How Should School Staff Respond to Bullying Behavior?
This is both a frequent and an important question. It can be answered directly through a list of actions: staff members should
- stop the behavior if individual intervention is safe- or otherwise call for help ,
- protect the target,
- remind bystanders to take action next time,
- and apply consequences when appropriate.
The question, though, also raises more significant issues:
- How do we recognize bullying actions?
- How do we reach consistency between staff members?
- How do we choose and administer effective consequences?
- How do we help youth who bully find other ways to act?
I am writing to summarize what I have learned about this subject in the past eight years of implementing bullying prevention programs at my own school and with staff at other schools. I will focus in this essay on the key question: How can we structure our in-the moment interventions so learning and change are most likely?
Students may interpret adults’ reactions to their negative behavior in many ways:
- They may react angrily, believing that they are being punished because we don’t like them. Some young people may even believe that they have not done the behavior we witnessed.
- They may see our interventions as fair and as an expression of our caring about them.
These different interpretations of adult disciplinary interventions will lead to quite different responses by students. Students who see discipline as unjust or based on adults’ feelings toward them are likely to become more angry and rebellious. Students who see discipline as fair and based on caring connections are more likely to consider changing their own behavior. In addition, students may resolve to stop a negative behavior, or they may choose other ways to meet the needs or solve the problem that that behavior was directed toward. They may have wanted to be left alone; they may have wanted to impress their friends; they may have wanted to have fun; or they may have been angry about something unrelated to the situation. In any case, when they find a more positive way to solve that problem or meet that need, students are more likely to make ongoing change.
Stopping a behavior just to stay out of trouble is likely to be temporary. Our actions have the potential to influence students’ thinking. If disciplinary interventions for peerto- peer aggression vary widely depending on which adult is present and on which student shows the behavior, students learn that what you do counts less than who sees it or what your reputation is. If disciplinary interventions are based on adult expressions of anger or frustration, students are more likely to believe that they got in trouble because of the feelings of an adult rather than because of their own behavior. On the other hand, if school staff have made consistent efforts to build positive relationships with every student through greeting, initiating positive interactions, frequent use of honest, action-based praise, and other mentoring initiatives that attempt to build staff-student connections for each student, students are more likely to understand that disciplinary interventions are based on our caring for them. We also help students to learn this lesson when we maintain positive emotional tone during the discipline intervention. When discipline interventions are consistent no matter which staff member is involved, and when they are consistent no matter which student displays a certain behavior, students are more likely to view them as fair, and thus to learn from them. When we focus our later discussions with students who have broken rules on helping them discover what was wrong with their behavior, what goals their actions were directed toward, and how else they could have reached that goal, students are more likely to find other paths to get their needs met without hurting others.
Olweus, Limber, and Mihalic summarize this approach to intervention well when they state: “The [bullying prevention] program strives to develop a school (and ideally a home) environment characterized by:
- warmth, positive interest, and involvement by adults;
- firm limits to unacceptable behavior;
- non-hostile, nonphysical negative consequences consistently applied in cases of ...unacceptable behaviors; and
- where adults act as authorities and positive role models.” (Olweus,Limber, Mihalic 1999)
When I discussed this focus with Dr. Olweus, he told me he had been influenced by the work of Diane Baumrind, the American psychologist who identified two dimensions of effective parenting: consistent discipline and supervision, and warmth and connectedness. Baumrind’s research identified four parenting styles, as shown in the chart below:
Diana Baumrind's Research: Parenting Style
High Structure, low warmth and involvement
High structure, high warmth and involvement
Low Structure, Low warmth and involvement
Low structure, High warmth and involvement
L Warmth and Connectedness H
In long-term follow-up research with children who had been raised in these four types of families, Baumrind (and others who have replicated her work), found these predictable outcomes:
Diana Baumrind's Research: Outcomes
Follows rules. Anxious in interpersonal relationships.
Able to relate, overcome frustrations, and persist.
High risk for aggression and other difficulties
High self-esteem. Difficulty with responsibilities and frustration.
L Warmth and Connectedness H
Olweus’s research, in which working to boost warmth, connectedness, and disciplinary consistency schools has led to marked declines in rates of bullying, makes clear the importance of these two principles: connectedness and consistency. Based on my experience implementing bullying prevention over the past ten years, I am convinced that these two principles hold the key to our work. Our goal, then, should be to implement disciplinary approaches that build student perceptions that staff are using discipline to help them learn and grow, and that students see our disciplinary interventions as fair. Both these goals connect with the original meaning of the word “discipline” which derives from the same linguistic roots as the word “disciple.” Effective discipline teaches. As the principal of the school where work, Nancy Reynolds, often states: “Our rules and consequences here are all about learning. We care less about what you have done than about what you will do in the future.”
How, then, can we design and implement discipline interventions that are based on caring and consistency? Let’s begin with a specific event. Just before my school’s April vacation, we held a “beach day” in the gymnasium. There was still snow on the ground in Maine, where I live, and the kids hadn’t gone out for a few days. Students ate their lunches on mats and beach towels, wore sunglasses, and danced to the music of the Beach Boys. As I was moving around the gym talking with students, one student ran across the gym and shoved another student. I had to figure out what to do. For the reasons described above, it was important to me to use an intervention that was consistent with other staff members’ actions and which either built my connection with the student who shoved or at least did not harm that relationship. I also wanted him not to shove again.
What adults do in a situation like this depends partly on what we call this action. Three common labels we might use to describe this act are conflict, horseplay, or bullying. These labels would lead us intervene in different ways. One well-respected definition of bullying we might use to make the distinction is Dorothea Ross’s:
Bullying is a form of social interaction—not necessarily long-standing—in which a more dominant individual (the bully) exhibits aggressive behavior that is intended to, and does, in fact, cause distress to a less dominant individual (the target). The aggressive behavior may take the form of a direct physical and/or verbal attack or may be indirect. More than one bully and more than one target may participate in the interaction.
Dorothea Ross, Childhood Bullying and Teasing (ACA, 1996)
When we look at this definition, there are three elements that I have consistently found very difficult to be sure of:
- How am I to know which of these two students is more dominant socially?
- How am I to know what the shover intends? Many young people say convincingly that did not mean to cause distress- that they were “just playing.”
- How am I to know if the action does cause distress to the target? Some young people show great distress if a friend plays with someone else for one recess; others do not let us know they are distressed even if something very serious is done to them. As I see it, school staff are being asked to make distinctions between many possible labels for behavior we see, even though these categories of behavior are not easily distinguished in real situations.
Some of the categories of behavior we could place this, or any negative peer action in, are shown on the following diagram:
[SEE DIAGRAM Fig 3]
All the circles but the center one are surrounded by dotted lines, because in my experience all these distinctions are based on adults’ assumptions and judgments, not on objective criteria. Thus placing an action, like that shove, in one category or another is difficult to do with any degree of certainty or fairness. In my experience, if we tell parents their child has bullied another child, we are likely to hear “She is not a bully,” or “I know he didn’t mean any harm.” If we mislabel bullying as a quarrel or as horseplay, we may sit the two children down together to talk- and thus risk solidifying the bullying youth’s power over the target- or tell the target to handle the situation him or her-self, and thus put the target at risk of being hurt again.
Instead of focusing on whether a specific action is bullying or not, I have found it more useful to look at negative peer to peer behaviors in a different way.
[See Diagram Fig 4]
Note that the large circle of negative actions toward peers includes an outer ring of behaviors that are negative yet acceptable at school. An example may help to clarify this concept. When I was sixteen years old, my girlfriend broke up with me. She told me that she never wanted to go out with me again. This action had a marked negative effect on me. I stopped doing my schoolwork; I stopped sleeping well; I thought seriously about killing myself. Even though this action had a clear negative effect, was done by a more popular student, and was done to a less popular student, I cannot imagine a school in which a staff member would tell this young woman that she had to start going out with me again or risk having a detention. We see parallel actions in Elementary schools when a friend decides to stop being friends with another student. The student who is the target of this behavior may be distressed. Unless the other student goes on to do other cruel things to his or her former friend, though, educators have no business intervening through disciplinary action in this situation.
Within this outer circle of behavior which may have negative effects but are seen as acceptable, there are other actions which are both negative in impact and unacceptable at school. An example might be spreading rumors about a classmate, calling names or making threats focused on sexual orientation, or punching another student. In addition, some of these unacceptable behaviors are also illegal- they fall within the local definition of harassment, criminal threatening, assault, or other criminal acts.
Distinguishing between behaviors in this way makes fair, consistent responses by staff more possible. We can make one more distinction, shown in the following diagram:
[SEE DIAGRAM Fig 5]
This diagram has one additional category- actions that are unacceptable but not severe. I myself would place interrupting other students in the classroom or laughing when another student makes a mistake in this category. Low level name calling or refusal to take turns might also fall in this category. Red- or severe- behaviors might include name calling about race, parental income, gender, body shape or sexual orientation, or hitting. When schools reach consensus about which specific behaviors fall in each of these categories, they are much more able to work toward consistent and fair staff responses.
Having reached this consensus does not mean that we post these three behavior lists as rules for students. We do not want to encourage the ‘green’ actions. It means that we as staff members know what to do when we become aware of different actions.
For GREEN behaviors- that is, actions that could cause distress but are not against school rules, we might:
Ignore the behavior unless we are asked to help.
Give advice to the target if we are asked for it. That advice might include:
- “Try spending time with someone else.”
- “Use relaxation and other mindfulness techniques to help yourself feel better”
- “Don’t try to change the other person.”
Give emotional support, remembering times we have lost relationships or been the targets of rude behavior.
Use mediation strategies if both students have done something wrong or if both want to repair a relationship.
For YELLOW behaviors- that is, actions that are unacceptable but not severe, we might: Use Saufler’s ten-second intervention: “That behavior is not allowed here because...” Discuss why the behavior is not allowed: “Why do you think we don’t allow those words?” Use immediate micro-consequences: “Sit over there to help you remember not to say (or do) that again.”
Encourage students to reflect about their actions: “What did you do? What was wrong with that?” Signal the student that the action is unacceptable via a look, a signal, a short whispered conversation, or a brief talk after class is over. If YELLOW behaviors are repeated several times after we ask the student to stop, we could move on to more serious consequences or report the behaviors to the principal.
For RED behaviors- that is, actions the staff and students have determined are the most serious and most likely to harm physically or emotionally, I believe we are most effective with a predictable, rubricbased discipline system as described in my book Schools Where Everyone Belongs. In this approach, RED behaviors are consistently reported to the principal, who follows a predetermined set of escalating consequences designed to help students change their behavior. The school also supports students who use RED behaviors through a structured reflection process designed to help them take responsibility for their actions, develop empathy, and plan other ways to meet their needs without hurting others.
A middle school principal and teacher put the questions to be answered this way:
[SEE DIAGRAM Fig 6]
When we look at behavior this way, our challenge is to build a school consensus about which actions fall in each category. When we have created this consensus, staff interventions become much simpler and more consistent.
I will propose two ways to build such a consensus. Both begin with listing the negative peer to peer actions which staff and students witness. We then edit this list to remove our assumptions about intentions and impact of the behaviors, and might find ourselves with a list like this one:
- Punching, kicking, and pushing down
- Running into others roughly
- Slapping, grabbing, and pushing
- Shoving and shouldering
- Touching or grabbing private parts of others’ bodies
- Starting or spreading rumors (truthful or false statements that are likely to embarrass)
- Low-level namecalling (“You’re mean”; “You’re no good at kickball” “Doofus”)
- Namecalling related to academic ability, body shape, or appearance
- Namecalling related to family income or family characteristics
- Namecalling related to gender, sexual orientation, race, or ethnic background Other sexual comments
- Use of words relating to sexual orientation or race or gender as general derogatory comments not aimed at person (“That test was so gay” “ The Red Sox played like girls this season” etc…)
- Cutting in line
- Taking possessions
- Saying: “I don’t want to play with you today”
- Breaking up with a friend
- Exclusion: Telling other people not to play with someone
- Mimicking, making faces, following without threats
We could work toward consensus about how we will react to each of these actions in one of two ways. First we should decide which of the listed behaviors have to be on the RED list because of law, district policy, or other mandates. Then we can post a list of the remaining actions in the teacher’s room on large pieces of paper and provide enough red, yellow, and green stickers that each staff member can put one sticker of one color next to each action. Over two weeks a picture will emerge of how seriously the staff finds each action. A consensus about how staff should act when faced with each behavior will emerge for most of the items on the list. Some items will have significant numbers of two or even three different-colored stickers next to them. For these behaviors, we could split a group of actions into two different behaviors. For example, we might have staff rate “name calling based on academic ability” separately from “name calling based on body shape.” We might, instead, have staff rate disputed items separately by grade level or range of grade levels. K-1 teachers might prefer to use teaching rather than disciplinary interventions for younger students who do one of these things, where upper-grade teachers might see the behavior as more unusual or more serious in the older grades. A more detailed description of this sticker activity will be found at the end of this essay.
I have seen schools use this sticker process for building consensus successfully. I have hoped, though, for a way to include student and community input at an early stage of this process. We can, of course, show student focus groups the result of staff brainstorming or even involve them in rating the behavior themselves, but this sticker process is awkward for hundreds of students.
When staff members are involved in developing discipline expectations and interventions, they are more likely to follow through in action when they are aware of unacceptable behaviors. When students have been involved, they are more likely to see the resulting discipline system as a fair one and to learn from consequences.
Reprinted with the permission of Stan Davis. © 2002-2008 Stan Davis. All rights reserved.