Note: This is the fifth in a series on bullying.
You’ve seen bullying and intervened to stop it. You’ve shown that you won’t allow it. But the case is not yet closed. What do you do next?
Should there be consequences for children who bully?
Many bullying experts believe that punishment doesn’t deter children from bullying and leads to harsher—and more subtle—attacks. Children who bully may blame the child they targeted, seek vengeance, and issue new threats. Zero tolerance, suspension, and expulsion discourage both targeted children and bystanders from reporting or intervening in a bullying situation and don’t help the child who bullied. Punishment also teaches that bullying is acceptable for people with power.
So what are the alternatives?
Dan Olweus, the father of bullying research, regards a serious talk with a child who’s bullying as a consequence; and Canadian researchers Debra Pepler and Wendy Craig favor formative consequences that teach empathy, awareness, and social skills, while holding children responsible for their behavior and underlining that bullying is unacceptable.
Because bullying is a group problem, other experts advocate a group solution like restorative practice or similar interventions designed to deescalate denial and defensiveness, focus on the impact of the bullying, and redirect children to more positive pursuits.
A word of warning: Peer mediation is not a solution. Research shows that it doesn’t work, and it increases victimization. The children involved in bullying aren’t equals, and the child who was targeted is bound to be intimidated and even retraumatized by the child who bullied.
Talking with the participants
Regardless of what you feel about consequences, it’s important to talk separately with the children involved in a bullying incident. These talks will help to build trust and gather information for planning individual and group interventions.
The children also need a chance to express their feelings and their point of view, and they will feel more comfortable talking with a teacher they have a relationship with. If your school’s protocol calls for a specialist in bullying to take on this task, you might ask to sit in on the meeting—or brief the specialist—because you are the one who really knows the child.
The experts disagree about the order of these meetings. Some favor starting with the child who’s been targeted so that you understand his or her feelings and can use them to evoke empathy in the children who bullied. Other experts prefer to begin with the children who bullied to avoid accusations of tattling. In the end, personal preference—and how well you know both the group and the children involved—may determine where you start.
Meeting with children who’ve bullied
It’s not easy to speak with children who bully. They are likely to deny all wrongdoing, justify their behavior, and push your emotional buttons. But one-on-one time with a child who bullied can provide insight into the reasons behind the bullying and allow you to focus on strengths, recognize and redirect leadership abilities, and think up positive replacement behaviors to meet needs.
If several children took part in the incident, arrange to see them individually, one right after the other, so that they can’t use the group as a power source.
- Show respect. Don’t accuse or blame. Listen to what they have to say without judging them.
- Remind them of the rules. Tell them that bullying is serious and it must stop.
- Help them to take responsibility for their behavior, to understand why it was wrong, and to see how it affects others.
- Encourage them to make amends by eliciting empathy for the child who was targeted, asking them to propose one concrete way they can make his or her life better, and using formative consequences, such as reading a story that describes what it feels like to be bullied.
- Make plans to work with them on problem solving, emotional regulation, and positive ways to use their leadership abilities.
Meeting with children who’ve been targeted
Research suggests that children rebound best from bullying when they tell friends and adults. The goal here is to build resilience.
- Listen well, using open-ended questions and active listening. Let them know you care and want to help.
- Tell them that they aren’t to blame and don’t deserve this treatment. You can support them best by empathizing, whereas trivializing events will make things worse.
- Together explore ideas for improving the situation. Pinpoint bullying hot spots to avoid, and work on ideas for dealing with recess and lunch.
- Help them to find new friends. You can start by assigning partners and groups instead of allowing children to choose their own and by frequently changing the seating arrangements for the whole class.
- Teach self-talk, and role-play and rehearse staying calm, being assertive, and walking away. It is better if they can manage not to give in, get upset, or fight back, which promote bullying behavior. Do not suggest saying, “Stop,” pretending they aren’t hurt, or saying how they feel, which don’t work.
- Continue to offer support. Because bullying is a relationship problem and hurts so much, it’s important to stay in touch. Children who are targeted can too easily develop—and get stuck in—a victim mentality. Work to build a relationship, and make sure the child knows you’re there for him or her.
Meeting with bystanders
Because almost all children will be bystanders at some point in their lives, it is probably most effective to speak with the whole class.
Bystanders often think bullying is wrong, feel sorry for the child who’s been victimized, and would like to help, but they fail to act. Peer norms—widely shared practices, behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes—play a huge role, but children may not know what their peers actually believe. Anonymous surveys and posters showing the results can help make them aware that others disapprove of bullying and want to intervene. Younger children may share their feelings in a circle or class meeting if there is an open and trusting sense of community in the group. Even a single defender can reduce the painful fallout for a child who’s being harassed.
- Explain that when they’re present, even if they’re only watching, they are supporting the child who bullies. Discuss and role-play what they can do instead—walk away, tell the teacher, and if they feel safe, help the child who was bullied to leave the scene (for example, by saying, “Come on, I’ll walk with you to class” or “We need you for the game”).
- Help them understand that fighting back puts a defender in danger, escalates the aggression, and reinforces violence as a means to resolve problems.
- Emphasize that one of the best ways to help is by including children who were bullied after (and before!) the incident—sitting with them at lunch or on the bus, phoning or texting them, and saying that it isn’t their fault.
- Stress that secrecy enables bullying to continue and that grown-ups can help. You can encourage children to report it by clarifying the difference between tattling to get someone into trouble and telling to get someone out of trouble.
- Whenever possible, integrate issues related to bullying into the curriculum, and talk about them regularly. Power, empathy, peer pressure, courage, prosocial behavior, the difference between accidental and on purpose, the line between teasing and bullying, how it feels to be unwelcome—all of these topics kindle discussion. Reinforce the anti-bullying message with age-appropriate books, drawings, and puppets.
It takes time to stop bullying, but when you intervene consistently, meet with the parties involved, build relationships, and work with the whole class to create a community, you can lessen its impact and make it less likely to reoccur.
What do you think about using consequences for bullying? Have you used formative consequences, restorative practices, or other alternative methods? What works and what doesn’t? Tell us about your thoughts and experiences.
* Sources for the information in this guide include the state of New Jersey, the federal government’s anti-bullying websites (www.stopbullying.gov and www.StopBullyingNow.hrsa.gov) and work by Dan Olweus, Michael Carpenter, Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon, and Nancy Willard.
Note: This is the third in a series on bullying.
After years of believing that children who bully suffer from low self-esteem, lack social skills, and are rejected by their peers, we now know that the reality is far more complex.
Children who use bullying behavior come in a variety of flavors.
Who Are the Children Who Bully?
About half seem so much like ourselves that we often don’t recognize them. They have high self-esteem; they are socially competent and popular with their teachers and peers (even if they aren’t always well liked); and they’re influential leaders who hang out with kids who aren’t involved in bullying. From early childhood on they are on a pathway to success.
However, they also use bullying behavior—both prosocial and aggressive—to gain status and control. As bullying expert Faye Mishna points out, they continually challenge the official message that aggression is undesirable.
Many other children who bully do fit the classical description, and some other familiar adjectives as well—aggressive, impulsive, hot-tempered, easily frustrated, and rule-breaking.
And at the very opposite end of the bullying spectrum lie bully-victims (sometimes called provocative victims). As the name implies, they not only bully others but are targeted by them. Researchers describe them as “socially marginalized,” “fighting the system that keeps them on the periphery.”
As the most rejected and isolated children, with the lowest social status and deepest psychological problems, bully-victims may not have any friends, which makes them more vulnerable and puts them on a pathway to more and more abuse.
Their irritating and provocative behavior also alienates their teachers, who find it hard to summon up empathy for them—a critical ingredient in responding to bullying appropriately. More than any other children, bully-victims need empathy from adults and help with social skills and relating to peers.
Who Are the Targets of Bullying Behavior?
Children who are the targets of bullying usually lack social status or are “different” in some way and reward their attacker by crying, running away, or handing over their possessions instead of standing up for themselves. These reactions signal that they’re easy marks for harassment, and by the age of 8 or 9 years they may be locked into this role.
Experts agree that most students on the receiving end of bullying share certain characteristics, though no one knows for sure whether they are the cause or the effect of bullying. Children who are targeted:
- Have low self-confidence and self-esteem
- Are prone to depression and sadness
- Easily become fearful and anxious
- Have poor social skills
- Have few or no friends and are lonely and isolated
- Are passive and submissive and have a sense of helplessness
- Are physically weak and dislike fighting
- Don’t perform well in school
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered students top the list, along with students who “just don’t fit in”—those who are different because of their appearance, behavior, race, religion, disability, aboriginal origin, or social and economic class.
On the other hand, the socially competent leaders who bully may pick on peers whose status is similar to their own in order to climb the social ladder, and the targets may be as difficult to see as the aggressors.
Who Are the Bystanders?
Peers witness 85 percent of bullying incidents, and their presence and actions can increase—or decrease or stop—bullying.
- Their silence and inaction send the message that bullying is okay.
- Their laughter, comments, and assistance reinforce the power and status of students who bully.
- Bullying lasts longer when more bystanders are present.
- Bullying is highest in classrooms where the bystanders seem to support it—everyone believes the rest of the group accepts it.
- The social climate becomes harsher and less empathetic as bullying becomes more acceptable.
- When bystanders intervene, more than half of the time bullying stops within 10 seconds.
- Students who stick up for the target are held in high esteem by their peers.
- Watching bullying makes most bystanders uncomfortable, and many feel they should try to stop it.
But in reality only a few intervene.
Why Don’t Bystanders Report or Intervene When They See Bullying?
They are afraid of retaliation, and they don’t want to be excluded from the group. It is easier to create rationalizations for not following moral standards, such as, “He was just joking,” “Everybody does it,” and “She deserves it,” or to assume someone else will take responsibility.
In addition, bystanders may not know what to do, may not have a trusted adult to confide in, or believe that telling will change nothing or make things worse.
Or they think: If bullying is so wrong, why don’t adults act?
One of the most important factors is the bystanders’ relationship to the other children involved. Most of the time they will loyally support their friends and follow the rules of their peer group.
Personal power matters, too. Kids who feel unsafe, disconnected, and disempowered probably won’t stand up for a targeted child—or even reach out to help after the fact—unless the peer group demands it.
Researchers are currently trying to figure out how to change peer group thinking. It is a vital clue to solving the bullying puzzle.
What Can Adults Do?
Research shows that bullying is a relationship problem that involves an entire ecology: home, school, community, and society. All of the pieces are important, and you are a primary role model: Your words, attitudes, and behavior always influence what goes on, even when you aren’t present.
When you see or suspect bullying, intervene consistently. We know we’ve said this before, and we’re going to say it again. We’ll tell you how in our next post.
When a child tells you he or she is being bullied, the rule that you need to see it to believe it doesn’t apply. Listen carefully, try to understand, and validate his or her experience. Focus consciously on empathy, especially for children you don’t like. As Faye Mishna puts it, when this doesn’t happen, the child doubts him or herself and loses trust in all adults, with damaging effects on adjustment and functioning.
Be aware of the distinct peer groups in your classroom and understand which kids have power. Use this information to create groupings and opportunities that will help students to recognize each other’s strengths and contributions.
Make the climate of your classroom a high priority. Foster support for acceptance of diversity, moral engagement, kindness, and helpfulness through stories you read, books you assign, discussions about how people feel, role-playing, and using a prosocial curriculum such as Second Step.
Prevention is the best intervention. Bullying begins in early childhood, and it’s easier and more effective to catch it and turn it around in those years than it is later on.
What do you think? Have you seen different types of children bully—or being targeted—in your own classroom or school? How aware are you of your own reactions to the children involved? What strategies have you found to be effective?