Recently, I documented that pain that I feel at being unable to help my son when kids are mean. It’s so hard to watch our children be hurt while we feel powerless to help them. As our school year has continued, my son’s feelings have intensified, culminating with him expressing the ideation that death means no one can tease him anymore.
Those kinds of intense feelings sent me into Mommy Fix-It Mode. Fixing bullying is difficult. In these kinds of situations, we feel powerless as parents because we recognize we cannot control the behaviors of others. However, we can work to create an open culture within our schools.
I realize that I can’t protect my son from all sorts of mean hurtful things. In fact, despite the intensity of his feelings, I wouldn’t want him to go through life without knowing how it feels for people to be cruel. Cruelty is an unfortunate part of life, but it also leads to the creation of empathy. We cannot empathize with what we have not felt ourselves. However, what we can do is try to change the environment.
A school’s environment is informed by its population and its administration who create its policies and procedures. As parents, we may not always be the ones who wield administrative power. We may be the outsiders ourselves, with few people listening to our opinions. Changing a culture is more than changing one or two individuals. It is focusing meaningfully on the way ideas are promoted to ensure that the way they are enacted leads to change in both behavior and understanding.
Therefore, if you are displeased with your school’s stance on bullying, here are five things you can look at to see how the school’s culture is related to your child’s learning environment.
1) Look at your school’s policy and definitions and code of conduct
The definition of bullying on the federal government’s website, www.stopbullying.gov, is “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.”
This definition of bullying incorporates the importance of power structure (either age or socio-normative) in the role of bullying. It also does not rely on an intent by the bully but discusses the perception of the person being bullied. Perception is the biggest concern in terms of bullying. When we look at kids who have been bullied, most likely the children teasing or harassing do not intend to scare the child but feel they are doing things in a good natured or natural way. Bullies will rarely see themselves as bullies. They will see themselves as good natured kids who are just engaging in some “good old fashioned teasing” and “aw come on, I didn’t mean nothin’ by it.” Those perceptions are what allow bullying to continue.
To change a climate, we need to change the definition and the focus. When we incorporate intent of the person acting out and ignore the importance of the victim’s perception, we further the entrench the power structure in which the bully operates.
2) Look at your school’s mission statement
A school’s mission statement sets the tone for the school’s culture. Does your school’s mission statement incorporate language regarding a “safe environment” that is “free from bullying and harassment”?
Again, using www.stopbullying.gov as a model, the sample mission statement language indicates clearly the link between bullying and ability to learn. In a school that promotes a safe environment for all learners of all types and all backgrounds and all representations, clearly defining the importance of anti-bullying policies in the school’s mission statement can set the tone for its environment.
3) Look at your school’s Student Bill of Rights
Does your school have one of these? In fact, most probably don’t. Students need to know their rights. The issue is not whether students have “rights” as we think in terms of the Constitution (that is a WHOLE legal can of worms all up in there). Students need to have a sense that they are aware that they deserve to be treated with respect. Bullying takes place in the darker corners of education, in the small spaces between classes or in unregulated times. A school sets this tone of respect when it formally acknowledges through continued repetition to the children that it respects kids’ feelings and their self-worth.
4) Look at your school’s reporting structure
Most schools will probably say something about reporting what you’ve seen, and it can be done anonymously. However, the problem is that the procedure and the day-to-day process may not clearly jive. What is the manner through which kids can report? How are instances of these reports handled? If a kid reports something anonymously because s/he doesn’t want to be bullied for reporting being bullied, how can these reports be tracked and how are consequences or conversations handled? Knowing the manner through which anonymous reports are then followed up on gives kids a sense that the reporting matters. Transparency, in educational procedures as well as government, makes people feel acknowledged and heard.
5) Look at the training for kids and faculty
Continued education in bullying, its effects, and how to stop it should be part of every school curriculum. Awareness comes in different forms. On an overarching level, your school should be having discussions of bullying and how to be kind during school assemblies. Returning back to advice from www.stopbullying.gov, the role of bystander awareness is important. Kids should be taught not to give attention to bullies or harassing behavior. While it may not seem important when someone laughs at a joke, that laughter encourages continued teasing. Bystander awareness is just as important as behavior training for bullies and kids who are bullied. See if your school is modeling anti-bullying behaviors by recognizing students who exhibit these behaviors.
In the classroom, teachers should be helping kids role play these kinds of behaviors and follow through on recognizing kids who show good behaviors. For example, research shows that when students practice role playing skills to learn how to say “Stop” to bullies, bullying decreases in schools. One report models a three-step process. Teach children to say STOP when someone is bothering them. In addition to saying stop, children should practice holding their hand out in a “stop” motion.. If the behavior doesn’t stop, they should find an adult. The adult should make sure that the children followed the appropriate words and hand gesture protocol, then intervene to stop the harassing behavior. The research indicated that by having groups of three children (one for each role) practice all three of these behaviors (bully, child being bullied, and adult) in a round robin fashion, bullying decreased in a school.
As parents, we want to stop all pain our kids feel. Unfortunately, we all know that is impossible. What we can do, however, is ensure that the adults who weekly spend forty hours or more with our children create a culture and environment that is safe for all kids, not just the normative ones.
Additional Source Material
Horner. “Bully Prevention with PBIS.” Making Connections Conference, Vancouver, BC. Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. October 29, 2015.