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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Bullying on the Bus

By Peter DeWitt — July 01, 2012 6 min read
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Given all of the communication tools that we have, bullying happens in many forms and it constantly surrounds us. If we wonder why it continues to happen we need only to look to a society that constantly focuses on someone’s flaws, reality television where real housewives of wherever make mean-spirited comments about one another, bad parenting, politicians who are the poster children for bad behavior and an influx of anonymous blogs where people post ignorant comments about things they really don’t know much about; all because they’re angry about something.

In schools, two of the areas that bullying happens is on the playground and on the bus. The playground is a place where schools can make sure adults are trained to spot bullying. The bus offers administrators and parents a much more difficult venue because the one adult responsible for the students is spending their time making sure they are driving students home safely. They simply cannot address every problem that happens on the bus. They can only focus on the ones that get out of hand.

When bullying involves elementary students, some bus drivers feel badly for writing up a discipline referral because they feel the kids are just too young to really understand what they did wrong, which becomes a bigger issue for principals. Bus drivers need to understand that all kids should be held responsible in some way for their bullying behavior but it is not their job to do it alone.

The Peaceful School Bus
There are bus drivers who understand how to set the tone on the bus and others who know how to appropriately discipline children. But bullying on the bus happens for the same reason bullying happens in others areas of school or the neighborhood, not all adults understand how to address it. One person who knows how to deal with bullying is former school administrator Jim Dillon, author of the Peaceful School Bus and No Place for Bullying.

PD: How can we help drivers who are have a hard time driving the bus and supervising 50 kids?

JD: The first and most important thing we can do to help bus drivers is to realize and accept the fact that they are not the key people to rely on for controlling student behavior on the bus. Can they improve their skills in interacting with students? Yes, but that is necessary but not sufficient for addressing bullying or any inappropriate behavior.

If drivers feel they are primarily responsible for controlling student behavior, they will only feel more pressure and less support for doing an almost impossible job. Expecting drivers to “control” the bus would be like expecting a teacher to control the class with his/her back turned to the class all day while he/she had to also cook a meal, write a report, do laundry or any other task that requires attention.

Part of the tendency to look to drivers to do the job comes from the fact that school personnel have trouble conceiving of solving any problem involving student behavior without direct adult control of kids. Kids know that such direct control that works (to some extent) in the school doesn’t work on the bus. After six hours of being under control, the bus is an environment where they can finally operate more freely on their own. The problem is they are not used to having such freedom and often abuse it when they get it.

There are two primary ways for helping drivers:

Let them know that we don’t expect them to do it by themselves. Let them know that we will be doing things in the school to prepare the students for riding the bus. This support has to be visible and tangible to them-we just can’t say it. We need to let them know that we want to hear from them and that we will not be bothered or too busy to listen to them. We need to let them know that we want to hear about problems before they get too big. Drivers might think that coming to school staff with a problem is a sign that they are not doing their job or not able to do it, we need to correct this type of thinking.

Raise their status in the eyes of the students by making sure that students see drivers as part of the school team not accessories. We need to explicitly state this to kids and provide many opportunities to show this. One thing we did at Lynnwood Elementary School, where I was principal, as part of the Peaceful School Bus (PSB) was to have bus route photos taken of the drivers and kids together and post these pictures prominently in the school-this is symbolic gesture that sends a powerful message. Staff need to be aware that what we don’t do and say sends a message to kids, so if we don’t do tangible things that show that the drivers are part of the team, the kids will assume that drivers are unimportant and not part of the school team.

PD: How do we proactively address the issue with students and staff?

JD: Obviously, I would say that the PSB program is a way do this but it can be done without adopting the program. More importantly leadership needs to understand the principles behind the program and can certainly work with a team to find ways to operationalize those principles in way that works for their particular school culture and climate. I would prefer that school leaders do that rather than just find a program and say in effect that if we do this program our problems will be solved. No program by itself solves a problem-it is only a tool. Change comes with people changing people. The best tool has no value unless it is in the hands of people who know how to use it and why they are using it.

The best proactive strategy for bullying but especially for bullying on the bus needs to be guided by this great quotation from Ken Rigby in his book, Children and Bullying: ”...direct teacher control is generally ineffective... the approach must be more subtle and indirect... but clearly the most important factor is the influence of other students, specifically what children think their friends want them to do. Applying this last piece of knowledge requires teachers to help students understand what other students think, as opposed to telling them what they think they ought to think.”

This is an extremely difficult paradigm shift for people in schools to make. It runs counter to the culture of our schools. People are reluctant to “give” up their traditional direct control approach because they will feel that they will have nothing else to use. Principals cannot just tell people to do something different but they need to lead the learning about what effective bullying prevention requires (what Rigby articulates).

Leadership is the key to starting these conversations. The question leading the change for more effective and proactive bullying prevention on the bus should be: what are the knowledge, attitudes and skills that kids need to be effective bystanders on the bus? Kids need to know that they have more influence than we do. They need to know that they have a responsibility to care for any one, not just those who they happen to like. They need to have specific words and actions that they have heard and rehearsed for dealing with bus situations. These words and actions should be familiar to them so that they are better equipped and prepared for the bus environment (End of interview).

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Click here to learn more about Jim Dillon, The Peaceful School Bus and his new book No Place for Bullying: Leadership for schools that care for every student.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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