Dealing with Bullying Incidents
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
No matter how diligent teachers are in trying to prevent bullying, incidents are likely to happen. If they do, you can take various steps to deal with these incidents to avoid their spinning out of control. Some of these strategies are discussed below: Know your school’s bullying policies. In deciding how to respond to an incident, make sure to review your school’s policies and procedures for dealing with bullying. They may be contained in the school’s code of conduct or in a separate document. If you have trouble finding them, check with the principal.
Take reports of bullying seriously. Follow up on all reports of bullying, even those that appear minor. Bear in mind that an incident may appear small to you but may loom large to the student. Make sure not to dismiss the incident with a “boys will be boys” attitude or tell the victim of bullying that he must fight his own battles. Assess the student’s degree of distress and factor in your knowledge of his reactions in determining how to respond. Be especially attentive to students who come to you who are shy.
Act quickly. If you learn that a student is being emotionally or physically harassed, take immediate action to ensure his safety and security. The longer the abuse goes on, the greater the emotional impact on the student. Putting an immediate end to this behavior is important not only to protect the student but also to send a message to your other students that you will not tolerate this behavior and will do whatever is necessary to ensure your classroom is a safe haven.
Try to deal with the problem privately. Whether dealing with the bully or the victim, try to avoid a public airing of the issue. The victim may feel humiliated by having the bullying discussed in front of his peers while the bully may feel the need to escalate his aggressive behavior if he is challenged by the teacher in front of his classmates so that he does not “lose face.” This may give rise to a public power struggle that can easily spiral out of control.
Inform the principal. This is particularly important if the incident is serious or ongoing. He or she will likely want to contact the parents of both the bully and the victim and may also want to take some disciplinary action with the bully. The principal may also want to inform other school staff such as the guidance counselor and paraprofessionals involved with the students.
Support the victim. Ask the student who was bullied what happened and then listen sympathetically to his response, making sure to convey that you take his concern seriously and understand his distress. Reassure him that he did the right thing by talking with you and that he is not to blame for the bullying. Emphasize that the bully was the one who behaved inappropriately. Let him know that you may need to inform other staff of the bullying but that the school will do its best to ensure the bullying does not happen again. Encourage the child to tell you of future bullying incidents and make sure to respond assertively if he does. If it appears that the child was being bullied in part because he is isolated from peers, help him connect with and befriend classmates.
Help the victim develop coping skills. If time allows, you may want to help the student develop effective ways of responding to the bully. In particular, you may want to teach him how to assert himself with the bully without being aggressive. The goal here is to help the student project a greater air of confidence without dissolving in tears but also without incurring the wrath of the bully. Towards this end, consider role-playing with him, suggesting what he might say or do to deflect the taunting. Often the best response of a student who is being taunted is to give a brief but direct “I-message” such as “I don’t like what you’re saying and I want you to stop” and then walk away. If he can respond this way, he is less likely to be targeted in the future. While the victim may be able to defuse the bullying with these strategies, it is critical that he understand that he is not responsible for resolving the bullying problem and that he should not hesitate to seek help from an adult if these strategies do not work.
Try to connect with the bully. You will likely want to discipline bullies in some way. But just as the bully needs discipline, he also needs support and guidance. You may find that a sympathetic, understanding approach may elicit kinder, gentler behavior from the student. Try taking the bully aside and talking with him in a non-threatening manner. Listen attentively without condoning his behaviors. And as you do, try to find out what motivated his behavior. It may be that he wrongly perceived hostility from the other student. Or that he was trying to gain status with his peers. Once you can identify what was behind his bullying, try to provide appropriate guidance and emotional support such as offering other explanations for the victim’s behavior or helping the bully learn how to obtain attention from peers in more appropriate ways. Ask him how else he might have responded while offering some suggestions of your own.
Monitor the situation. A student who has engaged in bullying is likely to do it again. Similarly a student who has been bullied is at risk for being victimized by other students. As a result, it is important for you to pay close attention to students who have been bullied and those who have done the bullying, and you may want to ask other staff to do the same. Make sure to check in with the victim periodically to find out if he is experiencing any further bullying. Let both the bully and the victim know that you and other school staff will be monitoring the situation closely. Their awareness of your vigilance will help to discourage the bully from tormenting his classmates and provide some comfort to the victim.