Bullying is not only hurtful, it is dangerous. For the bullier and his/her target, ongoing bullying produces adverse effects, impacting both/all participants negatively and sometimes permanently. You/we know this.
And you/we also know this: many if not most incidents of youthful bullying thrive at school, where shaming, rumors, threats, and physical clashes are known to often take place. As a result, bullying not only impacts a student’s educational readiness but also emotional, psychological, and overall well-being, often with lasting effects.
Knowing what we and they know, parents, educators, administrators, students and staff members frequently collaborate on collections of preventive and corrective strategies in their effort to inhibit bullying behaviors, and in the macro sense I fully believe that all schools endeavor to do so to the very best of their ability. Many schools now have elaborate anti-bullying programs in place to help students who may be or are being bullied. And the best of those can truly be called ‘comprehensive.’
But, from what I have seen in over two decades as both educator and administrator, few have clearly defined and effective approaches for addressing the bullier him-/herself on the immediate heels of a bullying event; for schools to claim they have a “comprehensive” student wellness program, this key component cannot be treated haphazardly nor informed according to the shock & frustrations of parents and administrators.
It Does and WILL Happen- the Consequences When
Creating a positive, healthy, and respectful environment at school is everyone’s ideal. To safeguard children at school, there is a need to create a safe social environment, in which students respect and are respected by each other and school staff. Many children accept this easily and have long ago felt the social and emotional payoff for certain kinds of self-discipline in filtering their own behaviors and attitudes. Others need not only stern messages (consequences) regarding their behavior, but specific instruction on both the how and the why of respectful behavior. Do they realize that behaving respectfully also benefits them? That it actually feels better most of the time? Apparently not.
While there must be strict rules and policies regarding bullying at school, many realize that coarse punishments and zero-tolerance actions don’t work anymore…and beyond postponing and better disguising destructive behavior, they probably never really did. Consequences are needed both as a learning tool for the wrong-doer and as evidence of fairness and confirmation of protection to others. But while consequences are (an essential and) natural outcome of flatly unacceptable behavior, we educators need to consider their objective before implementation. If the objective is punishment for its own sake (which may well be what we were shown when we misbehaved as children), it will be harsh, but treat a child harshly and you may be leading him to be more determinedly harsh himself. In any case, harsh treatment won’t teach compassion and respect toward others, and it won’t instill a compassionate reluctance toward moving on to a new target once the heat from the last incident dies down. Stopping the behavior is always good, period, but better that it stops because of a change in perspective (attitude) by the bullier than because he got caught and has determined that he must re-calculate circumstances and methods for future bullying.
Consequences With Support
If we remember that all behaviors have a (perceived) purpose, and that all children are still relatively uninformed and unaware (and thus of course in school!) such that their understandings and perceptions are still immature, we may be able to avoid acting in ways contrary to our roles as educators and parents & get down to the business of teaching/re-teaching as an aspect of the necessary consequences for bullying behavior. Educators and parents will continue to faithfully implement measures to prevent cruel and violent behaviors, one (or more) child(-ren) upon another. Many, and I believe most, schools and school administrators energetically employ both formal and informal awareness-raising actions and/or programs and activities to inhibit bullying in schools, but adult support, optimism and tolerance are often seen to collapse at the moment an incident does occur, as incidents will, allowing other impulses–anger, frustration, disgust–to take over. They’re only children for a while, and just as with math and art and reading, time eventually runs out for formally helping them arrive into adulthood happy, contributory and pro-socially effective. We can’t squander our short-term opportunities as parents and educators to help the children learn what they need AND WANT to learn, and although a bullying incident may feel like a moment calling for anger and upset, let’s not miss that it is a key teaching moment for a misguided child.