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Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways Schools Can Respond to Bullying

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 17, 2019 17 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new question of the week is:

How can teachers and administrators best address bullying in school?

Bullying has been present in schoolsmdash;probably from when schools first began. It’s longevity, however, doesn’t mean it has be here forever. This two-part series will explore what teachers, schools, and districts can do to combat it.

Today’s contributors are Martha Caldwell, Oman Frame, Terry Roller, Dr. Kris Felicello, John Seborowski, Jessica Hannigan, John Hannigan, and Kelly Wickham Hurst. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Martha, Oman, Terry, and Kris on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might also be interested in resources I’ve collected at A Beginning List of the Best Resources on Bullying.

Response From Martha Caldwell & Oman Frame

Martha Caldwell and Oman Frame, the authors of Let’s Get Real: Exploring Race, Class, and Gender Identities in the Classroom, developed a class their students call “Race, Class, and Gender.” They also provide professional development in diversity, equity, and inclusions best practices for schools through iChange Collaborative:

More than a third of bulling is bias-related. Students are frequently targeted for bullying because of their race, gender, religion, perceived sexual orientation, or physical or mental disability. And while bullying is associated with high-risk behaviors, poor grades, and emotional distress, when a core component of identity is its target, the effects are even worse.

The mechanisms of social jockeying are largely driven by social insecurity and the lack of a strong personal identity grounded in integrity. Many students are desperate to belong, and if they can’t meet that need in healthy ways, they’ll attempt to fit in through bullying, trying to be “cool,” complying with peer pressure, or kowtowing to stereotypes. Reluctant to express their individuality for fear of ridicule, they overconform and embrace stereotypes. Such posturing requires emotional alienation and results in superficial cognitive processing, apathy, and lack of interest in school. Unfortunately, these social dynamics are embedded in many school cultures.

Teaching students the social-emotional skills necessary to form supportive peer relationships can help reverse this dynamic and create identity-safe classrooms and inclusive school cultures. When the environment is safe for self-expression, students have more attention to focus on learning. Positive academic outcomes, especially among students of color, have been related to positive racial experiences in school. Experiences that validate a student’s sense of identity emerge from carefully designed interactions between students.

Engaging students’ real-life experiences in conversations about bullying makes social dynamics visible, and nowhere is this need more urgent than in gender politics at school. Students strictly police conventional gender norms, and gender-expansive behavior can result in harsh social punishment—ridicule, exclusion, even violence. Research on bullying reveals a clear gender gap: Heterosexual girls are harassed at a higher rate than boys at every level, with disparities increasing with age; almost half of students report exposure to relational aggression, a phenomenon ascribed primarily to adolescent girls; more than two-thirds of LGBT students report being bullied in schools; and more than 95 percent of transgender students report physical harassment. Research links gender-based bullying to low self-esteem, poor academic performance, elevated levels of depression, increased risk of suicide during adolescence, and long-term psychological effects that persist into adulthood.

Jasmin teaches her 7th grade students protocols for supportive communication using fishbowls. They share experiences in which they have been victimized, witnessed, been afraid to stand up to bullying, or bullied others. They quickly generate a series of real-life examples and discuss how these experiences impacted them and how they reacted. They identify common patterns in their stories and discuss the prevalence of identity-based persecution in the stories they hear. They develop scenarios based on how they wish they had responded. Through these highly engaging conversations, they gain awareness of the underlying power dynamics inherent in racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of identity-based harassment.

The fundamental human response to hearing a story is empathy. When students share stories, others relate and respond with compassion and respect. Conversations that address the role of social identity in bullying give students tools to identify mistreatment, counteract its impact, and make a positive contribution to their school culture. Self- and social -dentity awareness, particularly through storytelling, facilitates empathy, which fosters perspective-taking and critical thinking. Learning authentic communication skills facilitates positive and supportive relationships, which are the building blocks of inclusive school cultures. Through listening to their own voices and the voices of others, students’ identities are strengthened and academic confidence increases.

Response From Terry Roller

Terry Roller is assistant superintendent for the Alabama Department of Education. Prior to that, he served as superintendent of the Talladega City schools in Alabama:

As school leaders, we often address bullying with “add-ons” such as anti-bullying programs and firm discipline consequences. It is important that students, teachers, and parents have a clear idea of what bullying is and that the school clearly communicates the rules and expectations around bullying. It is also imperative that students and parents understand the protocols for reporting bullying and know how to get immediate help if necessary. However, in my experience, the approach that has led to the most success shifts the focus from reacting to bullying incidents to preventing them.

In my work in Alabama, we took this strategy statewide, and through our implementation, we learned that bullying is best prevented by identifying the root cause, designing a learning environment that promotes empathy, inclusiveness, and respect, and creating opportunities for students to make social connections.

Bullying is frequently the product of the environmental conditions of the child and results from a lack of empathy or understanding of how actions affect others. For some, aggressive behaviors such as verbal, nonverbal, or physical bullying have become an accepted part of life. A feeling of insecurity and low self-esteem, and the need to control their situation, may result in bullying behaviors, as can a child’s experience of having been bullied themselves. Social media often contribute to or exacerbate these circumstances.

We found that initiatives to prevent and intervene in bullying are best embedded in both schoolwide and classroom practices. To prevent bullying in our schools, we focused our efforts on the Learning Supports Pathway with our partners at Scholastic. Our staff, at all levels, were organized to connect every child with an extracurricular program, caring adult, and recognition and validation of their self-worth.

Efforts that provide open communication and build relationships between students and teachers is foundational. We find that connecting every child to an activity-based program results in a supporting relationship with an adult. The adult sponsors and coaches teach and role-model strategies for problem-solving and healthy conflict resolution. The experiences and relationships that result from participation in an extracurricular program give children a sense of purpose, self-worth, and a sense of identity. It also gives them a safe place and a caring adult with whom they can share their experiences.

Children who bully often are socially disconnected and struggle to find where they fit in school. As a school leader, my role is to embrace students, recognize their strengths and capacity, and use that for a cultural shift. For example, my work with athletes and other student leaders to recognize new students and include them at lunch, assemblies, and other school events resulted in an increase in all students’ perception of self-worth and ability.

Connecting with students through mentoring, coaching, and support yields a shift in school culture. The meaningful positive relationships established with adults in the building shift how the student sees himself and ultimately how he treats his school peers.

Response From Dr. Kris Felicello

Dr. Kris Felicello has been in the field of education for over 25 years as a teacher, coach, athletic director, assistant principal, principal, and assistant superintendent of human resources. He is currently the assistant superintendent of educational services in the North Rockland Central school district in Rockland County, N.Y. Kris obtained his doctor of education degree in educational leadership from St. John’s University in 2011:

One of the biggest challenges educators face in their quest to develop children into young adults is the issue of bullying. Emotional scars that kids deal with when they are or have been tormented, shunned, embarrassed, made to feel like less than, make it next to impossible to focus on learning.

The term “bullying” has been overused and misused, as it has become the in vogue term to describe any indiscretion in school. That doesn’t change the fact that it happens.

Kids can be shockingly mean to each other. It’s hard to deny that a hierarchy exists in most schools that dictates the haves and the have -ots of social status. This creates short-term and long-term damage to students and our society. It is becoming more and more apparent in our society as violence increases and in a political climate where the loudest voice is often the only that is listened to. I can remember teachers uttering the phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” and, embarrassingly enough, have been guilty of using that inaccurate cliche.

Physical scars heal, but emotional scars take much longer to repair. Try to remember a time in school when you were physically hurt; what did that pain feel like? Can you touch it still today?

Yet I would guess that everyone can remember a time they felt humiliated, left out, or made to feel like a fool. That is a pain that is much easier to feel, even many years later. It is time to address this in our schools, but, unfortunately, there is no magic bullet to fix bullying. If there were, every school in America would sign up regardless of the cost, especially in a time when students and adults fear violence in their schools.

Unfortunately, there is no panacea for bullying. What it takes is hard work, dedication, and a positive school culture. Principals and teachers need to model respect, resist the urge to use sarcasm, and get to know the children and other adults in their school. When a mistake is made, the adults need to show the students that it is OK, especially when you genuinely apologize.

Restorative practices, character education assemblies, advisory groups, programs like OLWEUS can all contribute to a bully-free school, but nothing will work unless each student has a champion, adults treat each other and students with respect, we take the time to teach our children what it means to be a good person, why it’s important, and how they can get there.

Educators need to embrace differences in their students, in other teachers; they need to let kids know that their “weird” is what makes them unique, special, and that their “weird” is a good thing. This can’t happen unless we model what it means to be a good person, teach compassion, talk about it, and give it the time it deserves. Isn’t developing the skill of tolerance and acceptance just as important as the ability to solve a quadratic equation?

Response From John Seborowski

John Seborowski is entering his seventh year as a school administrator after spending 12 years as a high school English teacher. He is currently the assistant principal of Pequannock Valley Middle School in Pompton Plains, N.J.:

As I have navigated my way through the last four years as the assistant principal of a middle school, there may be no more important topic that I have experienced than the one of bullying. It is one thing to sit and listen to stories and do investigations on possible situations, but the challenging part, and probably most important part, is figuring out ways to effectively address the issue.

At Pequannock Valley School in Pompton Plains, N.J., teachers, school counselors, and administrators came together and decided to use one word with their students to begin an effort to be proactive regarding the topic of bullying: empathy. The first challenge was differentiating between empathy and sympathy. Lessons were created, incoming 6th grade interviews took place, and class meetings with administration all emphasized the ability to share and understand the feelings of another rather than simply feeling sorry for someone.

Students were presented with scenarios and asked for their input on how they would feel if they were each of the people in the examples. As some students verbalized their feelings, others came to the realization that they, too, have been in their peers’ shoes. From there, the idea of empathy in the lives of the students began to take shape.

When students have empathy for others, there is a better chance that they will not actively hurt the feelings of others as well as not be a bystander when something occurs. If students understand how these actions can hurt others, the culture of the school can start to change.

Another key component to addressing bullying in school is to ensure that students know there are several adults in the building who can help them. In terms of building a certain culture in the building, one that focuses on fostering relationships among students and staff, each and every student needs to know that there is at least one adult in the building he or she can turn to for assistance. Whether it is an administrator, counselor, teacher, instructional aide, nurse, or secretary, we must ensure that all students feel supported in their day to day activities so that if something troublesome does come up, they know who to turn to for help.

One final area to consider is that of social media. Something that I stress with students as they enter middle school is the tremendous responsibility they have when they engage on social media. Too many times students engage in particular behaviors online that they most likely would never entertain in person. Students need to understand they are not talking to a computer or phone screen but rather people, people they most likely see every day. When working with them, I make it clear that the same expectations for interacting face to face here in school are expected out of the building screen to screen as well. It is critical to provide students with resources and suggestions on what to do when they encounter some form of bullying through social media.

When the word “bullying” is used in school, many teachers and administrators have an uneasy feeling; however, if the topic is addressed appropriately and proactively, trust among all stakeholders is built, and significant progress really can be achieved. The culture is slowly built, and, over time, the gains from teaching empathy, building relationships, and providing relevant guidance on social media can produce a true sense of community among all students and staff.

Response From Jessica Hannigan & John Hannigan

Drs. Jessica and John Hannigan are educators, administrators, educational consultants, and best-selling authors. They wrote the book Don’t Suspend Me! An Alternative Discipline Toolkit to help educators change challenging student behaviors for the long term:

Keys to responding to bullying include intentionally establishing a preventive social-emotional tiered system in schools where a) students and staff are educated on the meaning and impact of bullying on a regular basis in a variety of formats (e.g., schoolwide initiatives/expectations/challenges, classroom meetings, individual interventions/contracts, targeted group interventions, staff meetings etc.); b) strategies and skills are taught to all students around recognizing and safely addressing bullying situations; c) students feel connected to at least one educator they can trust; and d) students are provided with a safe, easy, and anonymous space and/or process for reporting bullying for themselves and/or their friends.

Using the alternative discipline framework from the book Don’t Suspend Me! An Alternative Discipline Toolkit will help teachers and administrators work together to assign effective alternative discipline for students who are bullying other students in-person or online that is Restorative, Reflective, and Instructional in nature. With this form of discipline, students are given the opportunity to restore any injustices based on their behavior, reflect on their mistakes, and understand the negative impact bullying has on others; learn new skills to prevent the behavior from continuing; and demonstrate mastery of learned skills. Some examples from Don’t Suspend Me! around the topic of bullying include but are not limited to:

Restorative: Complete a Restorative Contract with the other student, getting to the root of the problem and monitored by administration with (6-8 week) check-in points to determine if the contract agreed upon is being followed.

Instructional: Assignment—student will research bullying and tolerance and create a PowerPoint to teach other peers about bully prevention (e.g., lessons on relationships, how behaviors impact others, what behaviors will help them with making friends, learning empathy).

Reflective: Student will complete a behavior exam to demonstrate understanding and application of learned skills.

For the student being bullied (Additional suggestions to consider): Establish a safe zone on campus for him/her to go to, check in with student throughout the day, supervision of the contract and expectations, possible counseling—strategies for her/him to cope, and possibly working with the student who bullied him/her on a common project (you would have to monitor and give them a safe zone to work together).

Response From Kelly Wickham Hurst

Kelly Wickham Hurst is a 23-year educator, classroom teacher, and administrator who founded Being Black at School in 2016. BBAS is an advocacy organization that uses frameworks and data to assist schools in being more equitable. She’s a mom of six and grandmother of two and lives with her husband in Springfield, Ill.:

First, we have to have a clear definition. We’re operating from a dishonest place when all conflict is seen as bullying. I’ve had students have relationship issues they claimed were bullying. When I drilled down, it was miscommunication, hurt feelings, and being left out. That’s not bullying. When we care for students in a personal way, we’re better able to identify bullying. But, man, are we off the mark a lot here. We can’t even agree with what it is! And parents call us on this when they say their child’s been bullied and we’ve “done nothing” about it.

Thanks to Martha, Oman, Terry, Kris, John, Jessica, John, and Kelly for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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Race & Gender Challenges

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Look for Part Two in a few days.

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