Stand Against the Bully

A primary duty common to all members of a school district’s learning community is to protect students against failure. Central to this duty is that we do whatever we can as educators to “remove obstacles to learning.” Yet one of these obstacles to learning can be the social barriers some students face every day right here in our very schools. In a recent climate survey (April 2012) conducted among my school district’s parents and community members, 70% of respondents reported that “there is a problem with bullying in our schools.” Nationwide, nearly one in three students are involved in bullying as either a victim or perpetrator; close to nine in ten students are involved in bullying incidents when you include the student as a bystander.

Boys are more likely to bully than girls; however, boys and girls are often bullied in different ways. As a social phenomenon, the frequency of acts of bullying in schools gradually increases during the elementary years, surges significantly in the middle school years, then tapers off when students reach high school. Bullying happens to most children at least once during their schooling experience. Boys tend to be more physically aggressive toward their victims than girls; however, girls are prone to use the more emotionally intimidating strategy of spreading rumors. In the school setting, bullies look for easy targets like students who are quiet, sensitive, or who stand out in some way as “different.” All bullies use the weapon of “social exclusion” as a means to isolate their victims.

The most common response to being bullied is to suffer in silence. For about 15% of students, bullying can turn an otherwise productive school year into one that is miserable and full of torment. The good news is that my school district, along with other school districts across the country, are taking a stand against the bully. Systematic and intentional anti-bullying programs have proved highly successful in recent years. I use the word intentional for a reason: part of the problem with bullying is that historically people have been extremely unintentional (or unthinking) when it comes to dealing with a bully. Many of us have been guilty of being passive bystanders in the midst of a bully – even as adults – simply because we are unsure how to react or don’t know exactly how to get involved. It takes a change in culture to intentionally eliminate bullying, and it is fairly easy to do for one simple reason: in most cases, the victim and the bystanders greatly outnumber the bully. This article will provide the reader with some basic anti-bullying techniques that offer effective remedies to the various types of bullying. Common to all of these remedies, however, is the adoption of a social contract to display zero tolerance of behaviors that do not support the dignity and self-determination of others.

Bullies are often individuals who choose to reject common standards of civility in order to achieve power-power over others and power over self, characterized by a self-centered desire to stay in control at all costs. Bullying is intentional. It is done through a conscious choice to cause harm. Bullies often enjoy making people suffer. They have little or no compassion for the people they target, and they often defend their actions by blaming the victim — “So-and-so made me do it!” Group bullying can also occur and propagate out from a single bully source, with other people joining in the spectacle. Bullies create an insidious situation in any social environment because they model a workable strategy for “getting your way.” Without intervention, others may start to imitate bullying behavior as a way of having their own wants and needs met. The bully’s primary tools, whether it be physical or emotional bullying, is fear and intimidation.

Because bullying is all about power, the best way to stand against a bully is also through the use of power. Enter the bystander into the bullying scenario. Bystanders are people who are neither the bully nor the victim, but they are involved in most bullying incidents even when they stand by and do nothing. Fortunately, it is the victim and bystanders who hold an overwhelming amount of power in any incident-if they choose to exercise this power-through the sheer weight of numbers. Any group, anywhere, can shift the imbalance of power enjoyed by the bully simply by having victims and bystanders join together. All that need occur in these situations is the insistence on civility, which even the bully can be redirected into supporting. The victim/bystander alliance will always form an effective counterforce against bullying in general. Like matter and anti-matter; the two forces cancel each other out. And in social situations, what is left from this collision is one important thing: Civility. Once a state of civility has been achieved, anything is possible in improving the culture we live in.

Bullying is Seen Across All Grade Levels

Bullying usually starts in pre-school. Young children want to be the center of attention, and one way to accomplish this goal is through bullying. Showing off, demonstrating physical prowess, forcing another child to give up something that is wanted (toys, clothing, playground equipment), and name calling are all tactics used by the pre-school bully. In Kindergarten, students learn how to use exclusion to intimidate others. It is common to hear things like “You’re not my friend, so you can’t play with me.” In the elementary grades, the bully becomes more sophisticated by leading a group of other students (a clique) to help administer cruelty to others. Bullying by adolescents is where things can really get serious, particularly in the junior high years. The peer pressure to “fit in” causes pre-teens and teens to go along with the crowd, even if that requires them to engage in bullying behavior as a means to gain acceptance into a group. A student who does not belong to at least one social group is at greater risk of being teased frequently. However, once peer groups have formed, many bullying behaviors go away. As I mentioned earlier, things tend to get better for the student who has been bullied once they enter high school. The social status of the bully diminishes as kids become young adults. Students at this age have more cognitive resources to bring to bear in determining right from wrong, and typically develop a moral code of conduct to live by. Actually, the popularity of the bully usually tops out around age 14-15. This is because their peers begin to recognize the havoc the bully causes to an otherwise smoothly operating social milieu.

Cyber bullying is the new twist on an old theme. The cyber bully has one distinct advantage over his reality-based counterpart: anonymity. Cyber bullying is defined as: “threatening, lying about, stalking or otherwise harassing a person online or via other electronic communication device.” Some people think that cyber bullying can’t be that bad. In reality, it can be much, much worse than bullying in person. The reason for this is that the bullying is relentless because it can happen 24/7 and wherever the victim happens to be. The cyber bullying victim has no place to hide. The tactics used by the cyber bully include: sending harassing messages, impersonating a friend in order to gain trust, posting personal information, posting false and unflattering information, posting private or doctored pictures, and using the Internet to encourage others to join in the bullying.

Impact of Bullying on Student Lives

Bullying can have both a short-term and long-term effect on a person’s sense of well-being.

The short-term effects on students who are bullied include:

• More likely to skip school;

• Become anxious about walking to or from school;

• Refusal to ride the school bus;

• Come home regularly with clothes or books destroyed;

• Continually “lose” their pocket money;

• Become verbally and physically abusive toward younger siblings;

• Refuse to say what’s wrong (afraid of bully retaliation);

• More likely to get sick (because of stress hormones released in their bloodstream);

• More likely to drink and become aggressive (teens);

• Have physical injuries that can’t be explained (bruises, scratches, cuts);

• Become socially isolated with no or very few friends;

• Fear everything associated with school;

• Start receiving poor grades;

• Appear withdrawn and depressed most of the time;

• Have difficulty sleeping or have frequent nightmares;

• Loss of appetite or overeating;

• Engage in self-mutilations (cutting);

• Attempt or threaten suicide;

• Give improbable excuses to explain any of the above behaviors.

The long-term effects on students who are bullied include:

• Increased likelihood of getting into trouble with the law as adolescents and adults;

• Tendency to develop chronic psychological problems (painfully shy, depressed, low self-esteem);

• More likely to be bullied in the workplace;

• More likely to become verbally abusive toward friends and family;

• At risk for substance abuse.

Taking a Stand Against the Bully

One highly effective method that I’ve used in dealing with the bully is to teach children the “CALM Technique.” This technique uses four (4) distinct strategies:

C – Cool Down – When you confront the bully, stay calm and maintain control over your emotions. Don’t let the bully think that he or she is getting to you. If you need to calm down, count to twenty slowly inside your head. Always ask for help whenever there is a chance that you might get injured.

A – Assert Yourself – Practice using the following assertiveness strategies before confronting the bully:

• Question the Bully: “Why would you want to tell me that I’m ____ and hurt my feelings?” “What does that get you to tell me these things?”

• Use “I want” statements, and speak them firmly: “I want you to leave me alone.”

• Agree with the Bully: “You’re _____”! — “Yeah, but I’m really good at it.” Agreeing with the bully over a childish insult puts it back on him/her with nowhere else to go.

• Ignore the Bully: Bullies feed off emotional reactions, so don’t give one.

• Make fun of the Teasing: “You’re ____”! — “And your point is?”

L – Look the Bully in the Eye – Appear confident, hold your head high and stand tall. Keep your eyes at the horizon level or above as opposed to looking down. When you make eye contact with the bully, let him or her look away first. Try to relax and have a pleasant look on your face. When you break eye contact, don’t look back–just move on.

M – Mean It! – Be very clear and direct about what you want when dealing with the bully. Keep your communication simple and to the point. State what you want in a short, precise sentence, and then keep repeating it. Example: “That is my pencil, and I want it back” or, “I would like my pencil back.”

Other Strategies to Teach Students

Encourage friendships – Assist children in building the social skills necessary to make friends. Children without friends tend to be vulnerable to bullies;

Teach children to express themselves clearly, yet tactfully – Learning how to communicate with people with humor and grace is vital to social success. This means showing students how to express themselves without offending others. Students who get along well with their peers, regardless of social status, tend to be bully proof;

Stress the importance of good body language – Students who outwardly appear relaxed, maintain good eye contact, and adopt an interested-in-others type posture (open stance, leaning forward while seated) model confidence and self-assurance. Sometimes students have to “fake it to make it” on this one.

Teach the art of negotiation – Students who acquire the skill of getting what they want through low-intensity verbal arguments and debates are very successful. These students are bully-resistant because they demonstrate to their peers that they can settle their own disputes and solve problems without becoming violent or verbally abusive.

Teach conflict avoidance – This technique is otherwise known as the “out of sight, out of mind” approach, and it teaches students to avoid power struggles by not being present to get into one. Simply put, show students how to steer clear of a bully by choosing an alternate route to and from school, if possible; or on the way to their locker and classrooms. This strategy is not a long-term solution to a chronic bullying problem and not always practical, but it may help alleviate possible confrontations.

What Can a School District Doing About Bullying?

My school district is taking a four-prong approach to dealing with bullying, but without a coordinated and intentional effort on the part of all adults in our community, these efforts will not be enough. A great deal of bullying occurs outside of school, after school hours, at the mall, in student homes, and on student computers. School personnel can only respond to things that they know about, so the responsibility of reporting bullying rests on everyone. Having said that, here’s a list of procedural things the school district in doing to stand against bullying:

School Board Policy – School boards need to have a zero tolerance policy against bullying which impose stiff penalties for any violation, such as long suspensions and even expulsion. Bullying has to be clearly defined in the policy to include behaviors that a reasonable person would know is likely to harm one or more students either directly or indirectly by doing any of the following: (A) substantially interfering with educational opportunities, benefits, or programs of one or more students; (B) adversely affecting the ability of a student to participate in or benefit from the school district’s educational programs or activities by placing the student in reasonable fear of physical harm or by causing substantial emotional distress; (C) having an actual and substantial detrimental effect on a student’s physical or mental health; and/or (D) causing substantial disruption in, or substantial interference with, the orderly operation of the school.

Character Counts – My school district has a long tradition of teaching the Character Counts curriculum in all schools and grade levels. The first thing a visitor to any of our schools sees is the Character Counts wall, which celebrates the teaching of and insistence on a simple but effective list of civility skills. These skills, in their various forms, include: Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, and Citizenship.

Positive Behavior Support (PBS) – PBS is a process for understanding and resolving the negative behavior of children based on civility standards and problem solving strategies. It offers a method of assessment to determine why a child engages in certain problem behavior and provides an asset-based approach to teaching new social skills to prevent the future occurrence of negative behaviors. PBS offers a holistic approach that considers all factors that may impact a child and the child’s behavior. It can be used to address problem behaviors, such as: aggression, tantrums, property destruction, and social withdrawal.

Rachel’s Challenge – Rachel’s Challenge, in honor of Rachel Scott–a victim of the Columbine tragedy–is a structured program designed to inspire, equip, and empower students to make a positive difference in their world. Its tenants serve to replace bullying and violent behavior on school campuses with kindness and compassion so students can learn more in a safer, more respectful environment.

What can I do to Stand Against the Bully?

It is important to understand that bullying is not just a school problem; it is also a community problem. Adopting a stance against bullying requires a change in culture. To change the culture, you must first change the attitude of the bystander. Schools are most effective in implementing a sustainable change around concepts of civility in a learning environment when parents and the community speak with one voice and act consistently to deliver the message that bullies will not be tolerated. When using this wraparound strategy to protect children against bullying, there can be no bystanders. I’m reminded of a quote from Edmund Burke, a 19th-century statesman I admire, who said (and I paraphrase): Social injustice can only prevail when good men do nothing. To drive this point home further, it is the bystander who needs to change the most in any bullying episode; the bully and the victim already know the roles that they play. As adults responsible for the well-being of all members of our community, we must intervene when bullying occurs.

If you observe a student being bullied, wait to see if the student can handle the situation on their own-but don’t wait too long. If the student cannot handle the situation alone, get involved. Direct your attention at the bully. Make it clear that their bullying behavior is inappropriate and harmful. Depending on the situation, you may want to discuss the interaction with his or her parents, but always inform a local school official, or inform me directly. Clearly, as conscientious parents, teachers, care givers, and citizens it is OUR responsibility to stand against the bully to ensure that all children and adults learn to cooperate in a safe and fear-free environment. It we do otherwise, the bully wins.

Natasha M. McKnight

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