Two months into the school year, Sarah's enthusiasm for school inexplicably took a nosedive. Her morning routines seemed to take her forever. The 7-year-old reacted to her mother's exasperation by turning sulky and tearful. With increasing frequency she missed the bus and needed to be driven to school.
When Sarah began feigning illness in order to stay home, her baffled parents contacted the teacher. Sarah's teacher confirmed that their daughter's zest for learning had waned and she was not finishing class assignments. Once a top student, she had now been grouped with a lower-level reading group.
Her parents met with the school psychologist who had several sessions with Sarah. Gradually, the mystery unraveled. It turned out that Sarah was being consistently harassed on the school bus by a girl from an older class. The girl would tease her, call her names and block her from getting off the bus at her stop. She threatened to "teach her a lesson" if Sarah "tattled."
Sarah's "escape tactic" was to avoid the school bus, and eventually, to avoid school itself. She was too afraid of retaliation to divulge the true source of her trouble. Yet as soon as this girl's abusive behavior was exposed and she was disciplined, the bullying ended, and Sarah's life returned to normal.
Bullying Leaves Scars
School bullying involves the psychological, emotional, social or physical harassment of one student by another. It takes the form of name-calling, taunts, slandering, shunning and physical abuse. Victims of bullying can suffer lowered self-esteem, physical health difficulties, anxiety disorders and/or depression.
Bullying can lead to excessive shyness, social isolation or a social phobia. Children who are victims of bullying may become school "avoiders" and later, drop-outs.
Which children are most likely to be the victims of a bully? Experts point to children who are perceived as different; shy, sensitive children; those with poor social skills; and children who are learning disabled and stand out as scholastically below par.
If you suspect your child might be the victim of bullying, look first for general signs of school distress. These might include falling grades, physical complaints on school days, and lack of interest in school work or after-school activities.
Bullies often coerce children into giving them money.
More specific signs would be unexplained injuries or torn clothes, missing belongings or money, or repeated requests for money. (Bullies often coerce children into giving them money or other valuables.) If someone is taking your child's lunch, he or she may come home hungry even though he took an adequate lunch to school.
Learn how to get your child talking about his concerns. It is best to broach the subject at a calm, neutral time. Ask general questions about whether something is bothering your child. Get as detailed a narrative as possible. Avoid interrupting or judging. Try to stay calm and do not make outraged statements while your child is telling his tale.
Avoid offering premature solutions. You may not get the entire story on the first telling. Be patient and bring up the topic again later. Finally, if you feel that something is going on and suspect that your child is withholding information, call his or her teacher.
No one needs to put up with a bully's outrageous behavior.
How Kids Can Fight Back
How can you help your child deal with the bullying? First, teach him to avoid being an easy target. A bully often surrounds himself with a group of peers. He consciously picks weaker, more vulnerable victims, and repeatedly bothers the same people.
In dealing with a bully, teach your child that posture, voice and eye contact are important. These telegraph messages about whether you are vulnerable.
- Act brave. Sometimes wearing the mask of courage is enough to stop a bully. If you walk by as though you're not afraid and hold your head high, a bully may be less likely to give you trouble.
- Ignore the bully. Simply ignoring a bully's threats and walking away robs the bully of his or her fun. Bullies want a big reaction to their teasing and meanness. Acting as if you don't notice and don't care might weaken a bully's incentive and bring his harassment to an end.
- Stand up for others. If you stick up for others when they are picked on, you are sending a message to bullies that bullying won't be tolerated. Then when you stand up for yourself, the bully knows you mean it.
- Be a buddy. Bullies are often cowards, afraid to stand alone. Two friends facing a bully is often all it takes to force a bully to back down. Make a plan with friends to walk shoulder-to-shoulder on the way to school (or recess or lunch or wherever you think you might meet the bully).
- Tell an adult. If you are being bullied, it's very important to tell an adult. Teachers, principals and parents can all help to stop bullying.
- Don't bully back. Don't hit, kick or push back to deal with someone bullying you or your friends. Fighting back just satisfies a bully and sets the stage for further skirmishes. It's best to stay close to others, stay safe, and get help from an adult.
Teachers Hold the Key
How can teachers and educators work to eliminate bullying?
The first imperative is to stop looking the other way. As long as we ignore dysfunctional behavior, we are giving it the green light to continue.
The second step is to recognize that adults must take charge to stop it. Kids can't do it on their own. They often don't talk about it with adults because they're ashamed, embarrassed, or are afraid the adults will only make it worse. But deep down, they want to talk about it. They need to know that every adult at school will listen to them and help if they report a problem with bullying.
Here are four practical steps teachers can take to address the problem of bullying in their classroom:
- Talk about it. Have class discussions about tolerance and respect for others, as well as the fallout everyone suffers when bullying is permitted. In the words of one expert, "Kids need to know that it's cool to stand up for other kids." Standing up for others takes courage, but when the values of a school or community support this ethic, it goes a very long way toward reducing bullying in a school.
- Students need to realize that they hold a lot of collective power. When the peers say bullying is out, IT IS OUT. When a peer group says bullying is okay, either by condoning it or doing nothing, they risk becoming a target themselves, exposing their friends to harassment and lowering the Torah values we hold dear.
- Be on the lookout for bullying and confront it when you witness it – every time. Too often we minimize and normalize bullying by saying things like "kids will be kids," or "sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you." Never cover up malicious harassment. Make it clear that if anyone's having a problem, they can talk with you. And make sure to follow through.
- Teach bystanders how to safely intervene. Most students are not chronic targets or chronic bullies. They're bystanders. And as we all know, what students typically do when they witness bullying is stand around and watch. Yet most students agree that they don't like to see it happen, and they often feel guilty or ashamed for not stepping in and helping out.
What Happens to Bullies?
Some children adopt bullying behavior to help mask their own feelings of inadequacy. They may be learning disabled or for various reasons failing scholastically or socially, and are desperate to win respect from their peers. A bully may lack good adult role models. If he sees parents bullying him or each other, he may regard this type of behavior as the proper way to act.
In the end, most bullies wind up on the losing end. If they continue acting mean and hurtful, sooner or later they find themselves with very few friends left – usually other kids who are just like them. The power they wanted slips away fast. School authorities marginalize them. Other kids move on and leave bullies behind, dismissing them as troublemaking losers.
Bullies can change if they absorb the fact that their behavior is not only wrong but destructive to themselves, and if they are willing to learn to use their power in positive ways.
Of course, some bullies never learn. But others respond to social skills training, remediation, "tough love" and positive role-modeling. Gradually they turn into cooperative and likable kids who grow up to become responsible, ethical and productive members of the community.