Think back to your own school years. What’s the first thing that comes to mind? Joy and incredible learning experiences? Or an accumulation of hurts and pain? Sadly, too many of us remember the bullies and beratings before we recall anything else. One of the first things you notice as a teacher is that you feel powerless against this and overwhelmed by it.
One of my particularly challenging third-grade boys, Preston, had a mother who was satisfied as long as he apologized. This would have been fine if it hadn’t been entirely out of proportion to his troubling behavior. He would humiliate students by shouting out in the middle of a lesson, “Tyna stinks! Tell her to take a shower!” or he would body-slam students on the playground and insist he was going for the ball. He would even follow teachers around and mock them behind their backs. And for all of this, all he had to do was apologize, which he did with a grin before moving on to his next victim.
I hate those kinds of apologies. They don’t restore what was broken or stolen. They don’t erase the awful words or bruises. They don’t teach the perpetrator to stop, and they require a powerless victim to accept another insult from their abuser. It’s an adult’s inadequate solution to a child’s serious problem. No wonder bullying continues.
I don’t have the answers to all of the issues that create bullying, but I have found that I can require that whoever caused the problem make it right. One of John Hattie’s conclusion in Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning is that students learn best when they have quick feedback so they can fix their mistakes. So my students not only fix their academic errors, they have to fix their emotional/social mistakes. The first time I tell a child, “Well, you’re going to have to make it right,” their jaw drops to their knees. They always ask, “What do I have to do?” I tell them, “I don’t know. You caused it. You have to figure out how to fix it.”
Once a child realizes that they are not off the hook until their victim feels better, they get pretty creative. I have seen sincere and multiple apologies, monetary damages using bathroom passes or class cash, promises to play at recess, as well as drawings, markers, and pencils exchange hands. I stand by or keep an eye on the pair until the victim tells me they feel better. And I have been consistently surprised at how little it takes for them to forgive an injury. Where I might have demanded a dozen apologies, most children are quite satisfied with two.
Rarely, I encounter a child who won’t accept an apology, not because she is upset, but because she seems to enjoy the power it gives her. Something else is going on, so I excuse the apologizer who has clearly done enough and talk with the recalcitrant child. These talks have ended in tears either because something horrible is going on at home, like Dad was taken to jail last night, or because that tough girl isn’t being the person she really wants to be. Either way, the child softens.
Last year, I also learned how to move this process along. With 36 students in a seriously overcrowded room, tempers flared at slight provocations, and too many 3rd graders didn’t care to make it right. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and after researching Finland’s educational model, I revamped my schedule to drop longer recesses in favor of ten minute breaks every hour. Then every time we had an argument during class, I gave the parties two minutes to solve it or we’d lose break. We only lost one break before an amazing transformation took place. I got to step out of my arbitrator role almost entirely as friends and empathetic children jumped in on both sides to get the aggrieved parties to come to terms quickly. They soon figured out that yelling didn’t work and learned to talk down their upset peers so we could go out and play on time. Children can be astonishing if you give them the right structure.
While on the subject of apologies, most children need to learn two things. First, how to apologize. We uncross our arms, make eye contact, and speak clearly without anger. Angry children may have to try several times, but as you gently draw a better apology out of them, you can often have them laughing by the end.
Second, students universally think that if it was an accident, they don’t have to apologize. “It was an accident!” becomes a pass for all sorts of unruly behavior. Make it clear that the world doesn’t work that way. In fact, when we accidentally bump someone, we apologize more, as in “Oh my gosh! Are you okay? I am so, so sorry! I can’t believe I was that clumsy! Are you sure you’re okay?” So unless they’re apologizing like that, I don’t consider it an accident. This way, no matter what goes wrong in the classroom, the responsible party has to make it right.
I constantly struggle against bullying, and all I know is that ignoring it does not make it go away. (Lester Laminack’s Bullying Hurts: Teaching Kindness Through Read-Alouds and Guided Conversations provides an inspiring curriculum to help address it.) Please deal with every issue you see, no matter how inconvenient. Students know which adults pretend they don’t see and ignore them. In fact, that is their major complaint. When I ask them why they run in to the classroom to tell me instead of telling whoever is on lunch duty, they say over and over again that it is because whoever is on yard duty will not do anything. There are adults who simply send children back into the setting that was distressing them in the first place. There are adults who actually believe that children should solve it for themselves. My daughter had one of these teachers and, as a result, spent a school year being kicked, punched, pinched, and shoved, then sent back to the girl who did it to resolve the issue. Generally, the bullying child resolved it by freezing my daughter out and cutting her off from her friends for a couple of weeks. They had several meetings with the school counselor, but no one ever stepped up to protect the victims so the victims stopped telling.
The other struggle I have with bullying is the very nature of it. As a culture, we think of bullying in terms of bad guys and good guys, bullies and victims, but as a teacher, it’s rarely that clear for two reasons. First, many victims will strike back as soon as the bully backs off. For example, my other daughter had some serious problems with mean kids in 2nd grade. The school did little about it, but when one child was finally told to apologize, my daughter went on the attack, demanding her pound of flesh, chasing the girl across the playground and into the bathroom. When the girl locked herself in the farthest stall, my formerly victimized child turned relentless and crawled under the stall door to confront her attacker. At some point, they completely switched roles.
The second difficulty has to do with constantly changing playground relationships. By the time I had Tacoma in 4th grade, the narrative he told of his life had him bullied since kindergarten with no one doing anything about it. Determined to change that, I intervened the first day I saw boys piled on top of him. All of the boys received consequences. The very next day when I saw a similar pile, he got upset with me for interfering because they were friends now and they were just playing. I spent the whole year unable to tell the difference, frequently having him irritated with me for stopping his play. I felt I had no other choice. He continued to say he was constantly bullied, but it apparently wasn’t when I was watching.
Finally, so much bullying goes on electronically that it’s impossible to keep up. Cell phones and computers are essentially unsupervised playgrounds where all manner of outrageous behavior goes unchecked. After school one day, a 7th grader handed me his phone so I could see what another former student of mine was sending. It was so full of foul language that I can’t even repeat it. When I replied, she cussed me out, thinking she was being punked, then refused to answer when she realized that it had to be me. No one else used correct spelling and grammar when they texted. At the end of the year, a parent of a 6th grader told me that her son had done the entire ancient civilization project by himself. It was our biggest project of the year involving multiple research reports and presentations. He did it alone because his partner had repeatedly threatened him via text if he didn’t. Why didn’t anyone tell me? The parent told me because she was proud her son had handled it so well. I can think of some ways I would have liked to handle it.
So what can you do? The easiest thing is to stand in your doorway when children are moving in the halls. Much of the daily harassment occurs when the halls are crowded. Rolling bags get kicked, backpacks get yanked, students get shoved, and elbows get thrown. If students think you’re watching, most won’t even try. You often calm an entire hallway just by obviously looking around. If you can open your door during lunch and recess you’ll have a lot of visitors, but it will also create a safe haven. One middle school teacher had her room open every day, but she called it “Board Game Club” which attracted the quieter kids.
The next thing is to keep your classroom free of hateful language. Children you would never imagine as bullies will complain meanly about another child or laugh at dumb answers. You have to call them on it. Many students will understand quickly. To stop texts from flying around require children to keep their hands on their desks. That leaves you the students who are accustomed to using abusive words. As much as I care about children and their needs, as much as I try to help students grow, I have had little success with getting children even as young as 2nd grade to empathize enough to stop being cruel. I have noticed three sources – impulsiveness, anger, or a need to control. The problem continues all year and is resistant to change.
Knowing that can actually help you deal with it. You need a consequence that you can implement quickly and consistently without disrupting learning. It could be flipping a card, marking a strike, writing a tag, taking a star, losing a ClassDojo point, lining up last, or something else. Plus, the bully has to make it right. Whatever the consequence is, implement it every time all year long. At some point, you will have to phone home. You will find that this can be diagnostic. I didn’t know one child’s parents had separated until I called home. Another was missing one of his medications. Phoning home in these cases did help sort things out.
On the playground, you don’t have to run after every tattle, and you don’t have to jump to conclusions and dress down a child based on something you heard. But you can walk over within a few minutes, and ask each of the children involved what is going on. While you’re listening, you will probably find that several children could have made better choices. This becomes your opportunity to gently suggest those options. Only rarely will you have to impose consequences. At my school, this usually involves walking a lap on our micro-track then reporting back on their thoughts at the end. On most days, this will be all it takes to make it right. If it doesn’t, you can then move on to your school’s more serious consequences.
By choosing to be a trustworthy adult, you will pay a price. My school doesn’t have a break room for teachers so most of us eat in our classrooms. That means I have to walk through halls and the playground before I can start eating. Several days a week I have to stop and deal with running, sobbing, fighting, or rock-throwing with my lunch in my hands. Some days, particularly rainy days, I get a scant ten minutes to eat before they send back my class. It can be tough to be the adult, but adults don’t ignore children’s needs. That’s how adults make it right.