Not more than a generation before ours, the term bully conjured images of mean ol’ Eddie Haskell from “Leave it to Beaver.” Bullies of yore may have stolen a peer’s milk money or threatened to beat a kid up if he didn’t hand over his homework answers. Today, though, bullying is a beast of a different kind. The effects of bullying are beyond alarming, but the awareness is at an all time high.
“There is much greater awareness than a decade ago about the serious impact bullying has on children’s lives,” observes Dr. Philip Brown, Ph.D., a senior consultant at the National School Climate Center. “But the fight against this pervasive and insidious behavior needs all hands on deck to reduce its harmful effects on our children. Whether you’re a kid, parent or educator, you have an important role to play.”
Bearing that in mind, here are five ideas to help bring bullying to an end.
1. Bullying always involves more people than the bully and the victim.
Bullying is a social phenomenon, and in order to stop it, everyone needs to be involved. In most bullying incidents, studies show that four or more additional peers are present. Some assist by joining in the ridiculing or cheering on the bully from the sidelines, and others encourage the bully by showing signs of approval such as laughing or just watching and doing nothing.
What to do? Parents and teachers need to encourage kids to play an active part in their school community by providing opportunities to be positive role models of good character, exemplifying the values that connect people rather than divide them. Service projects that engage children across age levels and peer groups break down self-made barriers, create conditions to develop positive peer cultures, and help kids become upstanders rather than bystanders when it comes to bullying.
2. Adults should prevent bullying behaviors, not model them.
Most parents and teachers don’t want their children or students to be victims of bullying. However, the authority and power adults have and need to guide and protect can also be used destructively. Correcting bad behavior is necessary, but putting kids down and indicating that they are bad kids or mocking their failings is bullying behavior that kids pick up on as okay and will learn to use on other kids themselves.
What to do? Correct the behavior, not the whole child. There is a big difference between “You didn’t do your homework, and we’ve talked about that before. What happened?” and “You don’t listen to me! What kind of a student do you think you are?”
3. Bullying and conflict are not the same thing.
Conflict inevitably happens between people trying to get their needs met, and this can result in disagreement and hurt feelings. When people have strong disagreements, aggressive behavior and responses result that may appear similar to bullying. But there is an important difference. In situations of conflict, both parties have a degree of power, and there is a dispute over resources or decisions; there is no intention to victimize a person based on some characteristic such as their ethnicity or physical attributes. Another difference is that, for bullies, the reward is largely social – increased status, power, attention or revenge – not about an event or tangible reward. Kids are still learning how to navigate the complex world of friendships, which also leads to disagreements. Part of the growing-up process is learning how to solve these problems.
What to do? Don’t assume that every conflict requires identifying a bully and a victim. Conflict is a natural part of being human, and conflict resolution is a skill that children and adults alike need practice navigating with care and resourcefulness. Make sure your family and school teach and have learned basic conflict resolution skills.
4. To break bullying cycles or patterns, learn to talk compassionately.
Picture this: One student with a speech impediment is being belittled, teased, and often interrupted during his classwork. To address this pattern, his classroom teacher facilitates an intentional conversation designed to both break the pattern and help the children involved understand the impact of their behavior. In talking about being mean, the teacher also engages and reinforces the natural sense of empathy with which we are all born, but we all have to learn about and practice by being compassionate with different people in different contexts.
What to do? Compassionate communication helps in navigating interpersonal relationships. But if bullying behavior persists, intervention is called for: The victim will need specific support, and the perpetrator will require specific consequences.
5. Give youth a voice and exercise your own voice, too.
Harassment, intimidation and bullying behaviors among children and youth are a peer phenomenon, and so kids are usually reluctant to talk with adults about it. Families and schools need to build in times and structures to help facilitate youth talking about their experiences, both positive and negative. Young people need to feel like they have an adult to whom they can turn if they are the target of bullying. They also need ways to feel safe expressing concerns about their peers’ bad behavior with adults and their peers.
What to do? Families and schools can create the conditions for youth voice by developing and reinforcing widely-shared, positive social norms (core ethical values), providing ways for all students to make valued contributions to the well-being of others, and implementing programs that regularly give youth a chance to speak their minds in a safe environment. Ask your kids how things are going at school, and stay tuned for signs of trouble with peers. Let them know directly and indirectly that they are not alone and that you are available to help them. Encourage them to be kind to others who are different than they are. Let teachers and school officials know that you support their bullying prevention efforts and programs, and hold them accountable for responding with care and appropriate consequences when bullying occurs.
In partnership with Wear the Cape and the kidkind foundation, Dr. Brown has embarked on a critical mission to help adults across the country support the development of character in our youth. For additional resources from Dr. Brown and to learn more about Wear the Cape and the kidkind foundation, visit www.wearthecapekids.com.