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Bully-Proofing Your Classroom

Bully-Proofing Your Classroom

By Dr. Kenneth Shore

The most effective way to deal with bullying is to prevent it from happening in the first place. The following are some specific teaching strategies that will help you accomplish this.

Foster a climate of cooperation and caring. You can help to prevent bullying by the tone you set in your classroom. More specifically, you can send an anti-bullying message by reinforcing acts of kindness and communicating values of tolerance, respect and responsibility. The most effective way to foster a caring attitude in your classroom is to model this behavior yourself by relating in a warm, sympathetic way with your students without talking down to them. As the saying goes, example is the best teacher.

Here are some specific strategies for promoting a cooperative and caring climate in your classroom:

  • Avoid sarcasm or put-downs of any kind. If you are taking a child to task for misbehaving, you can talk to him in a firm manner and get your point across without being rude or impolite.
  • Incorporate into your classroom lessons activities that promote understanding of students who are different.
  • Consider using cooperative learning projects in which students must work together to attain success.
  • Give out courtesy awards to younger students for such actions as helping a classmate with an assignment, comforting someone who is upset, inviting a new student to join in a game, or coming to the defense of a child who is being bullied.
  • Establish a box that students can place notes in complimenting their classmates for something they said or did. At the end of the week read these notes to the class.
  • Name a “student of the week” and then develop a poster about him that includes positive comments from classmates.
  • Have a class meeting periodically in which students gather in a circle and compliment or express appreciation to a classmate. Only allow positive comments and make sure that all students are acknowledged at least every other meeting. You may need to get the ball rolling by being the first to talk about an act of kindness by a student.
  • Have a courtesy display on the bulletin board. When you observe an act of kindness by one of your students, describe the act with the student’s name on a 3 x 5 card or a heart-shaped piece of paper and tack it to the display. Encourage students to tell you about actions of classmates for posting on the display, or have them write out the cards and submit them to you. This may give rise to a chain reaction of compliments that has a contagious effect on your class.

Catch the bullying student being kind. Make a special effort to find something positive to say about students who are prone to unkind behavior, even if it is a small gesture. As an example, you might praise a student if you see him acting in a caring or helpful manner to a classmate. Describe the specific behavior that you observed as you praise him. Do this publicly (unless you think it would embarrass him) to encourage other children to engage in similar acts of kindness. As an example, you might say to a student: “Seth, it was so nice of you to sit with Julio after he hurt himself on the playground. That was a very caring thing to do.”

Hold a classroom meeting early in the year to discuss bullying. This is an activity that all teachers can do with their classes, even with students as young as five or six. It may be difficult to find time to hold these meetings, especially at the middle-school level, but it is likely to be time well spent. Just discussing the problem of bullying with your class will raise their awareness of the issue and help to decrease bullying incidents. You may want to revisit the issue of bullying at periodic class meetings throughout the year.

You might begin the meeting by showing your class a video or having them read a story about bullying. Then follow this up with a class discussion. Consider seating your students in a circle so that everyone can see each other. While you want to encourage discussion, begin by making some key points, including the following:

  • Describe what you mean by bullying, perhaps offering examples.
  • Make it clear that bullying behavior of any kind is unacceptable and not permitted in school while stating an underlying value, namely, that all children are to be treated with respect.
  • When you describe to your students your classroom rules, make sure that “No bullying” is among them. (You might post these rules next to the clock so your students see them often.)
  • Inform your students what they should do if they are bullied or they see a classmate being bullied.
  • Tell your students that you will take reports of bullying seriously and there will be consequences for students who engage in this behavior.

After you have made these points, engage your students in an age-appropriate discussion to help them understand how bullying can be hurtful. Some possible topics:

  • You might ask them to talk about times they have been bullied (without mentioning names) and to describe how it felt. In this way you are helping to promote empathy, an important element in preventing bullying.
  • Consider volunteering your own school experiences when you or a classmate was bullied.
  • Ask the class why they think students bully. The reasons they offer may deter some students from acting in this way.
  • Discuss the importance of supporting classmates who are targets of bullying while stressing the importance of informing an adult.
  • At the end of the discussion, tell your students that you are available to talk with them privately about any specific concerns they have. Tell them the best time to do this.

If you are not comfortable holding a classroom meeting, you may want to invite a guidance counselor or school psychologist to conduct the meeting with you. You may also want to attend a staff development workshop on this topic.

Role-play social situations with your students. Consider having students assume the roles of bully, victim and bystander and give them common social situations where bullying might occur and have them act them out. The following are some situations that you might have students role play:

  • a student calls you a name
  • a student cuts in front of you in line
  • a student takes the ball away from you on the playground
  • a classmate doesn’t let you join in a game during recess

After the role play, have your students talk about how they felt and what they might have said or done differently. In this way, students can have a chance to try out their own responses and hear what their classmates might say and do. Give them feedback by having them consider whether their response is likely to get their point across without angering or provoking the other student. If you find that younger students are unable to role play these situations, you might act them out using puppets and then engage them in a discussion.

Closely monitor students who are at high risk for being bullied. Children are more prone to be bullied if they are withdrawn from their classmates, stand out in some way (for example, they are short, overweight or have an accent), attend special education programs, speak English as a second language, or are new to the school.

Students who are isolated from their classmates are particularly vulnerable to being bullied. You can lessen their chance of being a victim by helping them become more connected to and involved with their peers. As examples, you might integrate them into activities (especially on the playground), pair them with students who are likely to be accepting, and make sure they sit with other children during lunch.

Inform other school staff about potential bullying situations. If you become aware of a bullying incident in your classroom, make sure to inform other personnel, including special subject teachers and paraprofessionals, that come into contact with the students so they can monitor their behavior.

Present classroom lessons that have a bullying theme. You have a range of opportunities to integrate bullying into your academic lessons. Here are some examples:

  • Read a book to your students about a child who is bullied (or if old enough have them read it aloud) and then lead your students in a discussion of how a victim of bullying might feel, why bullies might behave that way, how the victim might respond to the bully, and how other children might help the victim. Books about bullying can be comforting to students who have been victims and can spark ideas how they might handle a difficult social situation in the future.
  • After talking with your class about what bullying is and is not, present some scenarios to your students and ask them whether or not they meet the definition of bullying.
  • Have your upper elementary or middle school class design a survey about bullying and then have your students complete it anonymously. Have them tally the results and present them in the form of bar graphs, using percentages. In addition to raising their awareness about bullying, this will help them practice and apply math skills in a meaningful way.
  • Draw a large picture of a child on the blackboard. Then ask your students to describe the characteristics of a bully as you write them on the picture. This exercise will help to communicate what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior and also convey what children think of bullies in the hope that it will discourage potential bullies.

Closely supervise areas where bullying is likely. Bullying often takes place in areas of the school that have minimal supervision such as the playground, the lunchroom, the bathroom, and even the back of the classroom. While some of these areas are outside of your control, you can help prevent bullying by being especially vigilant and visible during less structured activities. As an example, if you are a middle-school teacher, you may be able to deter bullying in the hallway by standing in your classroom doorway as students are changing classes. Similarly you need to scan your classroom regularly during unstructured activities to detect possible peer problems.

Encourage bystanders to bullying to take action. While you may not always observe bullying incidents, the likelihood is that some of your students will. These witnesses can thus play a valuable role in reducing bullying behavior. They can do this by telling the bully to stop what he is doing, by distracting the bully by getting him to focus on something else, by reaching out to the victim in friendship or support, and most importantly by informing a school staff member. Tell them that doing nothing is saying to the bully that it is okay to hurt other students. Also make the point that if they laugh at the bully’s behavior or go along with his actions, they are contributing to the bullying.

Because students may be reluctant to inform an adult for fear they will be seen as a tattletale, it is important to stress to them that telling an adult about bullying is vastly different from tattling on a student. You might make the point that telling is what you do to get someone out of trouble and tattling is what you do to get someone in trouble. Make sure they know that if they do come to you with a report of bullying that you will keep their name anonymous. One way of doing this is to have a box in your classroom where students can deposit notes about any concerns they have. It is better if the box is not restricted to issues of bullying so that students submitting bullying concerns cannot be identified.

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