Posted: Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010
I was interviewed today by Florida radio station WDBO. Last week, two different parents in that state reached the boiling point about their kids’ experience being bullied and responded in inappropriate and ineffective ways. In both cases the parents indicated that they felt the school wasn’t doing enough to protect their children. So WDBO asked Education.com to comment on what works and what doesn’t work in terms of school bullying policies. Here are some insights I shared on the show – all of which can be found in our Special Edition on Bullying.
School bullying policies: What doesn’t work -
1. Doing nothing – While nearly every school in the country has a published “bullying policy”, many are long, complicated, and live on a dusty bookshelf in the principal’s office. This leaves teachers and administrators to just deal with bullying incidents as they happen. One kid gets a verbal warning for shoving someone on the playground and another gets thrown out of school. Having a bullying policy that’s not alive and active is the equivalent of not having one. Inconsistency leaves the school community feeling confused and vulnerable and bullying increases over time.
2. “Zero Tolerance Policies” have increased in popularity recently. On paper this sounds smart. “You bully and you’re out”. But research is showing that these policies do little to decrease bullying on campus over time. Most of this has to do with how the policy is enforced – in many cases there’s no “due process” to understand exactly what happened. No attention is paid to the offender, not even much attention is paid to the victim, and there’s no real understanding of why the event occurred. Research shows the threat of extreme punishment does very little to deter bullying behavior. Unpredictable and harsh punishments are likely to make offenders even angrier. If bullies do stop a behavior just to try to stay out of trouble, it’s likely to be a temporary fix.
So what does work?
The notion of “Zero Tolerance” is more effective when it comes in the form of a strong message to all students from all faculty that the school is committed to making sure that every student has the opportunity to feel safe and happy at school every day. There’s an expectation that the community will work together to facilitate that commitment and behavior that threatens it won’t be allowed to continue.
How do schools achieve this?
- By investing in prolonged and consistent education designed to enhance awareness and understanding of bullying among all students. A single assembly about bullying is good but a weekly discussion as part of a health class or homeroom curriculum is better.
- By creating a caring environment where adults set the example of the right way to treat others. Simple things like greeting students warmly and calling them by name can do wonders to improve the spirit of community on a school campus.
- By having a well attended playground where kids are encouraged to participate in a variety of daily choice activities. Increasingly, budgets often don’t allow for sufficient playground supervision. Schools need to solicit playground volunteers.
- By adopting a consistent, holistic, and well communicated response to bullying events. Schools need to create a very detailed list of “offenses” with very clear consequences for each. Some schools have found it helpful to group and color code these offenses. Every child who commits a “green” offense (saying something unkind in the hallway for example) experiences exactly the same consequence every time. The same is true for “yellow” and “red” offenses. When kids experience consequences that are consistent and fair, they’re more likely to consider changing their own behavior.
- By getting to the root of the problem when bullying takes place. It’s not enough to punish the offender and put a band-aid on the victim. School staff need to invest time in finding out why the offender did what she did (wanted to impress friends, bored and looking for a way to have fun, angry about an unrelated situation) and support the student getting those needs met in more productive ways. Once there’s a better understanding of the situation, it’s important to help offenders understand the full potential of their actions.
So what do I do if my child is being bullied?
When a parent finds out that their child is being hurt it’s natural to want to protect them. In the moment, it might feel good to “bully the bully” but what we’ve learned is that in the long run getting involved in that way can actually make things much worse for your child instead of making things better. Here’s what we recommend to parents who find out their child is being bullied:
1. First, focus on your child. Be supportive and gather as much specific information as you can about what has happened. Don’t blame or judge anyone, just listen to what your child has to say about what happened, who was involved, when it happened, and how your child responded in that moment.
2. Contact your child’s teacher or principal and provide specifics on how your child is being bullied – this is more effective than going directly to the other parents. Do your best to remain calm and avoid making threats about taking matters into your own hands.
3. Request that the teacher or principal get back to you in a reasonable amount of time with a plan for how to resolve this instance and to help keep your child safe in the future.
o Request that the principal and classroom teacher tell other teachers, recess aides, hallway monitors and cafeteria staff, so everyone who comes in contact with your child will be on the lookout and poised to intervene.
o Focus more on what you want for your own child (the right to be safe and happy at school) and less on what you want to happen to the perpetrators.
4. Encourage your child to stick with a friend at recess, lunch, in the hallways, on the bus or walking home because she is more likely to be targeted when she is alone.
5. Teach your child to say “Stop!” Most bullies stop bullying within 10 seconds, when someone tells him or her to stop.
If your child continues to be bullied, don’t give up. Meet with the teacher and principal again to share specific information about what has happened since the first meeting. Be ready to talk about what is working and what is not working about the plan. If you feel like the person you’re working with is not committed to keeping your child safe at school, find the next person up the ladder to work with. Unfortunately you may not be able to solve the problem immediately. But by continuing to work with your child and adults at school, you can solve it.
In my conversation with WDBO we also touched on how to tell if your child might be being bullied, how to tell if your child might be bullying others, and how to bully proof your child.
I was honored to be invited to be on the show – bullying is such an important topic and it’s keeping far too many of our kids from being the best they can be at school and in their lives. I hope these tips and the other information in our Bullying Special Edition will give parents and schools some tools to more effectively manage bullying.