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Response: Going After 'The Roots' of Bullying

 (This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)


The new question of the week is:

How can teachers and administrators best address bullying in school?


Part One's contributors were Martha Caldwell, Oman Frame, Terry Roller, Dr. Kris Felicello, John Seborowski, Jessica Hannigan, John Hannigan, and Kelly Wickham Hurst. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Martha, Oman, Terry, and Kris on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today's commentaries come from Ann Mausbach, Kim Morrison, Signe Whitson, Sandy Harris, Julie Combs, Stacey Edmonson, Dr. Elizabeth Englander, Tamara Fyke, Stuart Ablon, and Alisha Pollastri. I also include comments from readers.

Response From Ann Mausbach & Kim Morrison

Ann Mausbach has been a central-office administrator for over 20 years and is currently working at Creighton University. Kim Morrison has been a principal for over 20 years and currently serves as a middle school principal in an urban district in Iowa. They are authors of School Leadership through the Seasons: A Guide to Staying Focused and Getting Results all Year.

Bullying is a symptom of a bigger problem within the school. Think about the garden that is full of dandelions. The only way to get rid of this persistent weed is to go after the roots. Going after the roots of bullying requires relationships, engagement, and feedback.

Relationships;Ferreting out bullying behaviors requires keen attention to how both the children and adults behave in the school. Quality relationships help both the bullied and the bully. The slogan "say something, see something" only works in a culture where students have trusting relationships with the adults in the school who react positively. When rich relationships are present, students and the victim of bullying are more likely to share. Bullies may also feel less of a need for power and control if they have a trusted adult in the school. Relationship-building isn't complicated, but in the harried pace of a school day, simple things like greeting students at the door, periodically having lunch with small groups of students, and taking an interest in student's hobbies or interests can fall to the wayside. Paying attention to the types and quality of interactions with the students in the school is a first step.

Engagement;Students who have a sense of shared ownership in the culture of the classroom and school are more likely to report activities that tear at the status quo. This requires students to be engaged in meaningful learning while also having a sense of empowerment so a bully cannot invade the flow of learning.  Experience and research inform us that students who are engaged in their learning are more likely to report bullying behaviors and less likely to tolerate distractions to learning. In environments where students are consistently doing activities that challenge and interest them, emotional safety increases and the inverse is true as well. Environments that lack safety see increases in bullying behaviors. Creating a safe space for learning requires teachers to teach and reteach routines and procedures that include how to have productive conflict, what happens when we disagree, and how to persevere when learning is tough. 

Feedback;Ideally we want students to do the right thing when no one is watching, but until they have acquired the skills and maturity, they need both a caring pair of eyes and a guiding voice. Students will naturally make mistakes; the staff member who uses these as opportunities to learn rather than punish provides the platform for a safe environment. In order to teach these behaviors, teachers and leaders need to intervene with a problem-solving lens. This starts with active listening to identify the cause of the problem and then moves to collaboratively identifying  better ways to handle tough situations. Problem-solving isn't enough, however; it also requires monitoring and feedback. Students will learn and use more healthy approaches to conflict when they receive feedback as they are applying new skills.

Pulling weeds from the garden can be backbreaking work that requires a great level of care, persistence, and willingness to identify when they have a chokehold on the healthy plants. These same practices are also critical to keep bullying at bay in a school. Creating a space that is safe and healthy requires teachers and leaders to watch, listen, and diligently address behaviors that interfere with students' emotional safety.

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Response From Signe Whitson

Signe Whitson, C-SSWS, is an international educator on bullying prevention and the author of the 8 Keys to End Bullying series. For more information, please visit www.signewhitson.com:

The good news is that "big" solutions to the problem of bullying (such as tedious policy implementation, time-consuming investigations, and cumbersome documentation) are eclipsed each and every day by the small but powerful ways that educators communicate to students that their dignity is paramount and their safety will be prioritized. The hopeful news is that while there is no single cure-all to cruelty, there are all kinds of simple, focused, quick, and accessible strategies that administrators and teachers can use to bring an end to bullying in their schools and classrooms. Best news yet:  Most of these bullying prevention strategies simultaneously build more positive relationships between students and staff.

What follows are 8 small (in terms of daily time commitment) yet big (in terms of their effectiveness) strategies teachers and administrators can use to address bullying in schools:

  1. Understand the differences between "rude," "mean," and "bullying" behavior. Intervene accordingly.

  2. Recognize the warning signs of a child who is being bullied. Reach out to young people who bully others. Insist that all young people are worthy of help and guidance from a caring adult.

  3. Prioritize positive relationships between staff and students. When young people feel connected to adults, they are less likely to bully others and more likely to report incidents of bullying.

  4. Create cultures of kindness in your school. Compassion, kindness, and empathy are the antidotes to cruelty, social exclusion, and bullying.

  5. Reject the "kids will be kids" mentality. Bullying is never just a "rite of passage" for young people; it is an abuse of power. Kids need adult help in order to restore healthy power balances among peers.

  6. Bullying tends to happen in the places and spaces where adults are absent. Increase adult presence in social spaces including hallways, locker rooms, recess, and the bus. Eat lunch with kids. Simply "being there" can significantly reduce the incidence of bullying in schools.

  7. Make bullying prevention an everyday activity;not just a once-and-done assembly or weeklong poster contest.  Integrate bullying-prevention activities into daily routines, such as morning meetings, advisories, buddy systems, lunchtime seating arrangements, and more.

  8. Establish a partnership with parents about bullying-prevention practices. Work with families to create guidelines for their kids' social-media use and set shared standards for how kids must treat each other online.

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Response From Sandy Harris, Julie Combs, & Stacey Edmonson

Sandy Harris is a former private and public school teacher and administrator and university professor (retired) of educational leadership. She is the author or co-author of over 20 books, including BRAVO Principal, 2nd ed., and co-author of The Trust Factor, 2nd ed.

Julie Combs is a former public school teacher and administrator and chair of educational leadership at Sam Houston State University. She has co-authored four books, including The Trust Factor, 2nd ed.

Stacey Edmonson is a former public school teacher and administrator and dean of the College of Education at Sam Houston State University. She has authored or co-authored six books, including The Trust Factor, 2nd ed:

There are no easy solutions to reduce acts of bullying at school. We suggest these three basic steps teachers and administrators can implement to reduce bullying incidents: Acknowledge that bullying is not a natural part of growing up, be vigilant and aware, and advocate for all students.

Acknowledge that bullying behaviors are "not a natural part of growing up."  We have had countless adults tell us that bullying is just a natural part of growing up and in current times, schools are making "too much of this."  Consequently, bullying behaviors are often overlooked or minimized. We must ask ourselves these questions:

  • Should saying unkind things to others (teasing, name-calling, threatening) be a natural part of growing up?
  • Should purposefully causing emotional pain to someone (spreading rumors, embarrassing or isolating others) be a natural part of growing up?
  • Should hurting others physically be a natural part of growing up?

The first step teachers and administrators can implement to reduce bullying at school is to acknowledge that bullying behaviors are NOT a natural part of growing up.

Be vigilant and aware. Adults are notified in less than half of bullying incidents. Young people often don't tell adults when they are being bullied or when they see someone being bullied for many reasons, such as they fear being seen as weak or a tattletale, they fear backlash, or they already feel socially isolated.  herefore, teachers and administrators must be aware of what bullying looks like in the classroom, in the halls, in the lunchroom, and on the playground.

  • Victim: Does a child have unexplained injuries, declining grades, increased isolation, recurring illnesses during the school day?
  • Bully: Is a child becoming aggressive, blaming someone else for his or her problems, avoiding responsibility, or being overly competitive?

The second step teachers and administrators implement to reduce bullying at school is to be vigilant and aware.

Advocate for all students. Teachers and administrators who advocate for students publicly support that young people are important and are to be treated with respect. Adults model for students, as well as parents and community stakeholders, that everyone should be treated with kindness and compassion.  

  • They listen when a complaint is made.
  • They act to resolve the behavior with those involved. 
  • They work to restore the victim's and the bully's self-worth. 
  • They build positive relationships with students and their families.
  • They speak honestly, candidly, and kindly. 

The third step teachers and administrators implement to reduce bullying at school is to advocate for all students.

Teachers and administrators should acknowledge that bullying is NOT a natural part of growing up; they must be vigilant and aware; and, they must advocate for all students. By addressing bullying with these three basic steps, educators make the school day safer for all students. 

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Response From Dr. Elizabeth Englander

Dr. Elizabeth Englander is the executive director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University, a center that provides research, programming, and services for schools around the United States. A 2004 presidential scholar, she was named Most Valuable Educator in 2013 by the Boston Red Sox and heads the cyberbullying workgroup for the Institute of Child Development and Digital Media. Dr. Englander is the author of Bullying and Cyberbullying (Harvard Educational Press), Understanding Violence (Lawrence Erlbaum), hundreds of articles, and many curricula and informational downloads:

Bullying in school today is a subtle, not overt, behavior. It's accomplished not through fists and fighting but largely through what are known as gateway behaviors, which are any acts or words that express contempt. These can be difficult to notice if you don't know what you're looking for. However, even if you notice gateway behaviors like eye rolling, ignoring someone when they're talking, snickering or laughing, or name-calling, it's hard to know how to respond. 

By themselves, gateway behaviors don't mean that bullying is necessarily occurring. Kids who are name-calling may be fighting or just temporarily angry at each other. The students often know the dynamics of what's going on, but the adults rarely know the backstory. If a student is laughed at in class, the teacher typically doesn't know if it's the first time that's happened or the thousandth time.  Further, laughing at someone is a very minor transgression;it's simply not practical or realistic to throw the book at every minor gateway behavior.

Still, we need to respond to such behaviors for three reasons. First, if students believe that there's nothing wrong with showing contempt for others, they do so frequently, and the proliferation of these behaviors change a school's psychological climate. Frequent expressions of contempt can change a friendly environment into a hostile one. In contrast, school should be viewed as a generally pleasant place. Second, not responding to gateway behaviors suggests to targets of bullying that the adults don't care. Third, openly showing contempt is a rude and inappropriate social behavior, and we're not doing children any favors by ignoring it. 

The fact is, whether it's a fight, an argument, or a bullying situation, the only overt behavior that adults are likely to ever see are gateway behaviors.  ecause of that, adults must respond to such behaviors regardless of whether or not it's fighting or bullying that's happening. No one should assume that snickering or eye rolling means that bullying is happening, but neither should we imply that it's perfectly fine to openly express contempt for another person. 

Responding to gateway behaviors;which are, after all, very minor wrongdoings shouldn't be blown out of proportion. Every school, and every classroom should have a rule that forbids the mocking or contempt of others. Violating that rule should only incur a reminder, but don't bring the target into it. Saying, "I think you hurt Jeannine's feelings when you roll your eyes at her" is putting the onus and the responsibility on Jeannine, who may not want it and who is likely to deny the problem altogether. Instead, point out that rolling your eyes is rude and it distracts you, the teacher: "Please do not roll your eyes in my classroom. It's rude and it bothers and distracts me." Children quickly notice the teachers who respond to gateway behaviors, and they stop using those behaviors around them (for the most part). The students who continue to violate the rule are struggling with a different type of problem.  

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Response From Tamara Fyke

Tamara Fyke is a creative educator and entrepreneur with a passion for kids, families, and urban communities. She is the creator, author, and brand manager for Love In A Big World, which equips K-8 educators, schools, and districts with a social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum that is both research-based and practical and also provides the supporting resources necessary to empower students to be socially competent, emotionally healthy problem-solvers who discover and maintain a sense of purpose and make a positive difference in the world. Tamara is editor of Building People: Social & Emotional Learning for Kids, Schools & Communities, a book that brings 12 wide-ranging perspectives on SEL to educators, parents, and leaders. Follow her on Twitter @tamara_fyke:

We all know bullying is a problem; this is nothing new. Years ago, bullying was often regarded as rite of passage experience. When the underdog stood up to the bully, they became the hero. What I think is different now is that the stakes are higher. This is no longer about a bloody nose on a playground; this is about life and death, in some cases homicide or suicide. Therefore, we must take action.

According to stopbullying.gov, "Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior;verbal, social ,or physical&mdash'; among school -ged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time."

From a positive youth-development approach, it is about decreasing risk factors and increasing protective factors. This does not mean putting up posters that say "No Bullying Zone." It means rolling up our sleeves and doing the hard work of having the critical conversations with adults and kids that need to be had because relationships matter ... people count! 

We must choose Kindness—treating others the way we want to be treated. Yes, what I'm advocating for takes time. ... It's neither glamorous nor complicated. We must be committed to creating a caring and nurturing environment, starting with a smile, a positive attitude, and kind words. We need to build each other up, not tear each other down.

The simple truth is we all want to be seen and safe; we have a need to belong. So let's challenge ourselves to experience life with our whole heart engaged;and teach our kids to do the same.

Tips for dealing with bullying:

  1. Focus on relationships ― Be intentional about time for relationship-building in the classroom through morning meeting or advisory period. Designate time for relationship-building for staff and faculty during inservice days, faculty meetings, and informal gatherings. Put people first!

  2. Acknowledge that a problem exists ― The first step in making a change is admitting that a problem exists.  

  3. Be clear on the bullying policy ― Clearly define what bullying is and how it will be addressed.  

  4. Listen to what your students say ― Welcome student voice in the conversation about the climate and culture of your classroom and your school. As kids, their experience is different from yours.  Consider their point of view.

  5. Follow-through with the plan ― Thoughtfully consider how the situation needs to be handled, then do the work. Yes, having the necessary conversations with students, faculty, and family members takes a lot of time. However, investing time shows that you care.

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Response From Stuart Ablon & Alisha Pollastri

Stuart Ablon and Alisha Pollastri are clinical psychologists from the Think:Kids program at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and are co-authors of the book, The School Discipline Fix: Changing Behavior Using the Collaborative Problem Solving Approach. They develop, study, and teach Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS), an evidence-based approach for understanding and helping children who engage in challenging behaviors such as aggression, oppositionality, withdrawal, and academic avoidance:

Now that bullying-prevention programs are required in our schools, students who are the victims of bullying are finally getting the empathy and attention they deserve. The work, however, shouldn't stop there.

Behind most bullying programs is the fundamental assumption that students who bully are choosing to do so in order to get something they want (for example, social status or attention), and that these students could behave more kindly if they wanted to. Because of this assumption, students who bully are frequently punished via exclusionary practices like detention, suspension, or even expulsion. The punishment, the logic goes, should teach bullies that their behavior gets them bad stuff instead of good stuff, and when they realize that, they will stop bullying and be kind instead. But if that logic is correct, why do bullies come out of detention, or return from suspension, and bully again?

Research actually tells us that students who are aggressive, oppositional, or otherwise behave in difficult ways are actually doing the best they can with the skills they have. All of us would like to have social status and attention; students who bully are lacking the skills they would need to attain status and attention in adaptive ways;skills like emotion regulation, self-regulation, communication, and social thinking. As a result, they seek status and attention in ways that prove harmful to others. Yes, bullies would like to avoid detentions and suspensions and they would if they could. But detention and suspension don't teach skills; the bully returns with no more skills than she had when she left and so cannot behave any differently.

While not a popular view, it is clear that bullies lack the skill, not the will, to behave better. So if we want to effectively address bullying, we need to focus on helping bullies develop the skills they need to not bully. Our underlying assumptions about the cause of the bullying leads us to punish the bullies; ironically, it is only by having compassion and understanding for the bullies that we best help future students avoid being victims.

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Responses From Readers

Michael Waters:

I think it's usually a self-esteem issue that has to be overcome. I use the garden club which is by invitation only. Students who are likely to be bullies and victims share these problems. Having them work together to make something they are proud of,has been successful for my students.

 

Thanks to Ann, Kim, Signe, Sandy, Julie, Stacey, Elisabeth, Tamara, Stuart, and Alisha, and to readers, for their contributions.

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