It’s not what you think. I’m in no way suggesting that we need to somehow “toughen up” kids who are targets of bullying. In fact, I think that’s a terrible practice. Children shouldn’t have to defend themselves at school. That’s not their job. It’s their job to learn. Our job is to create and maintain school and classroom environments in which all children are safe and can thrive academically, socially, and emotionally.

So no, we don’t need to bully-proof the victims. We need to bully-proof our schools. This is a two-fold effort. First, we must ensure an inclusive environment that not only is intolerant of bullying but one that is not conducive to the development of those behaviors. Second, we need to train all our children to move from being passive bystanders to allies. We have to start this education young, and that means elementary school. Our efforts will be much more effective if we focus on eliminating bias early on - before it manifests itself as aggressive behavior.

Many of the strategies which I’ll describe below come from Welcoming Schools. I’ve included links wherever possible. If you’re interested in bringing this training to your school, please let me know via my contact page.

School Environment:

Bullying and Harassment Policy: Make sure your anti-bullying policy specifically lists groups that have historically experienced more bullying. If they aren’t already in there, add sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. Espelage (2014) found that schools that do not tolerate sexual or gendered harassment have significantly less bullying.

Lunchtime: Many schools have a common area for eating lunch, and it’s an atmosphere prone to exclusion. Hold events like Mix It Up at Lunch (http://www.tolerance.org/mix-it-up/what-is-mix) to help children break down barriers and get to know one another. Older students can use an app like “Sit With Us,” developed by a California teen, which allows students to designate themselves as ambassadors and post “open lunch” events (www.sitwithus.io). Students who might otherwise eat alone have a safe, welcoming place to have lunch without fear of rejection.

Recess: Recess is a lonely time for some children. Playing alone can make them more susceptible to bullying. Some schools have found a solution in the Buddy Bench (www.buddybench.org). If a child sits on the bench, another child will come and ask that child to play or talk. It’s a good idea to have some structured or adult-directed play in order to include more students. Encourage students to engage in cooperative play. Consider developing a rule of “You can’t say you can’t play.”

Supervision: Wherever possible, schools should increase supervision in areas where bullying is more likely to occur, such as the restroom, lunchroom, and playground. Adults must be present in order to monitor behavior, interrupt hurtful teasing, and stop bullying in its tracks.

Classroom Environment:

Teacher Intervention: Teachers need to act immediately when they witness name-calling and/or bullying. The worst thing they can do is ignore it. They must be tuned in to what’s going on in their classroom and listen for stereotypes. Teacher intervention should center around educating the students who are doing the bullying as well as engaging the bystanders. Teachers need professional development and practice in responding to students. An excellent resource for stoppinganti-LGBTQ comments can be found at http://www.welcomingschools.org/pages/stop-thats-so-gay-anti-lgbtq-comments/.

Read Alouds: Reading picture books to students is a great way to create empathy. I have two favorites. In The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig, Brian, a quiet child, never gets noticed and appears as a mere outline in the illustrations until new kid Justin showsup. With Justin’s friendship, Brian gradually becomes colored in, a beautiful representation of how small acts of kindness can allow a child to flourish. I love Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson because it doesn’t have a happy ending. The teacher explains to her class that kindness has a ripple effect, but main character Chloe learns it is too late to start treating her classmate differently. For more books to prevent bias-based bullying, visit http://www.welcomingschools.org/pages/books-to-engage-students-on-bullying/.

Inclusion: When your language, curriculum, rules, routines, books, and lessons are inclusive and reflect the diversity of your students, you send the message that you value differences. It’s natural for kids to notice differences (nobody is colorblind and pretending you are means you are denying part of someone’s identity), and it should be used as an opportunity for learning. When we teach empathy, respect, and appreciation of differences, we may very well be able to stop bullying before it starts.

Creating Allies:

Lessons: Children can be taught to support students who are targets of bullying by spending time with them, seeking help from an adult, helping remove the student from the situation, making a distraction, and learning about differences. For bullying lesson plans, see http://www.welcomingschools.org/resources/lesson-plans/bullying/bullying-other-lesson-plans/. I particularly like “Making Decisions: Ally or Bystander” because it requires that children analyze their responses to bullying situations and explore and practice possible interventions.               

Books: Again, students can learn to be upstanders through the example of characters in books. In Teammates by Peter Golenbrock, player PeeWee Reese takes a stand and supports his teammate Jackie Robinson, who of course was the first Black player on a major league baseball team. Check out this list of books about sticking up for each other: http://www.welcomingschools.org/pages/sticking-up-for-each-other-the-power-of-allies/.

Model: Students need to see adults at school intervene in bullying situations (see Teacher Intervention above) because it can actually foster ally behavior. Research by Aboud and Joong (2008) shows that students who perceive that others would jump in to stop bullying are more likely to do so themselves.

We know bullying is a problem in our schools, and we were reminded of its tragic consequences last week when 9 year-old Jackson Grubb committed suicide. I cannot fathom how terrible the torment must have been that this BABY felt that the only way to escape it was to take his own life. Jackson is the inspiration for this post, and I hope you will join me in a commitment to end bullying. Tomorrow, we begin National Bullying Prevention Month. Talk to your children. Start a committee. Use some of the lessons here in your classroom. Put pressure on your child’s school to offer anti-bullying professional development for its teachers.  We cannot let this happen again. Not one more.