A student being bullied at school
For Administrators

How School Staff Can Effectively Collaborate to Address Bullying

By Michelle Liken, PhD May 2, 2019

Bullies have always been a constant presence in school environments. Until recently, bullies were simply an expected “character” in schools — along with the “teacher’s pet” or “class clown.”  Students who were bullied were expected to “toughen up,” ignore the behavior, or “fight back.”

Today, bullying behavior is no longer expected or accepted in most settings — particularly the school environment. In fact, the long- and short-term negative impact of a bully on other students, teachers, the classroom, the school, and even the community as a whole, is well-documented.   

Students who exhibit bullying behaviors cause peers to experience anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. For teachers and schools, bullies may cause distracted attention and focus toward the bully, in an effort to minimize disrupting a class or the school milieu. As a result, the resources allocated for quality learning are spent elsewhere, and may become depleted when teachers “burn out.” (Mundy, L. K., et al. 2017)

The problem of bullying is complicated and there is no simple solution. It takes a collaborative effort among school faculty, staff, and administration. Let’s look at how school staff can effectively collaborate to address bullying.

What is Bullying?

According to Stopbullying.gov, bullying behavior is rooted in the need to promote oneself to a position of power, by physically or psychologically placing others into powerless positions. In many cases, precipitants to bullying behavior are deep-seated fears of inferiority. The only way for bullies to cope with fear of powerlessness is to place others in inferior positions — physically, psychologically, or socially.

StopBullying.Gov, founded and operated by the collective efforts of the US Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Justice, identified the key characteristics of bullying as:

  • Bullying is aggressive behavior among school children than involves a power balance or perceived power balance.
  • Children who bully others use physical strength, embarrassing information, or popularity to control or harm others.
  • Bullying behavior involves repetition over time.
  • Bullying at school oftentimes happens on the playground, in classes, and on the bus.

The defining factor is that bullying behavior must be repeated over time. One incident is not sufficient to denote bullying behavior.

StopBullying.Gov also notes that bullying can take different forms, such as:

Physical

  • Hitting, kicking, pinching, spitting on, tripping, or pushing
  • Taking or breaking someone’s belongings
  • Making mean or rude hand gestures

Social

  • Leaving someone out on purpose
  • Telling other children not to be friends with someone
  • Embarrassing someone in public

Verbal

  • Teasing
  • Name calling
  • Inappropriate sexual comments
  • Taunting
  • Threatening to cause harm

Cyber

  • Threatening texts or emails
  • Posting embarrassing pictures or depictions of someone
  • “Unfriending” on social media

To effectively deal with bullying, school staff need to be vigilant and identify problem behaviors early. Because bullying is a repeated behavior, school staff must constantly communicate with each other about the observed behaviors.  One suggestion is to have a central communication system where problem behaviors are identified and tracked. This may be something as simple as an email exchange or more detailed, such as a database. An algorithm or decision tree may be created to help track and provide appropriate interventions for incidents of bullying.

Bullying Algorithm

Many Students Who Become Bullies Have Been Bullied Themselves

As noted above, there are multiple causes for bullying behaviors. Besides fear of powerlessness, some students who bully may have deep-seated anger related to many issues and use bullying as a way to release this anger. Similarly, students who bully may not know how to interact appropriately with peers and are simply displaying behaviors they see at home.  One example is a student who has witnessed bullying behavior among adults at home and feels that this is an appropriate way to deal with problems.

Many of the problems that lead to bullying extend well beyond the control of school staff.  In fact, when addressing potential problems with parents or guardians, teachers and staff may be bullied.

Chelsea Pederson, a physical education teacher at a public middle school in the Southeastern US says, “We do see a lot of students who try to bully others. However, teachers are the ones who are bullied the most.” In further conversation, the teacher added, “We have to establish firm boundaries with our students. They try to bully us too. The real problem comes when we have to contact a responsible adult. We just open ourselves to being blamed for the problem and are nearly always bullied by this adult. It is clear to us where the problems started, and we are in a no-win situation.”

Further Insights into Bullying

According to STOMP Out Bullying™, the leading national nonprofit dedicated to changing the culture for all students, there are three types of bullies:

  1. Bullied bullies have been bullied and bully to feel powerful.
  2. Social bullies are “mean” and try to overcome low self-esteem by “putting down” others though gossip or manipulation.
  3. Unsocialized bullies have not learned how to interact and express themselves via anger and aggression.

Schools rarely have the resources to fully assess and identify students who are at risk of becoming bullies, such as a licensed counselor. Even when bullying behaviors are identified, multiple barriers prevent effective interventions.

Who’s at Risk for Being Bullied

Children are bullied for a variety of reasons, but most often it is related to the fact that the child is “different” in some way. For example:

  • Being overweight (or underweight)
  • Being new to a school
  • Dressing differently than peers
  • Wearing glasses
  • Having an observable limitation:
    • Being hard of hearing
    • Having a physical handicap
  • Being perceived as anxious, weak, or having low self-esteem
  • Having few friends (not being popular)
  • Exhibiting annoying or provoking behaviors (whining or attention-seeking)
  • Having families who are different, such as
    • Multi-ethnic/racial families
    • Same-sex parents

The consequences of being bullied include, but are not limited to:

  • Poor academic performance
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Suicide

In fact, the CDC and Center for Suicide Prevention agree that bullying places children at much higher risk for depression and suicidal behaviors than their non-bullied peers.

No federal-level directives to include bullying into the curriculum exist, so schools must take the initiative to creatively integrate the material into lesson plans.

Innovative Ways to Address Bullying

In the school setting, bullying is everyone’s problem. The ramifications of allowing a culture of bullying to exist have academic, social, ethical, and legal implications.

One way to address bullying is to look at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of prevention.

Primary prevention involves actions to prevent the occurrence of bullying. These actions should include interventions to both prevent bullying behaviors and prevent being bullied.

The best way to prevent bullying behavior is to create a climate that is intolerant of bullying. This begins with education and setting firm standards of behavior.

Teachers and staff need education about how to set and maintain standards for bully-free classrooms/schools. This education begins with a clear list of actions that constitute bullying. Students and parents/guardians need to understand this list and the consequences of this behavior.

Parents and guardians should be encouraged to play an active role in helping their children understand healthy ways to stay out of bullying situations. Similarly, community organizations and local businesses may become involved. This collective effort requires stakeholders to recognize bullying as a critical problem.

In addition to educating parents/guardians and the community, students should be given clear instructions for how to deal with behaviors they may perceive as bullying. One suggestion is to have a staff member who is assigned as the “go-to” person if students feel they are being bullied, or if they observe other students being bullied.

For example, Ms. Pederson, is the “go-to” person for issues related to bullying at her school. “When students come to me, the first thing I need to do is to find out if a situation really exists,” she says.  “Many students who come to me are either seeking attention, and no bullying situation exists, or they are trying to get another student in trouble.”

The most important aspect of dealing with bullying behavior is handling situations in a consistent manner. This requires extensive training that includes bullying case scenarios.

Revisiting the Root of the Problem: Self-Esteem

As outlined above, students who bully, as well as students who are at risk for bullying, often have issues related to self-esteem. Students who exhibit bullying behaviors may have low self-esteem and target vulnerable students who also have low self-esteem. (Or develop low self-esteem as a result of being bullied). As such, teachers and staff should be knowledgeable about opportunities to help students identify their own worth to bolster self-esteem.

Within the realm of education, the term “a teaching moment” is used to depict a situation that lends itself to becoming an example for learning. Teachers and staff should look for “esteem-building moments.” These are opportunities to help students realize their own strengths and help them develop a level of resistance to bullying.

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Secondary prevention includes early identification and interventions to prevent further problems with bullying. This involves a system of reporting, communicating, and tracking. Staff must be committed to using the system consistently and accurately. The system must be valid and reliable, meaning that it helps accurately identify behaviors and that staff are using it in an unbiased way.

Schools may also identify activities that include asking volunteers to support students who may be at risk for bullying. One example is to have an adult who was bullied as a child come to the school to talk about his/her experiences, focusing on ways to overcome adversity and building self-esteem.

A critical component involved in second prevention is to set firm and consistent consequences for students who exhibit bullying behaviors. Students may quickly learn from the experience of others, that bullying is not tolerated and will be sanctioned.

Tertiary prevention includes interventions to ameliorate lasting consequences related to bullying. These interventions are designed to rehabilitate students with repeated bullying infractions. The focus should be directed toward preventing ongoing or permanent expulsions.

Researchers (Sourander, et al. 2007) have found that while children who exhibit bullying behaviors are at risk for incarceration later in life, the same is true for children who are bullied.

Children who are bullied are at risk of becoming involved in criminal behavior as adults. As such, it is vital for bullying to be addressed promptly. The bullying algorithm should be expanded to include referral to counseling services.

The problem of bullying is complex. Precipitating factors are complicated and deep-seated in behaviors that develop outside of school.  As a result, schools inherit problems over which they have little control. Long-term consequences of bullying behavior include mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and low-self esteem. Through primary, secondary, and tertiary intervention, school staff may have an opportunity to be a part of the solution, which centers around vigilant attention to and timely communication about concerns. The problem of bullying often seems untenable. However, having even one student experience a positive outcome as a result of team collaboration is a giant leap in the right direction.

Michelle Liken, PhD, RN has over 32 years of nursing experience, including pediatric nursing. Her clinical focus has been related to community health, including health promotion and risk reduction.


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