Myth 1: Buying a Program Will Stop Bullying (Part 1 of 3)
By Kathleen Keelan
“Bullying is not the issue this year. Get a program in place and move on.” –Administrator, 2012
The very complex issue of bullying cannot be solved by just purchasing a bullying prevention program. Period.
Schools and school districts want the bullying to end, so they have been known to call in the rodeo clowns, movie producers, and cartoon characters. Unfortunately, because of the intricacies of the power dynamic of all stakeholders, the bullying issue cannot easily be handled by any one solution.
Our knowledge of the issue is growing every day. Our understanding of how to stop the phenomenon is slowing improving. One thing we know for sure: it’s not an easy fix.
One instance I was involved in comes to mind. A wealthy private school had an extensive program against bullying, complete with assemblies, posters, and speakers. The teachers were given tokens that they could hand out to the kids when they behaved in such a way that they were not bullying one another. In one case, a student was bullied. The one who bullied him also felt bullied. Both students’ parents hired a lawyer. There was a restraining order awarded so the two could not be in contact with each other. The principal was completely dumbfounded as to how the situation got to this point, considering he had done so much to avoid bullying in the first place. The principal was not prepared to deal with the complexities of the power issues, the community, and the culture of the building.
Like that particular principal, teachers and school officials often feel at rest when they invest in a bullying prevention program, but their job is far from done. Sadly, when it comes to bullying, they can never really let their guard down until they work on the larger and stickier issue—the culture of the building.
People often ask me what they can do about the culture once it is set. Through my experience I believe there are a few things. To begin to curb bullying, we must work on the immediate interactions between the individuals in a school setting, engage the bystanders, and not rely on programs to fix the problem.
The culture that doesn’t tolerate, encourage, ignore, or placidly condone through silence is a culture that will not allow bullying to take place. A culture where the kids do not see the adults bully each other or other students is a culture that doesn’t encourage bullying. A culture where the kids don’t see adults who are trying to gain power for themselves in inappropriate ways is a culture where bullying will not be tolerated.
Rather than depending on a formal bullying program, adults need to set an example. If they see someone being mistreated, they need to respond immediately, even if it is a colleague or another adult who is doing the bullying. If they see a child being mistreated, they need to intervene quickly.
The mantra in the hallway, the bus, and the classroom must be: “We don’t treat each other that way here.”
Adults who witness an episode of bullying should:
- Stop it with a quick response
- Educate and be clear about behavior that is disrespectful; saying you are “just kidding” does not make it better
- Avoid ignoring it or excusing it
Classroom teachers bear much of the brunt of this immediate intervention role. They must:
- Know the school’s policy so they can tell the students how they violated it (many do not know it)
- Try to get the facts (much of the time, they argue that do not have the time)
- Not judge how upset the target is or tell the target how he or she should or should not feel (this requires training and leadership)
So, is there any value in investing in a bullying program? Consider whether the program addresses the above micro-interactions. It must also address “bystander intervention,” meaning will a bystander “step up” on behalf of someone being bullied? Some of the finest researches in the nation have found this to be one of the key factors in bullying prevention.
In a recent meta-analysis by Joshua Polanin, Dorothy Espelage, and Therese Pigott out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found bullying prevention programs were “effective at changing bystander behavior both on a practical and statistically significant level.”
Changing bystander behavior is at least a step in changing culture. We cannot and should not rely on bystanders to handle all of the issues of bullying, but if they are engaged, at least we can feel that they are assisting the adults in changing the culture. Schools can and should purchase a bullying prevention program as long as it has something to do with improving the culture and engaging the bystanders. However, changing the culture takes work, and relying on a bullying prevention program alone is a mistake.
As educators, it breaks our hearts to know that bullying goes on in our schools. It is important that the steps we take are having a positive impact for our sakes and the sakes of our students.
To oversimplify the issue of bullying is unconscionable, mainly because we choose solutions that are oversimplified as well. If we look at it for what it is, a human rights issue, then we will begin to really invest in true solutions that match the severity of the issue. The solutions will require bystanders and other group psychodynamic complex interventions that look at various power differentials in the community.
The myth of a quick fix for bullying prevention should be put to rest for good.
Polanin, J. R., Espelage, D. L., Pigott, T. D. (2012). “A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Bullying Prevention Programs’ Effects of Bystander Intervention Behavior.” School Psychology Review, 41(1), pp. 47-65.
Kathleen Keelan has dedicated her career to preventing bullying by working as a teacher, therapist, presenter, and expert witness in bullying cases. She has been conducting bullying prevention workshops in schools since the late ’90s and also conducts classes and webinars throughout the United States.