School Climate & Safety Opinion

Bullying Is an Adult Issue First

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — February 02, 2014 5 min read
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A cursory online search using the terms ‘bullying’ or ‘name calling’ will turn up a growing number of journal articles and references to research on the topic. The recent issues within the Miami Dolphins identified bullying as an issue in professional sports. And, just this week, after the State of the Union, ironically, a New York Congressman threatened to throw a reporter off a balcony and “break him like a boy”. Is this really the state of our union? These adults in the public eye can be no better than this? So, with full awareness that these adult behaviors capture headlines and are probably not as rare as we hope they are, we, who work with children, try to reverse the trend.

In 2004 Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, GLSEN, and 40 other national organizations developed “No name-calling week” in response to the apparent rise in bullying. Their idea emanated from a book written by James Howe called The Misfits. Characters in his book organized a No “Name-Calling Day” in response to bullying they were experiencing. Although some focus “No Name-Calling Week” on the acceptance of gay, lesbian, and transgender students, it is intended to be a week in which there is no “dissing” or “stone throwing” toward anyone. The personal challenge involved in attempting to stop defining a person or persons by their appearance, behavior or a group to which they may belong is a great one. There are tens of thousands of students who don’t even go to school each day because of bullying and teasing. Almost half the students in grades 4-12 report being bullied at least once in the past month.

It is only when a commitment is made to refrain from name-calling, that one becomes harshly aware of how much we actually do it. With that awareness, we can begin to change our behavior. Without acknowledging that we actually do it, we will continue to be participants, perhaps without even realizing the damage we are causing.

In the effort to better understand the dynamic of bullying, we now identify three players: the bullies, the bullied, and the bystanders. It helps when discussing the issue to use these labels we suppose, but the shorthand carries its own danger. “Paul is acting like a bully” or “Annabelle is a bully” identifies a person’s negative behaviors and associates that person with a group. We also have heard labeling of children as potential victims. Haven’t we all heard, “Gina is such a victim”? Labels stick and become identities and identify where we belong. Paul and Annabelle and Gina may be impacted in ways far beyond what we realize, even as they become adults.

Claude M. Steele, the James Quillen Dean for the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University, has done extensive research on the effects of stereotyping. His work uncovers the subtle understanding that if there is a social stereotype that is negative and a person is identified as part of that group, the result can be a negative one. It can affect the individual’s perception of self, and influences behaviors that follow. So it is essential to take the time to say what we mean without labeling. Although almost an hour, this rich and detailed explanation of this concept is worth the time it takes to watch, even if only in sections.


We see stereotyping and labeling often in the news, in editorials, op-ed pieces, blog posts. We see it in the words our elected officials use. And the results of those words being used does nothing to bring people together. So and so “is a bully” “is clueless” “is uneducated” may seem less harmful than the labels used in the past (like those to place people in racial or cultural groups) but they do the same thing. Those words carry a subtle message of hierarchy, insiders and outsiders, belonging or not. If someone is called uneducated, it is assumed the one saying so is educated. You belong that “that” group and I belong to “this” group. It hurts. It sticks. It is carried into other interactions.

How can we teach the children to not be bullies, if the adults are unaware that the words we use and the actions we take divide and hurt and maybe even bully? Those who feel bullied, whether child or adult, sometimes try to please the person who threatens or spreads rumors, or uses their power, actual or perceived, to exclude or hurt them. When they become brave enough to stand up or speak out, often our response is to question their veracity, particularly because, at first, their behavior toward the bully appeared to be friendly or conciliatory. And then, because we may not understand the change in behavior toward the bully we question the victim’s integrity.

But, there are glimmers of hope in the adult world. A recent interview with Barbara Bush is illustrative of a step forward. She said, “My husband, Bill Clinton, and I have become great friends....We don’t agree politically, but we don’t talk politics.” It seems they have found a deeper common ground. That would be good for the state of the union and for schools and communities. The next step would be to accept those with whom we disagree AND be able to talk about those differences.

Now, more than ever in education, it is important to be able to talk with one another, and with those who make decisions that affect our work. We need to have less name calling, less stereotyping and more courageous conversations, with respect and dignity. It will be for the good of the future of education, and it may be the best way we will be able to help lead the children away from bullying. Out of the tragic school shooting at Columbine has come Rachel’s Challenge, a program created to help students and adults combat bullying and allay feelings of isolation and despair by creating a culture of kindness and compassion. Rachel, at only 17 years old, knew what many of us are still learning. She wrote “I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same. People will never know how far a little kindness can go.” Therein lays the nugget to change. Can we restore kindness to our interactions? If we can do that as adults, teaching the children becomes easier.

Steele, C. M.; Spencer, S. J.; Aronson, J. (2002). “Contending with group image: The psychology of stereotype and social identity threat”. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology Volume 34. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 34. p. 379. doi:10.1016/S0065-2601(02)80009-0. ISBN 9780120152346

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