Coping with a Bully in School
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
In responding to the bully, keep in mind that your first and foremost goal is to protect the victim by stopping the bullying behavior. You may conclude that you need to apply disciplinary measures to the student who did the bullying in an effort to deter future incidents. These consequences are most effective when they are certain, predictable and escalating.
In deciding upon disciplinary consequences in school, consider the nature of the bullying, the age of the student and his history of misbehavior. They might include:
- a conference with the principal
- parent contact
- restitution, namely return of items taken from the victim
- exclusion from the place or activity where the bullying occurred
- an assignment related to bullying (for example, writing an essay about what it might feel like to be bullied)
- withdrawal of school privileges
- community service
- behavior modification plan
A commonly used form of discipline is to temporarily exclude the student from the place or activity where the bullying took place. For example, if his bullying occurred during recess, he might be barred from the playground for a defined period. If he has been repeatedly taunting students on the school bus, he might lose the privilege of riding the bus for a set number of days. If he has been shoving and badgering other students in the hallway, he might be escorted from class to class by a school aide. If he has been ridiculing students next to him in class, his desk might be moved next to the teacher’s desk.
Some contend that the best way to deal with a bully is to give him a dose of his own medicine. But you don’t want to bully the bully by using harsh disciplinary measures. Acting in a way that humiliates or embarrasses the student may only fuel his anger and give rise to a desire for reprisal. Any disciplinary measures should be applied in firm but not a hostile manner.
Rather than thinking of discipline as a punishment, think of it as a teaching opportunity. Indeed, the word discipline is derived from the Latin word “disciplina,” meaning instruction. In an effort to teach the bully how to behave appropriately, you need to convey the following to the student when disciplining him:
- Describe the student’s behavior and label it as bullying.
- State the school rule that prohibits bullying.
- Indicate that he violated this rule and that he must stop this behavior immediately.
- Inform the student of the disciplinary consequences of his bullying behavior.
Bullies often have little sympathy for their victims. One disciplinary measure that may help them understand the feelings of their victims is to assign them tasks that involve reaching out to others. Through specific community service activities, they may experience the rewards of helping others, which may prompt changes in the way they think about and relate to their peers. Examples of these tasks include:
- helping students with homework in an after-school program
- organizing a game for children in a lower grade during recess
- recording acts of kindness by students to help determine who receives school courtesy awards
- helping the principal monitor younger students in the lunchroom
- assisting a disabled student with an activity
- making a “No bullying” poster for display in the hallway
It is recommended that you contact the bully’s parents with every bullying incident. The purpose is to inform them of what happened as well as encourage them to work with you to resolve the problem. In discussing the issue with them, be careful not to suggest that they are at fault or the cause of the problem even though you may have concerns about the messages they are giving their child. After discussing your course of action with them and hopefully eliciting their support, bring the student in and inform him of the plan. Make sure the student sees that you and the parents are in agreement. Try to get the parents to endorse the plan in their child’s presence.
The bully needs to be disciplined to be sure but he also needs guidance, especially if this is a long-standing pattern. This means helping him understand why his behavior is unacceptable and find alternative behaviors. Providing the bully with guidance and counseling is especially important because bullies are prone to serious problems in the future, including an increased risk for dropping out of school, job-related problems, relationship difficulties and criminal activity.
Bullying behavior is a learned behavior, meaning that it can also be unlearned. Keep in mind that bullies bully for a reason, whether to gain status with their peers, to exert power over them, to punish another child, or to vent frustration with problems at home or in school. Your goal here is to identify the emotional needs that underlie the bullying and then provide the student with appropriate support such as helping him learn how to obtain attention or status from peers in more appropriate ways.
In an effort to help the bully, a guidance counselor or school psychologist might meet with the student in a counseling setting. He or she might try to connect with the bully by having a non-threatening discussion, listening attentively without condoning his behavior, and trying to find out what triggered his actions.
The counselor may also want to talk with the bully about his perceptions of the situation. Given that bullies are highly prone to misperceiving hostility where none is present, it is important to examine whether he has misperceived social cues and thus needs help with reading social situations correctly. This may involve considering what the bully thought the victim said or did, what he thought the victim was feeling, what were some other explanations for the victim’s actions or comments, and finally some alternative ways the bully might have responded. In this way the bully can learn to rethink and reinterpret social situations. The counselor may also talk with the student about how his behavior will cause classmates to avoid him out of fear. If school counseling services are not available, the school might recommend that the parents obtain mental health services for their child.
Role playing can be a useful strategy in working with the student, with the bully being asked to take on the roles of both bully and victim so that he can experience how it feels to be bullied and consider alternative responses to being aggressive.
Once you have provided the appropriate discipline and counseling support to the student, you need to monitor his behavior closely. If he continues to bully other students despite concerted efforts by school personnel to change his behavior and you conclude he represents a safety concern for students, consideration should be given to removing him from his class or even the school. The victim’s program should not be changed to avoid coming into contact with the bully.