The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Taming School Bullies is Worth the Effort

on December 6, 2017

Although bullying among young people has been frequently noted in news articles recently, I have not seen anything about how schools are dealing successfully with the problem. Today I will report on my own experience with bullying as a parent and a principal.

 When two of our elementary age children told us about being bullied by classmates, my husband and I did our best to help them solve those problems. We talked to them about ways they could avoid certain situations and people, and also talked to some parents of kids who had bullied them. In a couple of serious situations, we reported what had happened to school officials. But as far as we could tell nothing was done about them. So, we just warned our children to stay away from those kids on the playground or when traveling to or from school, and try to walk with a friend and not linger anywhere.

Later, when I became a principal I saw bullying first hand, but I was able to do some things to stop it or at least minimize it.

At both of my elementary schools I was aware of some bullying right from the start, able to identify the bullies and to discipline them by taking away privileges. A couple of times I suspended students for physically harming their classmates. But, I was far from pleased with the situations.  I remembered having good relationships with almost all my students as a high school English teacher and wanted to create good relationships in these schools, too.

As time went by, I began to understand what makes bullies out of ordinary kids and to figure out how to change them. What I saw most of the time was someone who was not a good student and was often publically called out or punished for errors. At the same time I noticed that a bully usually had some friends in the class; kids who were also poor students or physically unattractive. They catered to the bully because they wanted protection, so they  gathered around him or her in the playground and when going to and from school.

What I tried to do for the bullies I identified was to give them opportunities for positive actions and encourage teachers to do the same. Often that recognition was just being asked to move some heavy things in the classroom or take some material to the school office. I smiled when they did something positive and thanked them, and asked teachers to do the same.

If a bully became difficult in class at any time, I told teachers to send them to me, not in a punishing way, but under the umbrella that I needed their help.  When they came I would not castigate them for any misdoing, but instead ask them to help me in some small task.  If they told me about their problems, I tried to help them find solutions.

As for classroom activities, I encouraged teachers to mix up various groups of students to work together. Although it was not a good idea to put a struggling reader into the top reading group, there were many other situations when they could contribute positively to group activities.

Essentially, what bullies need are chances to show themselves in positive roles in the classroom, the lunchroom and the playground. In short, everyone has some good qualities, and it is the job of teachers and principals to find them, make them visible to everyone else, give them credit publicly for good work and behavior, and deal with misbehavior or poor work privately and humanely.

I won’t pretend that all bullying stopped immediately and permanently in my schools, but much of it did, and bullying became far less popular. At such a young age, students can and will find it more beneficial to be a hero or a heroine than a troublemaker. My teachers and I also found that it made our jobs easier and more rewarding.

In ending this story of  success I must admit that it is not so easy everywhere.  My schools were small and family poverty was rare.  All I wish to claim is that young people would rather be thought of heroes than demons.  Teachers and principals should give them that opportunity

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