How Teachers Can Prevent Cyberbullying

From the Principal's Office Updated July 1, 2015

In the past several years, we’ve seen the tide turn significantly in our efforts to put a stop to bullying and make schools emotionally safe environments for all of our students. Yet we cannot forget that some of this bad behavior has moved out of school and onto the Internet.

I believe educators and our communities have made awesome strides against bullying. Parents have pushed for change, schools have adopted comprehensive anti-bullying policies and some areas have passed laws to confront the issue.  And we’ve seen popular stars such as Katy Perry and Michael Phelps help to make bullying “uncool.”

Teachers need strategies to prevent and confront cyberbullying.Still, bullying happens. It has become harder to get away with at school, but it’s still very easy to do online — what we now call cyberbullying. Dealing with Internet-focused bullying requires a two-pronged approach by teachers:

Here’s a look at each of these approaches:

Proactive strategies to prevent cyberbullying

Don’t dance around this topic. Aside from being illegal, cyberbullying can transform school into an intolerable and emotionally damaging experience for its victims, especially if they are already socially alienated.  To prevent cyberbullying, you have to:

Teach explicit behaviors

You need to be as clear and direct as possible about behaviors your students should avoid. These include (but are not limited to):

  • Spreading rumors about classmates
  • Joining websites like www.ask.fm or www.spring.me
  • Mentioning classmates, either explicitly or subtly, on social media sites

Teach your students the “true, kind, necessary” litmus test for what they say. All communication with or about their classmates should meet at least two of those criteria.

Notify parents of what is expected of their children

Everything you teach your students about cyberbullying should also be shared with their parents. Send home a list of the explicit behaviors that you teach, and make sure parents return a signed document confirming they are aware of these expectations.

You should also use this communication as an opportunity for students and their parents to complete some online work together to deepen their understanding.

Reinforce empathy

From a best-case-scenario perspective, truly appropriate behavior should be the natural result of children understanding how they should treat each other. While this might sound “pie in the sky,” it’s still important for all of your teaching about cyberbullying to take part inside a larger class structure that reinforces kindness and empathy.

While schools might be able to enforce compliance on behaviors that must be avoided, it is still essential that you also teach to the larger beliefs that are in play here. Specifically, that decent and kind people don’t take pleasure in hurting others.

Remember the Internet is public and permanent

As part of your drive to reinforce the concept that empathy is necessary to prevent cyberbullying, you should also make these lessons another opportunity to remind your students that EVERYTHING that happens on the Internet is both public and permanent.

What might appear to be an innocuous or playful statement at first can blossom into a full-fledged legal and disciplinary issue. Your students should act as if they fully expect their grandmothers to know what they have been doing online. That’s a pretty powerful idea.

Bringing in an outside presentation

Just as the progress of the anti-bullying movement reflects the coordinated efforts of many groups, success against cyberbullying requires a broad-based approach. Work with your school administration to bring in presenters to reinforce the importance of this topic to the entire student body. Local law enforcement and community groups are very often also excellent resources.

Regardless of how you address the issue of cyberbullying, it is essential that you construct a balanced and comprehensive approach to share with your students, parents and school administrators.

Confronting cyberbullying if it happens in your school

It will be disconcerting to discover one of your students is engaged in cyberbullying, but if you take the right approach you can help the child grow beyond this kind of behavior and avoid it in the future. Here’s a look at what to do if you discover cyberbullying among your students:

Contact the administration

With so much attention and concern being paid to issues of cyberbullying, it is essential to bring your school administration into the situation as soon as possible. As involved as you may want to be in addressing the situation (as many dedicated teachers want to be), always remember that the school administration is ultimately responsible for these matters.

Remain dispassionate

If you learn of cyberbullying, it is important to simply act as the receiver and recorder of the information.

Teachers who bring intense passion and enthusiasm to their work need to keep in mind that strong emotions can get in the way of judgment and communication in situations involving student behavior and discipline. Avoid appearing biased at all costs. Doing so will help prevent situations where parents say you have allowed your personal feelings to get in the way.

Avoid judgment

If you discover a student has taken part in particularly vicious cyberbullying, it will be very tempting to judge the child or the parents. Do not climb on a moral “high horse” and lecture the child or family.

Rather, continue to point out why what happened is against the school’s expectations, explain how the child was taught to avoid it and show how the school will respond. Appearing judgmental will undermine all of your goals.

Offer redemption

Children don’t like to disappoint the adults in their lives. Do not mistake a defiant or casual appearance as a true indicator of the offending student. To enable children to grow through the situation, consider creating an activity that enables them to redeem themselves. Examples could include spending time volunteering to community service in the school, writing a letter of apology to the teacher, or perhaps penning an anonymous letter to be shared with the younger grades.

Obviously, the dignity of the child should be preserved at all times. A well-structured activity can create an opportunity for the child to put the situation in the past.

Know your focus

The goal of any disciplinary action should not be to punish the child. You do not want to “hurt them” through an inordinately severe (or public) consequences. Rather, focus on helping the child avoid repeating the situation that led them to the offense. This not only preserves their dignity, but also prevents another child from being hurt down the road by another case of cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying is especially insidious because so much of it takes place away from the watchful eyes of teachers and administrators. Being proactive in your approach, notifying the right people and creating the appropriate structure to address and discontinue the ill effects of all of this are essential to building schools that enable all of our students to grow.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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