One school’s plan to ban bullying and create a caring community… Two boys, perspiring and smudged with playtime dirt, approach the main office of their elementary school. Seeming right at home, they rush past the secretary’s desk, making a beeline to the principal’s open door. The principal invites them in, and one at a time they explain their plight—several of their classmates wouldn’t let them join a basketball game. In addition, they said that one particular child had called them names, telling them they were “losers” and “couldn’t even dribble a basketball if they tried.” The principal listened intently and told her students that she would meet with all the children involved to discuss ways to get along and respect each other’s feelings. “Clearly,” she explained to the boys, “Your classmates have forgotten the school rule, ‘We don’t say you can’t play.'”
The principal in this vignette knows that kindness and empathy are essential ingredients for a successful school. The boys felt comfortable enough to come to her for aid and trusted that she would help them solve their problem.
When Bullying Begins
Teachers and principals are usually well acquainted with the child who is not accepted by his classmates. It begins in pre–school, when the child asks, “Can I play with you?” A dynamic develops early on, and certain children emerge as the leaders, or the arrangers of playtime. They have the ability to determine who is allowed to play, who is picked for the team, and who is not.
Unfortunately, once the roles are chosen, they often stay in place throughout childhood. The powerful become omnipotent, the followers become more compliant in fear that they may become the rejected, and the rejected become more lonely and isolated. This imbalance of power can result in bullying, which can be verbal, physical or psychological in nature.
All bullying causes social isolation and exclusion. Research indicates these behaviors lead to lasting negative effects for the bully and the victim. A child normally has a 5 percent chance of growing up to become a criminal, but bullies have a 25 percent chance of ending up with a criminal record by the age of 30 (Olweus, 1992). Victims have to deal with the initial victimizing situation and the subsequent social consequences. Even the “better” responses to the plight of the victim, concern or pity, may be perceived as condescending and underscore the victim’s loss of status, consequently lowering self-esteem. Students who are victimized have a greater chance of feeling depressed and have poorer self-esteem than their non-victimized counterparts.
A Call to Care
Bullying and victimization caught national attention in April, 1999, when two young men, seniors at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., shot and killed 13 people, and then themselves, in a premeditated rampage. A classmate of the assailants said, “. . . they did not fit with any [other] group. . . . I guess when you have a lack of friends you feel unwanted.” Another student said of one of the assailants, “It was obvious he felt socially ostracized. He really felt unloved. . . . He wasn’t so bad. He was lonely. I just wish I could give him a hug and tell him that I care” (Brooke, 1999).
In many recent incidents of school violence, the assailants were children who felt alienated from and “unrelated” to the school setting. All too often, exclusionary practices in schools, which can be defined as a form of “systemic violence,” are tolerated or ignored. Many students are coming to school burdened with feelings of anxiety caused by continual rejection from their peers and the lack of needed attention from teachers and administrators. In a Scandinavian study (Olweus, 1993), 40 percent of bullied students in the primary grades and almost 60 percent in secondary/junior high school grades reported that teachers tried to put a stop to bullying only “once in a while” or “almost never.” Alarmingly, 65 percent of bullied students in primary school said that the classroom teacher had not talked to them about bullying at all; in junior high school, the number rose to 86 percent.
Daniel Olweus, a renowned expert and researcher in bullying, believes that the “attitudes, routines, and behaviors of the school personnel—in particular the teachers—are certainly decisive factors in preventing and controlling bullying activities” (Olweus, 1993).
How to Stop It
Bullying and peer harassment can be addressed in a proactive way when educators create caring communities and make caring part of the school culture. Learning how to establish such an environment is often overlooked as a part of teacher professional development, however. Staff members need opportunities to observe their students’ and their own behaviors, time and opportunities to examine beliefs and practices, and time to develop and implement a plan that begins to solve the problem. Schools face a serious challenge when confronting the plight of the victimized child, as well as the dangerous behaviors of the bully.
Despite these challenges, some schools are taking the lead. At W. S. Boardman Elementary in Long Island, the principals and teachers used action research to identify bullies or victims in their classrooms. They collected data on their own practices and the student’s characteristics, reflected on what they saw, and then developed a plan that embraced all students as part of the caring school community. Teachers focused on students’ needs to feel competent, connected, and autonomous in the school setting (Siris, 2001). They found that when teachers and administrators take time to show a personal interest in a student, provide opportunities for increased social interactions in the classroom, highlights the student’s talents, and gives him increased opportunities to make decisions, there are significant changes in the child’s school life. He appears happier, more involved in social activities, more engaged in learning, less likely to seek negative attention, and more accepted by his classmates. Students mimic both their teachers’ positive and negative behaviors; as teachers begin to like these students more, so, in turn, will their peers.
One School’s Approach
The teachers and principal in the school conducting the study brought their findings to the rest of the staff. They thought that they could also teach intervention strategies to students who observe bullying on a daily basis. In doing so, the students could make a positive difference in the school community. Students in 5th and 6th grades, who were interested in helping to change the culture of their school to one where “caring is cool” rather than where “put-downs are cool,” wrote letters to their teachers explaining why they would like to join the “Caring Majority Steering Committee.” A committee of 30 fifth- and sixth-grade students formed and, together with the principal and school social worker, worked in three two-hour sessions, first learning about the dangers of peer harassment, and then developing their plan. The students came up with several ideas for enlisting more members into the caring school community:
- Develop strong administrative consequences for any student using unkind words or put-downs.
- Implement a “We don’t say you can’t play” rule. If anyone asks to join a group of children already playing, the answer is always “Yes!”
- Use “I” messages to tell children how you are feeling (i.e., “I don’t like it when you call me “loser.”).
- Report a student who is excluding or harassing a classmate to the nearest adult; if that adult does not help, keep reporting it until someone does.
- Form support groups for both the victims and the bullies.
- Hold meetings for parents about bullying and victimization in schools and the long-term effects for both the victim and the bully.
Members of the steering committee became the ambassadors, spreading the new plan to all the classrooms. They designed a tee shirt with the slogan “At our school, caring is cool,” and sold it at the school store. Working in pairs, they prepared a PowerPoint presentation and shared their new plan with each classroom in the building. Having the message brought to the students by other students had a powerful effect—seventy-five percent of the students ordered a tee shirt during the first week they went on sale. They proudly wore them to school, and slowly began to change their behaviors.
When schools do not put a strong emphasis on the needs of both the bully and the victim, the problem becomes chronic—many students will continue to suffer from verbal and physical harassment on a daily basis. The school climate must reflect an atmosphere in which students can express their feelings and feel they can turn to any adult or their classmates for help and support. It is essential that school personnel create caring communities like the one in W. S. Boardman Elementary for students as a way to decrease the incidences of bullying and victimization.
Dr. Karen Siris, principal and professor has been featured on NBC and CBS News and ivillage.com for the work she has done creating a Caring Majority of “upstanding” students in her Long Island School. Her research on Alleviating Bullying received the Outstanding Dissertation of the Year Award from Hofstra University.