Is it truly possible to have a bully-free classroom environment? There are numerous resources out there that say they can help you achieve a bully-free classroom, but do they work? While some of them do, every day you will read about or see a student being relentlessly bullied. There are blogs, websites, programs, and pamphlets that tout strategies for a bully-free classroom. If these resources really work, why does bullying still exist?
Unfortunately, attaining a bully-free classroom may not be possible with prescribed lessons and daily plans that teach students not to bully. Using prepared and well-researched lessons may be beneficial in the short-term, but bully prevention is doubtful with the simple presentation of classroom lessons related to bullying. Anti-bullying cannot be taught using the same methods and strategies you might turn to and use when teaching students about history, math, science, or reading. In the same way “Just Say No” did not prevent students from using drugs or alcohol, just saying no to bullying or teaching about its negative consequences will not necessarily be effective either. Kids of all ages know bullying is wrong, so why do some of them still bully?
A bully-free classroom can only be accomplished when something else is there to replace the bullying and to take the place of the related harmful side-effects such as name-calling, unacceptance of differences, shunning, shaming, and all the other torturous behaviors.
First, you as the instructor cannot be a bully yourself. Think critically about if you ever roll your eyes after one of your students says or does something that is strange or different. If other students see you, then you have just given them ammunition and permission to target that student. While you do not purposely or intentionally advocate bullying or the demeaning of a student, sometimes things you say and do can be taken out of context so you need to be vigilant about your own behavior first. A teacher must closely examine his or her behaviors and words that may quietly permit bullying to take place. The instructor needs to recognize what affect his or her words or actions have on students. Many students look to the teacher for their next move during a volatile situation. Will you be ready?
Second, teachers know their students well enough to identify who might be a possible bully or a bully-in-training. As you know, it is most likely that the bully has been treated poorly at home and is simply modeling the same behavior they see every day. They might be a target of bullying themselves by an older family member or another adult. You must step in before this person can pass it on to his or her peers. This might be as simple as sitting down with them and giving them a bit of extra kindness. They may need positive attention and love they may not be receiving at home.
The unpopular kids at school need this same kind of attention, and bringing a few of the unpopular and popular kids together for lunch with you will go much further than “teaching” anti-bullying as subject matter to be mastered like a new math concept. Treating every student as important and worthy, and encouraging your students to do the same, will generate more kindness and love in the classroom than a lecture about bullying.
Third, you must intervene when a student feels like he or she is being, or has been, bullied or is on the cusp of becoming a victim of bullying. For example, imagine a student in your classroom has done something that you know will inevitably target him or her as a potential victim. An example of this may be if a student mistakenly calls you mom or dad, everyone hears it and begins to laugh, which could become a reason for further humiliation. You can prevent it from escalating by immediately asking all students if they have ever mistakenly called someone by the wrong name. Share a personal example yourself to diffuse the situation and redirect attention from the student. This strategy immediately demonstrates to every student in the class that they were once in the same shoes as the potential victim and will likely recall how they felt, leading to the laughter and possible embarrassment to immediately diminish. When people of all ages see themselves in another person, they are less likely to bully or be mean to that person.
Finally, if you feel a specific lesson related to bullying prevention is needed, teach your students about empathy. It can be the “vocabulary word of the week” and can lead to a discussion about how to treat others. Between regular lessons, stress its importance, especially for elementary-aged children. Research shows that empathy can be learned, so start early and incorporate the concept into your lessons and the way you conduct your classroom.
Let the empathy lesson be the catalyst for students to treat their fellow classmates and others at the school the same way they would want to be treated. Students need to see they have more in common with their peers than differences. You never need to use the word bully to prevent bullying in your classroom or at the school. A loving, caring environment where all students feel valued can help lead to a bully-free classroom and school.