Teachers are on the front lines in the battle against bullying. With the exception of students themselves, they are the closest to the problem. They are the adults most likely to witness something, and since they interact with multiple students on a daily basis, they also have the greatest opportunity to impact their students in a positive way.
Aside from making yourself familiar with the signs and symptoms of bullying so that you know what to watch for, here are some simple guidelines for fighting bullying from the classroom.
How teachers should respond to bullying
1. How to respond to a belligerent bully
Especially as you get up into the later grades, it’s quite common for a bully to direct their hostilities against anyone who tries to intervene, including teachers and school staff. In these situations, it’s important to maintain a tough exterior, and never allow yourself to be suckered into name-calling or childish taunting with a student.
In these situations, a calm and simple “Wow” or “alrighty then” or “what a baseless and unnecessary statement” will often suffice. If you’re stunned and stumbling for words, it’s best to keep it simple like this rather than spit out a cumbersome response. Remember, no other response is necessary. A rude, baseless remark does not need to be acknowledged through any type of lengthy response. If they continue, calmly inform them that such disruptive language will be met with consequences, and then follow through on that promise.
2. Speak out against prejudice
Research conducted by Elizabeth Englander in 2009 found that fewer than one in six gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender students said that teachers or other school staff consistently intervened whenever homophobic remarks were made in their presence. (Toppo, 6-13-2012) This type of indifference has to change. Teachers have to speak up whenever they overhear hate speech, mean-spirited ridicule, or intolerance in their classrooms.
There is no need to respond to such remarks with punishment or a grand lecture. You needn’t make a big deal about it. A simple, “Janessa, I won’t tolerate that kind of hurtful language in the classroom” is enough to suffice. This lets Janessa know that not everyone is amused by her antics nor do they share her opinion, and gently makes her aware that expressing such sentiment could come at a personal cost. As for the other kids in the class who might be hurt by such a remark, it serves the all-important purpose of letting them know that such hurtful sentiments are not universally agreed upon, and that some adults do stand up against cruelty.
So create a no-judgment policy against hurtful speech of any kind, including that which isn’t directed at any person in particular. Don’t forget: every child in your class has a unique history with unique past experiences and unique friends and relatives who are close to them. This means that hate speech directed at any particular group or subject is likely to strike close to home for at least some of them.
How teachers can prevent bullying
1. Do your part to promote social cohesion
Promote activities and classroom projects that encourage a lot of time working together in different groups. The more time kids spend interacting with each other, the less likely they are to judge and denigrate one another. This works especially well if you actively participate with the group, encouraging conversation with one another and coyly prompting dialogue between students who don’t normally interact. For example, you might walk over to a small group of 6 or 7 students and lead the discussion in a way that encourages dialogue between the quiet kid and little Ms. Popular talks-a-lot. The more you can facilitate civil interaction that crosses normal social boundaries within the classroom, the less likely kids will be to bully each other once they hit the hallways. If every teacher did this right from grade 1, it would lead to a substantial drop in bullying rates.
2. Talk up anti-conformity heroics
Follow the guidelines we offer in Raising Socially Responsible Kids (bullying prevention chapter) to talk up the concept of how our most cherished heroes (Martin Luther King, Gandhi, etc.) have had to overcome popular opinion and group harassment to stand up for what was right. Teachers are in a unique position to educate kids on the folly of the ignorant masses. The more you do this, the more strength kids will have to speak out against bullying in their own lives.
3. Reward prosocial behaviors in the early grades
Reward kindness and compassion when children are young. You can give out kindness badges for good deeds committed or create a caring student of the week award. Even giving out special privileges such as being able to sit next to the teacher or pick certain projects in response to kind behaviors can motivate kids. As adults, we tend to punish the bad more than we reward the good. Be sure to reward kids for compassion when they are young, and it will carry over into the later grades.
4. Use quotes
Write different motivational quotes on the blackboard that encourage prosocial behavior. If you purchase the eBook of this publication ($4.99; proceeds go to help kids in need), it includes a bonus chapter with different quotes designed to help kids combat and cope with bullying. There are several ways you can utilize these in the classroom to promote social intelligence and combat bullying.
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