Ever since that fateful day at Columbine High School in 1999, the term “bully” has taken on a much different meaning than when children were told by adults: “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but names will never hurt you!” We now know that this is not a true statement and that all those children who were admonished for seeking protection from bullies were let down by the very adults who should have defended them.
For purposes of this discussion, we must accept or agree on certain premises about bullying. Premise one is that bullying takes place in every school in America. Second, bullying is a social process that not only occurs between adolescents and teens but also between adults, such as in the workplace. Third, bullying occurs when any person purposely attempts to make another person feel inferior or inadequate. Fourth, bullying can destroy a person’s self confidence, which is often low to begin with. Fifth, bullying can result in long-term problems with personal relationships and personal satisfaction.
At the extreme, bullying can result in physical harm perpetrated on an innocent person. This is intolerable. The pain of being bullied can lead to self harm and/or the desire on the victim’s part to hurt — even kill — the bully or the people perceived to be guilty of neglect for not protecting the victim.
We now realize the emotional damage that words can do to a person. A person often internalizes the painful taunts of bullies and harbors resentment not only towards the bullies but those whom the victim believes should protect them. These victims sometimes seek relief from their pain by becoming bullies themselves — deriving a contorted sense of satisfaction from seeing others hurt as they have been.
I have held the positions of high school principal, assistant school principal, high school and middle school teacher, college professor and psychologist. On a daily basis I interacted with students who came to me for help or showed the effects of having been a victim of bullies.
Due to the severe damage that I observed in them, and the personal pain that I remembered from being bullied myself, I developed a classroom policy that I now offer as a model available for use by any school district that really desires to end this behavior.
My approach is unique and successful. As a teacher of a government class required of all high school seniors, I had as many as 40 students in my classes and a waiting list from parents requesting that their teen be assigned to me. I have told every group of students that I have ever taught: “When I was a child I could not do anything about bullies, but now I am the teacher and I will not put up with bullies in my class or in this school.” As you can imagine, this sends a powerful and hopeful message to students who have previously been bullied.
The most valuable tool a child can have when confronted by a bully is that the child already likes himself or herself. A confident child will be able to reject another child’s efforts to demean. For example, when my own daughter first attended kindergarten, another child tried to make fun of her dress. My daughter responded that such comments were mean, and that she would look elsewhere for friends. She was able to do this because, as her parents, we had prepared her for just such a situation.
However, many children come to school unprepared for such scenarios and thus become easy targets. What can be done to stop these situations? I recommend that schools have a clear policy regarding bullying, and that parents be informed of the policy and how it will be enforced. (While the Michigan Department of Education has a formal policy that deals with bullying, the content of that document mainly deals with definitions and terms rather than strategies to correct the problem.) Teachers should be trained on how to explain the policy to students and carry it out, starting on day one in every class. In my own work, this was my procedure:
On my door was a sign saying: “Mean People Not Welcome!” This gets the students’ attention as they walk in.
I told the class the true story that, as a child, I could not do much to stop bullying, but that as a teacher, “I am in charge and will NOT accept bullying!”
I then asked the students to take a “time machine” to kindergarten or elementary school and think about a time when they were bullied or teased, and to recall how they felt. Every student came up with an example, and three or four were usually willing to share their story.
Next, I reinforced the fact that everyone understands the pain of being bullied and the consequences: wanting to cry, run away, or stop coming to school.
Finally I asked this question: “If you know how badly a person who is bullied feels, then why would you do this to another student?”
I then told the students that anyone who would deliberately continue to demean another person, knowing the hurt they are causing, is acting as a bully and that this would not be tolerated in my class. Further, I said that if someone is behaving like a bully, then he or she is probably feeling pain as well, and I offered to get them help.
During the course of the year in my classroom, students became sensitive to teasing. They were empowered and encouraged to ask a fellow student if he or she felt hurt by a specific comment. That student had the right to say yes or no, and also to ask for an apology or an explanation from the student who made the comment. Sometimes it was just a misunderstanding, and sometimes not. This process is overseen and directed as needed by the classroom teacher. The result is that all students soon realize that words have power and that their selection of words is important.
This is a very hands-on approach to preventing and stopping bullying. It also provides for ways to help the bully, and trains parents and teachers to assist children, whether the children are victims or perpetrators. I recommend that every teacher try this approach in their classes and observe the difference it can make.
A Detroit native, Grenan holds master’s degrees in education and psychology and a doctoral degree in hypnotherapy. He formerly worked as a teacher, coach and assistant principal at Grand Haven High School and as a principal at a USA Job Corps Center in Grand Rapids. Currently he works with the Muskegon County courts system and maintains a private practice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.