Can bullying ever be defeated in schools? I’ve attended several workshops on the topic of bullying over the years, and presenters at these workshops always say it is impossible to eliminate bullying. These counselors and psychologists who lead these workshops say that bullying can only be lessened or minimized. Often their presentations conclude with a pitch for one or more of the available “bullying programs” out there, like “Olweus Bullying Prevention Program,” or “Camfel Productions — The Golden Rule,” or “Botvin LifeSkills Program.” Depending on how deep a school invests in such programs, they can be incredibly expensive, like tens of thousands for a multiple year program.
I’m highly dubious of the lasting effectiveness of such purchased programs. Throwing money at these highly marketed programs can turn quickly into a sinkhole for a school, mostly because they seldom engender ownership and responsibility among the staff.
My proposal is that we take an organic approach to solving the problem. No money involved in this—make bully prevention an educational priority, activate some simple teacher procedures, establish classroom communities of respect, get all faculty and staff on board, and design a monitoring approach where everybody takes part.
Here is my list of action items and shared understandings that would go into this organic approach—begin these steps at the younger elementary years, kindergarten through fourth grade. They are designed to ward off bullying by getting out ahead of it and creating a culture of honoring/respecting each child:
- Get everybody on the same page—faculty and parents and students—as to what bullying really is. Here is a convenient, two-component definition of bullying:
- Bullying involves an imbalance of power; it involves kids who use their power—like physical strength, popularity, or access to embarrassing information—to control or harm others.
- Repetition: Bullying is occurring when the harm happens more than once.
- Create classroom communities of respect—All lower school [K through 4] classrooms must strive to become a classroom community of respect. This must be established right at the outset of the school year, and it must be nurtured throughout the year: Educate the children on bullying, frequently engage students’ own ideas as to examples of bullying, take time to role play scenarios and return to these exercises repeatedly, take a personal relevance approach in as much of the teaching as possible (learn what makes each student unique by honoring differences, interests, hobbies, learning styles, etc.).
- Conduct bullying check-ins—Teachers must hold frequent How-Are-We-Doing sessions with their students. Young children can be very appreciative and cooperative when they are given opportunities to voice their own assessment and understanding of how things are going.
- Make learning relevant for students— Bend assignments, design instructional content, establish small student groups, choose topics and projects that appeal to the student interests you have collected at the outset of the school year. Wherever possible, make the assignments and the learning personally relevant to them! With greater engagement with the learning, students are much less likely to impose power games on others.
- Sign on the entire faculty and staff—The school mission is everyone’s responsibility: teachers, staff, administrators, receptionists, maintenance people, cafeteria team. Everyone should play a role in spotting indicators, like rough play during recess, hurtful language in the lunch room, cutting in front of the line, inappropriate physical contact, etc. All adults in the school must be held responsible for bullying and must step in to halt the behavior.
- Activate school-wide mobilization of all faculty and staff—this would entail positioning an adult at vulnerable spaces and during hotspot times of the day. If every employee were assigned a brief bit of time (ten minutes per week?) to be assigned to monitor students at a particular place, then there can be greater monitoring during transitions, in the lunch room, at recess, and along various “dark spaces” where bullying takes place. Indeed, there is no such thing as 100% monitoring and coverage, but the adult presence will signal to students that the school is there to support them.
- Give students leadership roles in the process of establishing rules… this would be a part of the “classroom communities of respect” mentioned above. When students have a voice in strategies that will maintain a safe and mutually supportive environment, they are much more likely to cooperate.
The above items don’t need to included textbooks or curriculum materials, nor would schools need to sign on outside experts to speak at faculty meetings. My suggestions here are really about creating a culture of mutual respect throughout the school environment. Yes, there are intervention steps teachers and school officials must take when bullying does occur, but that will be a topic for another blog. Here I am looking at an organic approach, one that vests all the adults and students with responsibility, in order to get out ahead of the bullying and create the conditions to make its manifestation less likely. This organic approach is meant to cultivate a healthy, values-centered environment so that all students feel safe and supported.