I have something to say about bullying. Actually, lots of people have a lot to say about bullying these days as it’s a hot topic whether we’re talking about online bullying, school bullying, or bullying people of a different race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexuality. It’s a buzz word of sorts and the fallback for a lot of conversations that center around people feeling ganged up on by other people. Schools deal with bullying on multiple levels that tend to all seem to boil down to something that a lot of people relate to and, thus, lots of people have a lot to say. But what I have to say centers on what happens in schools and the response to bullying in the last decade or so.
Current practices in schools lean towards the “zero tolerance” type of policy whereby students report bullying and school personnel stop it at the earliest level. The first thing a school or district must do is conceptualize and define bullying. Naturally, bullying is defined as an imbalance of power whereby aggressive behavior towards an individual or group manifests itself as verbal or physical threats, assault, or coercion to perform. It is usually ongoing and targeted towards a child or their friends in school and can happen anywhere. In the classroom, bullies are careful not to out themselves as being aggressive.
On the playground, where supervision is sometimes spotty, it happens much more overtly. However, it doesn’t have to happen just at school and the continuation of what occurs on school grounds takes place online in social media as well as bullying by phone with text. Basically, it’s hard to ignore by both the victim and those who notice that something is amiss. Watching a kid physically push around another kid is the easy one. It’s harder when you only have body language, looks, and hushed verbal threats to go on to prove that bullying is happening.
Sometimes, it’s a clear cut case and those are the ones in which school administrators step in to offer consequences in the form of discipline as well as mediation (when and if appropriate) to both parties. In the last decade of working in schools I can tell you that the hard data of the students I work with show that it’s becoming easier to spot and easier to discipline since policies are in place.
You had to know there was going to be a however.
However, bullying versus bothering is becoming blurred. Since we use the language of “bullying” now this is often the first comment from parents about what’s happening in school. For example, the number of times I get a phone call that begins with, “My daughter/son is getting bullied…” has probably tripled over the last decade. It used to be some sort of contact that began with their child struggling with classes or their friends. Now, it’s that their child is immediately the victim of bullying. Again, though, I’m not suggesting that bullying doesn’t happen. It does. I see it very clearly and probably look for more non-verbal issues than I used to, but it’s not always the case.
Several years ago I got an earful from an irate parent who was already fed up with the school system because their child got picked on throughout the school day and she wanted to know what I was going to do about “this bullying thing”. I let her know that we didn’t see any problems at school but that I’d monitor what was happening. Here’s what I saw: the girls were friends at school, sitting at lunch together, playing outside together, and generally, you know, being friends. But then I noticed something else. There was a new girl at school and adding her into their little duo was proving difficult because sometimes the new girl was hogging the other friend. While this didn’t prove to be an issue that warranted them having to make a visit to my office, it was bothering her enough at home. My issue, then, is calling this bullying and assuming that it’s serious enough to discipline the other child.
Sometimes, children are just figuring things out with friends. This is bothersome and hard to navigate, but necessary in life to determine who is good for you and who doesn’t have your best interest at heart. I wouldn’t say those girls I described were bullying, but it was definitely bothering the girl whose mother contacted me and wanted the bully disciplined.
Trust me: I approve of disciplining children when they’re acting out at school. It’s a part of my job that is hard to separate when I come home and find that the neighborhood children are terrorizing kids. (No, really. This just happened this week when I saw a dad in his car come flying around the corner in his car to catch the 8 or so boys who were doing something mean to his daughter. I was cheering that he found them and gave them an earful.)
You knew there’d be a but.
But crying “bully” shouldn’t be the first course of action. Talking to kids about what’s really happening and following it up with how they’re interpreting things is more likely to get to the bottom of the issue. Asking things like, “Are you feeling left out?” can lead to greater discussions of their burgeoning friendships and waning relationships with friends that were inseparable before. There’s a big difference between being bullied and being bothered by things and rushing in with the bully buzzword won’t fix the problem. It will create a generation of victims who don’t know how to mediate and resolve conflicts. Worse, it won’t allow children the ability to protect themselves from their friends who are just bothering them. I’d hate for friendships to end over something like that.
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