Creating Safe Schools

When it comes to bullying in schools there are 3 trains of thought:



1. Bullying doesn't happen that much.

2. Bullying happens but it's just part of life and people need to get over it.

3. Bullying is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.


Let's take a look at these...

1. Bullying doesn't happen that much. Bullying happens more than many people may appreciate. According to Barbara Kaiser and Judy Rasminsky in their book, Challenging Behavior in Elementary and Middle School:

The first large-scale study of bullying in the United States—a representative sample of more than 15,000 students in grades 6 to 10 in public and private schools throughout the country—revealed that almost 30 percent of children are involved in bullying either moderately ("sometimes") or frequently (once a week or more). Thirteen percent bully others, 10.6 percent are targeted, and 6.3 percent both bully others and are targeted themselves (Nansel et al., 2001).

And sadly with today's cyber speed, new forms and levels of bullying are being reached every day. Even taking away the potentially safe haven of home for children who are being bullied.

2. Bullying happens but it's just part of life and people need to get over it. Actually part of this is true. Bullying is a part of most children's lives, and learning how to resolve bullying issues is an important part of growing up. And while it can be beneficial to a child's self esteem to successfully deal with a perpetrator, the cost of being bullied when the child is not successful can be brutal. Finally, tolerant messages sent to children who bully earlier in life only encourage more sophisicated bullying and create abusive personalities later on.

But here's the catch, often the children bullying really just do not understand how brutal it is. Either because they lack empathy, have their own anger issues, or they figure the bullied child can take it - they often go too far.

In her book Don't Laugh At Me, Jodee Blanco, a once seriously bullied child, goes back and confronts many of her tormentors. What is striking about what she discovers is that many of them - classmates she perceived as being together and aware of what they were doing - were genuinely clueless about the full extent of the damage of their beahavior. They saw themselves as just trying to work out their own stuff and did not appreciate their actions. Sadly, when you are an easy target, it is often not one aggregious act, but many small acts of bullying and shunning that no one is taking responsibility for, that defines your day.

3. Bullying is a serious issue. Grown-ups who take bullying seriously are doing their jobs. But I can't tell you how many people I talk to who nod agreeingly while simultaneously doing nothing to create the necessary environment to stop it, or even worse, passively or actively encouraging it. The truth is that if you are part of a school community - principal, teachers, counselors, parents, staff, even administration and don't have a concrete and on-going plan to communicate safe-for-everyone messages in your homes/schools/communities - then your passiveness is contributing to the problem. LIP SERVICE is easy. DOing bullying prevention takes real commitment.

So what is your plan? Bullying needs to be addressed both from the inside out (those who bully and those who are bullied need skills to deal with situations better) and from the outside in - the environment needs to send the message that this place is safe for everyone. Here are 10 ways you can do that:
  1. Model appropriate uses of power (not be bullies ourselves and not allow children to have more power than the adult).
  2. Pay attention to what is happening in individual and group interactions - especially when they are not structured or being formally supervised. Too many stories surface after serious bullying that indicate that parents and professionals were not paying attention to the signs of bullying. (Support targetted children, giving them a voice and helping them with skills. Pay particular attention to the children who seem to have everything going for them. And make sure that the environment is not setting these kids up to have an entitlement complex which actually makes them think that they are allowed to treat others this way.)
  3. Model and teach empathy, respectful interaction, conflict resolution skills.
  4. Model and teach assertiveness and communication skills to help children who are more easily targeted to gain skills to recognize baiting and not take the bait.
  5. Empower bystanders to set the tone of respect and acceptance of others.
  6. Discuss our expectations often! - parents talk to your children, teachers/schools talk to your students - Did I mention often??
  7. Formally bring in lessons of respect and bullying prevention through professional development, assemblies, book readings, class assignments, Friendship Days,  etc - to set the tone and as a basis for future discussions and expectations. (Note: many bullying children do not easily see themselves in assembly-type descriptions of bullies. Further, hopefully private work will be needed*)
  8. When addressing bullying - best approach: Swift, Strong and (if possible) Non-Shaming responses are crucial!
  9. Kindly (watching the shame factor here!),
    yet firmly help the bullying child notice when they has crossed the line (Tip: The more privately, and optimistically you can give a child this message the better.) We all learn
    some life lessons by blowing it first. Having empathy while still holding them accountable can help them turn around.
  10. Kindly, yet firmly hold them accountable for their actions (See #3) - hopefully with optimism that you believe that they can be better than that in the future. [By the way - holding a child accountable is possibly the kindest thing you can do for them - because it helps them learn the real skills they will need in the world.]

If your school is serious about dealing with bullying - I have ideas and presentations. For child/grown-up offerings click here. For professional development click here.

* For an excellent intervention on working with youth who bully go to: