How to Deal With Bullying in Your Classroom
by William Voors
Name-calling, taunts, gossiping, exclusion, physical abuse. Bullying. We see and hear it every day. Every teacher can identify the kids on the sidelines, the ones who don't fit in, as well as the ones who enjoy using their power to keep others in their places. We know it's a huge problem for schools. Yet, it's such a part of childhood and adolescence, isn't it? Just normal, right? Indeed, it's so deeply ingrained into our culture, how can we ever expect to turn it around? What can a teacher really do?
The first thing we must do is to recognize the severity of the problem.
It's a bigger deal than we often assume. On average, 160,000 American children miss school every day to avoid being harassed, teased, gossiped about, "dissed," or physically assaulted. That's a lot of kids. We also know that bullying is the most common form of abuse any child is going to experience. Though most children are fortunate enough not to be raised in families where they see, hear or experience abuse, most children go to school. And at school, every child is affected by bullying -- either as a target, as a child who bullies, or as a bystander. Chronic bullying leads to much of the childhood and adolescent depression we see. And antidepressants won't cure it.
The second thing we must do is to stop looking the other way. As long as we ignore dysfunctional behavior, we are giving it the green light to continue. We are enabling it. We used to do the same thing with child abuse and domestic violence. "Well, you know how it is over there in that family. It's not our business." Just as we did with child abuse and domestic violence, we need to stop ignoring bullying behavior and deal with it directly.
The third thing is to recognize that adults must take charge to stop it. Kids can't do it on their own. They often don't talk about it with adults because they're ashamed, embarrassed, or they're afraid adults won't listen. But they want to talk about it. They need to know that every adult at school will listen to them and help if they report a problem with bullying.
Here are some practical steps you can take to address the problem of bullying in your classroom:
- Talk about it. For a lot of reasons, bullying is a topic that is not dealt with directly often enough. Have class discussions about tolerance and respect for others. The last few years have brought a wealth of good books, videos and other resources to help get the conversation going. Get it going, and keep it going.
- Look for it and confront it when you witness it -- every time. Too often we minimize and normalize bullying by saying things like "kids will be kids," "you need to learn to take a joke," or that old chestnut, "sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you." Don't allow these sayings to go by. Make it clear that if anyone's having a problem, they can talk with you, and make sure you follow through.
- Teach bystanders how to safely intervene. Most students are not chronic targets or chronic bullies. They're bystanders. And as we all know, there are three things students typically do when they witness bullying: stand around and watch, stand around and watch, and stand around and watch. Yet most students agree they don't like to see it happen, and that they often feel guilty or ashamed for not stepping in and helping out. In the words of an astute freshman boy, "Kids need to know that it's cool to stand up for other kids." Standing up for others takes courage, but when the school ethic supports it, it goes a very long way toward reducing bullying in a school.
- Model good anger management skills. One of the best ways to teach young people what respect looks like is by practicing good anger management skills. Most of us feel like screaming sometimes. But when we yell or belittle students we're part of the problem. If we're going to talk the talk, we have to walk the walk. We must find ways to handle our stress that allows us to always be respectful and patient with students.
- Confront enabling when you see or hear it from other adults. How often have you heard another teacher putting down a student, telling a sexist (homophobic, racist, etc.) joke, or blaming the victim ("She needs to learn to stand up for herself," or "He needs to learn how to take a joke.'). It's appropriate to tactfully explain that you feel uncomfortable when you hear comments that are intolerant or disrespectful.
Bullying has been with us for a long time, and it will take time to change the long-standing societal attitudes that normalize, minimize, and deny it. Yet school is one place where these negative attitudes can be actively confronted. It's one place where kids can know they'll be treated consistently with respect and dignity, and that the same behavior will be expected from them.
Transcripts of live chats on the topic of bullying:
Browse the latest posts from the Professional Reading Chatboard: