By Becky Sipos
October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and so I wanted to write my column to fit in with that theme. But I am no bullying expert. I’ve learned a lot about bullying since I’ve been working at Character.org, but for real expertise, you should turn to our own board member expert Michele Borba, or our Education Advisory Council expert, Jonathan Cohen of the National School Climate Center, or students themselves http://www.tolerance.org/blog/expert-opinions-students-speak-about-bullying
In fact, so much has been written about bullying that I fear that the topic doesn’t generate the concern it once did. And all 50 states have now enacted anti-bullying laws, so every school has mandates to do something on bullying. But what works best?
What expertise I can share comes mostly from the classroom and partly from being a grandmother to a child with autism. I think many teachers can relate to my experiences. I taught mostly at the high school level where bullying can be insidious. You never quite see it; sometimes you just become aware of the awkward and hurt feelings among students.
That is one of the common attributes of bullying; it takes place away from authority figures or in a hidden area of the school. But if you think it has happened in your classroom, and you try to call a student on it, the student often says, “We were just joshing each other” or “It was just a joke.” And, of course, the recipient of the bullying concurs, so you don’t know what to do. Unfortunately, many teachers just go on as if they didn’t notice. In fact, DoSomething.org reports that "1 in 4 teachers see nothing wrong with bullying and will only intervene 4% of the time."
But it is important to do something. You should never assume that it was just harmless teasing. More than half the time, bullying stops within 10 seconds of a bystander stepping in to help. If you suspect bullying, please act. And encourage your students to act as well. We can teach students the steps to take if they are being bullied or if they see bullying. They need to learn how to help themselves, but they also need to know that if they bring a problem to adults that things will get better. We also need to teach empathy.
But honestly, early in my teaching career, I didn’t know what to do. It’s not surprising. Before 1999, no states had laws against bullying. It wasn’t until the shootings at Columbine raised the public’s awareness of how harmful bullying could be that strategies to stop bullying were promoted.. I learned a lot about the history of bullying and some great solutions from reading Emily Bazelon’s book Sticks and Stones. Now teachers can turn to many online resources such as 10 Steps to Stop and Prevent Bullying.
What I did focus on was trying to establish a caring classroom. When you set a tone of respect in the classroom, and really work on helping all students get to know and appreciate each other, the chances for bullying are greatly reduced. Taking time for team-building and getting-to-know-each-other activities is really important. Bullying, when it occurs, hurts not just the victim, but the bystanders and the bully, too.
As I mentioned earlier, I am a grandmother to a special needs child. And I have learned that children with disabilities are at a higher risk of being bullied than other children. This always breaks my heart, and I have difficulty understanding the lack of empathy. But there are several reasons for this likelihood of being bullied. First, many with special needs have challenges in navigating social situations.Second, they often don’t have many friends, and it is much easier for someone who who bullies to pick on students who are alone or don’t have a friend looking out for them.
One solution I like is a peer advocacy program where classmates receive training about particular disabilities and learn how to prevent bullying and speak out on another student’s behalf. Then if they see bullying, they can intervene or report it to an adult.You can download Pacer’s Peer Advocacy Guide to learn more about this approach.
Building a community of acceptance for special needs children can be challenging. I saw the power of acceptance when I was a site visitor at Northview High School (MO), a National School of Character. With 100% of its population needing special education services, you might think that there would be no concerns about bullying and its effects, but the students arrive at the school often with low self esteem. And building a community of acceptance among students with physical, emotional and/or intellectual disabilities is still needed to prevent bullying. The challenges are obvious the minute you walk in the door of Northview. But the warm, welcoming environment immediately puts visitors at ease.
What impressed me most is how students feel good about themselves. Before the school focused on its character education program, students were reluctant to tell others they went to Northview. Some students even asked to be dropped off at the school down the street; then they walked back to Northview hoping no one would notice. Now these students are proud of being there. Parents have commented on the change in attitudes, saying, "It feels like a regular high school. The school has a way of finding the strengths in each student.” Creating such an accepting, welcoming environment took intentional dedication from the staff. As the principal says, "We make it look easier than it really is."
That power of acceptance and focusing on the strengths of every student particularly those with special needs can be accomplished at any school, not just a 100% special needs school. I still recall the touching keynote from the 2011 Forum in San Francisco when student Soeren Paulumbo told the story of two similar high schools with very different approaches to their special needs students. He emphasized how the power of inclusion benefits the character of all students. To prevent bullying of special needs students, we have to foster positive, fun and meaningful interactions among all students, both those with and without disabilities.
Protecting all children from being bullied is an important part of every educator’s mission. Bully prevention needs to be a focus of more than just one month a year, but maybe this emphasis in October keeps our minds on the issue because the consequences of bullying can be long-lasting, sometimes even leading to suicide. Students who are targets of bullying are more likely to experience lower academic achievement, higher truancy rates, feelings of alienation, poor peer relationships, loneliness, and depression. Let’s all commit to caring classrooms, encouraging empathy, and stopping bullying.