The ‘B’ Word
Bullying is tough for us. That sounds selfish, so let me explain. Bullying is not always easy to identify. Definitions capture it only partially. Bullying can be excused as a rite of passage, a necessary social experience, or ‘boys just being boys/girls just being girls.’ One teacher’s understanding of bullying might be different than another’s (such as my complete disagreement with the handling of bullying here), as is different from a student’s, as is different from a parent’s. Whose perspective defines the term? We often can’t label it as a collective until it’s already too late. Bullying can reflect behavior that societies deem acceptable by certain classes or ages. Bullying can blend in with elements of culture. Bullying can be excused by tradition, faith, and justified in response to feelings of disgust.
How do we address all of these possibilities, stop bullying, and help kids recognize bullying for themselves, when it can be so blurry even to us? How do we then move towards making appropriate relationship building an element of our instruction? How much of an impact can we have within the social dynamics of students without making things worse?
I think the first step is defining bullying for us as a school. A commonly accepted definition can be found on stopbullying.gov, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services resource mentioned at other times in this blog:
Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems.
In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include:
- An Imbalance of Power: Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others. Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people.
- Repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.
Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.
Types of Bullying
There are three types of bullying:
- Verbal bullying is saying or writing mean things. Verbal bullying includes:
- Inappropriate sexual comments
- Threatening to cause harm
- Social bullying, sometimes referred to as relational bullying, involves hurting someone’s reputation or relationships. Social bullying includes:
- Leaving someone out on purpose
- Telling other children not to be friends with someone
- Spreading rumors about someone
- Embarrassing someone in public
- Physical bullying involves hurting a person’s body or possessions. Physical bullying includes:
- Taking or breaking someone’s things
- Making mean or rude hand gestures
This definition will mean nothing if it remains existent only on a page. How does such a definition fit for our student population? Does it work for all grade levels? How can it be made to come alive for students? How can it be built into the framework of learning…and should it?
For IB schools, the learner profile sets a foundation for intellectual and affective growth. What makes these values become dynamic for students? How do we get the words off of the posters to become a part of ethical thinking?
We have to shake ourselves awake. It isn’t about blaming ourselves or the students when bullying escalates, but trying to become more aware of the factors that lead to it, and stopping them - using them as points for character education. We unintentionally allow negative behaviors to become a part of the culture of our classrooms. How often has one student made fun of another in a class, and we’ve laughed along? Is not addressing mockery the same as participating? Is a student making fun of another student even an example of bullying? When? When is it not? We have to be aware of the relationships of our students. That joke might be funny. The student serving as the punchline may laugh along with it. Outside of the classroom, that student may actually encourage the same joke. Alternatively, outside of the classroom that joke you heard may have just been the tip of the iceberg - the part that you’re allowed to see, and that student laughs along because any other response makes him vulnerable. The difference is huge, and we cannot passively know. On the other side of the coin, we cannot expect that because we know the kids, and because we are close to them, that we are experts on their relationships…in fact, proximity could make us even less able to see bullying, because we are able to identify with both victims and bullies (and unfortunately they don’t come with labels, and there’s no such thing as set roles - a victim today can be tomorrow’s bully…or even this afternoon’s).
We don’t just need to think about the behaviors students exhibit, the possibilities behind those behaviors, when to regulate, and when to teach character, but we also have to think about the examples that we set, unintentionally and intentionally. We impact students in ways we don’t expect. Of course, overtly negative behavior on display for students to see, like abusing the teacher-student power dynamic, is bad, and so is making fun of a student or saying negative things about another teacher (even subtly). What about passive negativity? If a teacher crinkles his nose whenever another specific teacher is around, do kids pick up on it? If one teacher is frequently condescending to another, do kids interpret her remarks as adult bullying? Do we use body language or different tones for certain students? If that tone is harsher or even pitying, are we sending a message to the rest of the class?
The enrollment of students from varied cultural backgrounds steadily increases among many national systems. International schools are already composites of world diversity, and many of the teachers of these schools are international themselves, making them incapable of fully identifying with the host country’s cultural context. How does this further complicate our fight against bullying? What is a teacher’s responsibility while working within cultures that encourage power imbalance between sexes or between classes (and I’d say portions of the U.S. are examples)?
Anna Nolin believes we need to “stop the small stuff.” This does not mean we create strict, overbearing classes where nary a joke is heard. In fact, it can mean the exact opposite. Regulating behavior is a part of what we do, but the more important part is providing a framework for behavior that students can internalize as appropriate for themselves. How can they become participants in setting their own behavioral goals? This is the war we fight - kids don’t bully because they are necessarily bad, but because of what their social groups internalize as appropriate and acceptable.
A behavior rubric that takes into consideration culture, our presence, establishing a framework for exhibiting the positive building of relationships (while acknowledging that relationships work in cycles), and the thoughts and opinions of students, parents, and teachers, could be effective. What do you think? Is a behavior rubric for an entire school feasible? What might get in the way? How can it be done correctly versus incorrectly? Is there a better way?