By Howie Knoff
The following issues have been well-chronicled over the past 25 years or longer: teasing, taunting, bullying, and harassment; physical aggression on students’ feelings of safety and security in their schools; students’ academic engagement in the classroom; and, for some, their academic achievement and potential for graduation.
Critically, the impact of these events has been especially highlighted over the past year due to a number of related student suicides—largely due to persistent teasing and harassment—and a recent study correlating high school students’ lower grade point averages with high levels of teasing or bullying.
While different legal and other definitions exist for some of these acts, it is not always clear when teasing becomes taunting, taunting becomes bullying, and bullying becomes harassment. Indeed, the severity or intensity of the event(s) rests more with perception and experience, and less with labels and legalities. What is clear, based on a number of Supreme Court decisions, is that schools are responsible for preventing and responding to teasing, taunting, bullying, harassment, and physical aggression when it occurs. What is also clear is that this is a community problem, and that there are no easy answers.
Significantly, a number of states have recently passed legislation in one or more of these target areas. We strongly encourage educators and others to read the actual legislation, because some states have recommended or mandated that schools develop, for example, teasing or bullying programs. Critically, there is a difference between developing a bullying program (in lowercase), and purchasing a Bullying Program or curriculum (in capital letters). The first is a schoolwide effort that applies the science and practice underlying Positive Behavioral Support Systems (PBSS) to increasing students’ interpersonal, social problem solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional coping skills. The second involves buying a packaged, more specialized curriculum that often does not work in place of or without a PBSS—and that teachers often see as “another thing to do.”
Schoolwide PBSS typically have three levels of implementation. At the prevention level (Tier I), behavioral science and practice recognize that we need to consistently teach and motivate students to use the social, emotional, and behavioral skills that facilitate prosocial interactions at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. The instruction must involve behavioral practice (through role plays), behavioral simulation (to facilitate the transfer of training), and positive practice repetition (like a football or basketball team) so that the behaviors become automatic over time.
At the strategic intervention level (Tier II), the skills should be refocused to address, for example, the bullies, the victims, and the peer bystanders. Here, through a combination of skills instruction, transfer, and accountability, the underlying reasons why students bully are addressed by teaching and motivating them:
- To get along more effectively with peers (e.g., using their Self Control, Staying Out of Fights, Accepting No, How to Share, and How to Avoid Trouble skills)
- To deal with their anger or other emotions (e.g., using their Dealing with Anger and Frustration, Accepting a Consequence, Dealing with Losing, and Responding to Failure skills)
- To access peer or adult attention in more appropriate ways (e.g., using Beginning and Ending a Conversation, Giving and Accepting Compliments, Asking for Help, and Convincing Others skills).
Victims, concurrently, need to learn and demonstrate—especially under conditions of emotionality—the skills that help them to avoid bullying situations, to respond appropriately and safely to bullies, and to learn from situations where bullying has occurred in the past. These skills might involve: Standing Up for Your Rights, Being Able to Say “No,” Dealing With Peer Pressure, Walking Away From a Fight, Dealing With Fear, Dealing With Another Person’s Anger, and Helping Someone With a Problem.
Peer bystanders need to learn skills that help them recognize, safely respond to, and resolve bullying situations by interacting either with the bullies or with the victims.
At the intensive need level (Tier III), incidents of teasing, taunting, bullying, harassment, and physical aggression are occurring so frequently, so pervasively across the student body, or at such a significant or severe level that the situation needs to be stabilized and then analyzed. The analysis, which we call a “Special Situations Analysis,” involves looking at how the following areas may be contributing to the problem or could be integrated into a solution:
- Different groups of students in the school
- Different groups of faculty and staff
- The settings where the incidents are or are not occurring
- The motivations supporting prosocial versus antisocial behavior
- Existing or potential resources and how they could be realigned or used to solve the problem
At this level, individuals or small groups of students may need to be involved in specific interventions that target specific behavioral or interactional changes. In addition, based on the results of the Special Situation Analysis, more specialized curricula or programs may be included to supplement the PBSS.
In summary, teasing, taunting, bullying, harassment, and physical aggression have no place in our schools, homes, or communities. Schools are best served when they use evidence-based PBSS to prevent these situations, and to provide planned responses to them if they do occur. Too many schools use targeted bullying programs as substitutes for schoolwide PBSS. Moreover, too many schools focus only on decreasing or eliminating these events, when teaching and motivating students is really what’s needed.
About the Author: Howard M. Knoff, Ph.D., is the director of Project ACHIEVE, a comprehensive, evidence-based national school improvement program. He is also director of the Arkansas Department of Education’s State Improvement/Personnel Development Grant, which is funding the statewide implementation of Project ACHIEVE.
Howie Knoff has authored or coauthored 17 books, published more than 75 articles and book chapters, and delivered more than 500 papers and workshops nationally. He is the author of an upcoming new book titled Classroom Discipline, Behavior Management, and Student Self-Management: Implementing Schoolwide Positive Behavioral Support Systems That Work, as well as the author of The Stop and Think Social Skills Program. He is a past president of the National Association of School Psychologists.
Books by Howie Knoff: Stop & Think Social Skills Program