrators spend most of their time and energy working together to help the kids!

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