IN OTHER WORDS
BY MARY YODER HOLSOPPLE, M.S.
Oct 8, 2012
Bullying Prevention Coordinator, Elkhart Community Schools
You can’t imagine how important reading can be when it comes to bullying. Well, maybe you can.
But first, let me tell you a true story: In the fall of her eighth grade year, my daughter started hating school out of the blue. There were tears and sullenness, unexplained tummy- and headaches. We asked ourselves, “Is this just normal, early-teen, hormonal fluctuation-induced moodiness?”
Whatever the cause, we knew we needed to figure out what was going on. As luck would have it, parent/teacher conferences were coming up. So, my husband and I requested a meeting with her teachers.
At the meeting, we were handed her report card. All A’s. These teachers looked at us and asked why we were there. We looked at her report card and wondered the same thing.
We told them that our daughter, who had always liked school and looked forward to every day with joy and excitement, was suddenly seeking ways to get out of school, faking stomachaches, headaches, and a myriad of other maladies. We thought there must be an academic problem. But perhaps it was a social one?
Their responses were a bit of a surprise: Your daughter is one of those students everyone likes. She gets along well with everyone. There is no social problem.
Well—if there is no academic problem and no social problem, then why is our bright, beautiful, supposedly well-liked daughter, not wanting to go to school?
As I know now—and wished I had known then—teachers only see five percent of the bullying that occurs in their classroom, hallways, and other areas of school. There were
social problems. Her teachers just weren’t seeing them.
It took some time—several weeks, in fact—but slowly the story started to emerge. One of our daughter’s “friends”—the one that liked to host parties every weekend—was inviting everyone to her parties…except my daughter. Each Monday morning was filled with laughter and stories about the great time everyone had. My daughter began feeling very left out, disliked, and unlovable. Thus began the negative self messages that persist to this day.
I know—you are probably wondering why she didn’t just choose other friends. Well, that is easier said than done, particularly when you attend a small school, and when her “friend” was discouraging everyone
from befriending her.
How did this situation work itself out? It took a compassionate bystander having courage to speak back to the “friend.” When she was handing out invitations to yet another party he asked, “Are you inviting her to your party?”
“Of course not, why would I invite her?” the perpetual hostess asked.
His reply? “Then I’m not going to come either.”
It was as simple as that. The social exclusion—a particularly ferocious form of bullying—stopped. Did my daughter become friends with the party-throwing “friend” again? Not really—a basic trust had been broken. She moved on, found friends she could trust and feel at ease around, and finished high school and college intact.
Watching the devastation my daughter experienced, and feeling so helpless in the situation, reaffirmed my desire as an educator to find ways to create safe environments for our children to grow and learn to the maximum of their potential. I did research on violence prevention. I looked at best-practices in bullying prevention.
So, what do we know about these best practices? Turns out we know a lot! There has been quite a bit of research done that has clarified what works in prevention. It boils down to a few deceptively easy points.
The first is to focus on the social environment of the school. This involves changing the social norms of the building—where the norm is to not bully, each person must be treated with dignity and respect. This requires the efforts of everyone in the school—teachers, administrators, counselors, nurses, other non-teaching staff (such as bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers, and/or school librarians), parents, and students. Everyone needs to be trained in how to spot bullying and what to do when it is observed, suspected, or reported.
Another important piece is to assess bullying at the school. As the story of my daughter indicates, adults are not always proficient at estimating the amount of bullying that is occurring. A good assessment will provide information about the kinds of bullying as well as the location in the building. This is critical information in making decisions about where and how to focus the prevention effort in the building.
Obtaining staff and parent buy-in and support for bullying prevention is critical. Bullying prevention should not be the sole responsibility of any one individual at a school. To be most effective, bullying prevention efforts require buy-in from the majority of the staff and from parents. The bullying prevention efforts should still begin even if immediate buy-in from all isn’t achievable. The skeptics will come along when they see the positive results.
Bullying prevention efforts work best when coordinated by a representative group from the school. A coordinating team that includes an administrator, a teacher from each grade, a member of the non-teaching staff, a school counselor or other school-based mental health professional, and a parent work best. The team meets regularly to review findings from the school’s survey; plan specific bullying prevention activities; motivate staff, students, and parents; and ensure that the efforts continue over time.
To be effective, the training of all administrators, faculty and staff in prevention and intervention is important. This training helps staff members better understand the nature of bullying and its effects, how to intervene if they observe bullying, and how to work with others at the school to help prevent bullying.
Establishing and enforcing school rules and policies related to bullying is very important. Having clear rules about bullying increases student awareness of adult expectations that they not bully others and that they help students who are bullied. School rules and policies are posted and discussed with students and parents. Appropriate positive and negative consequences are important as well.
Using data from the assessment survey, increase adult supervision in “hot spots” for bullying. Bullying tends to thrive in locations where adults are not present or are not attentive. Schools can think creatively about ways to increase adult presence in locations that students identify as “hot spots.”
Another best practice is to intervene consistently and appropriately when bullying is observed. Observed or suspected bullying should never be ignored. School staff needs to be trained in effective strategies to intervene on the spot to stop bullying. Having follow-up meetings with students who are bullied and (separately) with students who bully are also important. Involve parents as much as possible.
If you have read this far, you are probably wondering what this blog has to do with reading. So here it is:
Devote class time to bullying prevention. Students benefit when teachers set aside a regular period of time (20-30 minutes a week) to discuss bullying and improving peer relations. These meetings help teachers develop relationships with their students that lead to more awareness of student concerns, allow time for discussions about bullying and the harms that it can cause, and provide tools for students to address this problem. Anti-bullying messages also can be incorporated throughout the school curriculum. These class meetings can be literacy-based as there are a myriad of books—from preschool picture books to high school novels—that deal with personal relationships and provide ample opportunity to talk about the importance of treating everyone with dignity and respect. This is an excellent opportunity to teach the difference between bullying and conflict.
A conflict is antagonism between two or more people with pretty much equal power and resources. Bullying is an intentionally aggressive act, often repeated, that is perpetrated on someone who does not have the power or resources to defend him or herself. Conflicts can be mediated. Conflict resolution skills can be used to find a way through a conflict. Bullying, however, is abuse. Conflict resolution and mediation are not appropriate responses to bullying as there is far too much danger of further victimization of the target.
These efforts need to continue over time. There is no “end date” for bullying prevention activities. Effective bullying prevention continues and is woven into the fabric of the school environment.
It is clear from research that we know what to do to chip away at the bullying scourge in our schools, communities, and—dare I say—our culture. The question is if we have the will to do it. For my daughter, and others like her, I sure hope so! Mary Yoder Holsopple, M.S., is the Bullying Prevention Coordinator for Elkhart Community Schools in Elkhart, Indiana. As a certified Olweus Bullying Prevention Program trainer, she has trained many schools and in the program, as well as teaching and mentoring new trainers. Mary consults regularly with organizations and schools about bullying prevention. She has extensive experience in school social work and international development, having lived in Africa for 10 years. She is the lead author of the book BUILDING PEACE: OVERCOMING VIOLENCE IN LOCAL COMMUNITIES.
© 2012 Mary Yoder Holsopple. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.