By Jill McDonald
We teach our kids to do the right things; to care for and treat people with kindness and respect. Educators teach young people skills to stand up against bullying and focus on building a safe, inclusive, and caring school community. Programs and team-building activities are consistently embedded in the school day. This is done to provide for and reinforce the importance of relationships and to create an environment where every child feels a sense of safety and belonging, in order to feel confident to learn and grow. So why isn’t this enough?
Bullying happens every day, in every school, everywhere. Think about it: As children develop and learn, they try out many behaviors to communicate their needs and get what they want. They require guidance and modeling to learn proper ways of treating one another as they grow.
In an environment where negative behaviors are persistent, it is common for feelings of fear, anxiety, and unhappiness to set in. An environment that tolerates and overlooks ongoing bullying and harassing behaviors can become dangerously toxic, with negative consequences for all. All of this can hinder a person’s physical, emotional, and academic growth and potential.
It is how we work with our kids, empower the bystanders, and respond with interventions and consequences that will determine the severity, number of incidents, and extent of the bullying. These are three important keys to creating a safe and caring climate where young people know they can make a difference and incidents of bullying and harassment are minimized.
Can We Teach Kids to Take a Stand?
Despite the morals and strategies we teach, there are millions of scenarios where bystanders simply remain silent. Sadly, some get caught up in the moment and laugh along or actively join in, participating in the harassment. Do well-known behavioral theories explain this? Do the needs for safety, acceptance, and belonging overpower the sense of doing what is right?
Much research supports the importance of the bystanders’ roles, and bystanders are estimated to be approximately 85 percent of the student body. No doubt, taking a stand and reaching out to the targeted individual takes courage. It is important that young people understand that their courage in a situation may encourage others to take a stand as well.
Reasons children do not take a stand include:
• Afraid of retaliation; afraid for themselves
• Don’t know what to do/do not have effective strategies
• Afraid they will make the situation worse
• Lack self-confidence/don’t believe they can help the situation
• Afraid of losing social status by speaking out
Do not believe that adults can or will help
They do not see it as their responsibility
How do we teach young people that we all have a responsibility for contributing to the creation of a positive climate in our schools, as well as in other areas in our lives? One of the answers may be hidden within ourselves to explore or more fully develop. Let’s put ourselves in our students’ shoes and practice what we are asking them to do by considering:
• What would I do?
• What would I say?
• Is there something that is preventing me from taking a stand?
• What fears might I have?
• How comfortable am I taking a stand?
• Do I see it as my responsibility to take a stand against behaviors that may be negatively
impacting a climate?
Is it difficult for only kids to take a stand? Or do we, even as adults, struggle with the same fears and pressures—realized or not? What we might learn about ourselves from reflecting on these questions may help us to better understand and teach young people important skills for becoming active, caring community members who are willing to take a stand against bullying and negative behaviors. If we are paying attention and consciously making an effort to take a stand in similar situations ourselves, we may become more apt in helping our young people with what they are challenged to do.
October is Bullying Awareness Month. Let’s take the challenge and practice what we teach!
Jill McDonald, M.Ed., has worked as a public educator for the past 20 years. She has been a middle and high school teacher, an At-Risk Program Coordinator, and has worked as an elementary, middle, and high school administrator. Her professional career has focused on the development of preventative programs, which serve to eliminate bullying and harassment, increase an appreciation for diversity, and empower students. She has been a leader in district and community-wide diversity programs, where she has gained recognition and awards. Ms. McDonald co-authored Bully-Proofing for High Schools and Engage Every Student: Motivation Tools for Teachers and Parents. Ms. McDonald is a national trainer for the Bully-Proofing Your School, Creating Caring Communities organization. She has worked as a consultant, providing workshops and trainings for teachers, schools, and Intermediate School Districts. Currently, Ms. McDonald is an elementary principal in the Huron Valley School district and continues to research principles of effective teaching and violence prevention.
Books by Jill McDonald: Bully-Proofing Series