Teachers have one of the most challenging but also most rewarding jobs, although the litany of demands can often feel overwhelming — especially when it comes to preventing bullying. Even with the best teachers, children are frequently faced with harsh words and harassment both in schools and online. Teachers and parents alike often feel helpless because not everything can be caught or prevented. But actions to help fight against bullying still have a significant impact. In honor of National Teacher's Day, and as a former teacher, this article is in honor and support of all the teachers fighting bullying by reminding us of the importance of a watchful eye and supportive hand.
According to the American Psychological Association, "Bullying is aggressive behavior that is intentional and involves an imbalance of power or strength." Often times, bullying occurs out of the teacher’s direct sight — such as in bathrooms, hallways, or on playgrounds. And today's children are unfortunately faced with a new complexity: cyber-bullying. I saw some of the most horrifically mean-spirited bullying occur through Facebook — from posted pictures with captions meant to insight a slew of hateful comments or an open forum for a comparison between two students, to aggressive messages. The internet allows a greater sense of distance, increasing the tendency for young adults to become more aggressive and less inhibited. Text messaging is yet another popular outlet for harassment, as well as any popular social media site, including Tumblr, Formspring, Snapchat — the list goes on.
Many adults are not as familiar with how common bullying can become, or even how it is done online. It is a school's duty to educate all teachers on the modes of bullying, signs, and preventative behaviors. If you are at a school without any bullying-awareness or prevention, speak up. All it takes is one passionate teacher or student to lead a workshop.
It is truly a daunting task to worry about protecting children, but the environment of a school and classroom are of the utmost importance. If students feel safe and understand that it is an educator's job is to keep them safe, they are more likely to come forward with concerns. I tried to repeatedly ask students how they were doing and emphasize that they could come speak to me at any time. Constantly talking about confidence, support, and a no-tolerance policy for bullying really seeps into their ears eventually, and increase the chances that they will reach out for help when needed. Regarding prevention, it is important to reach out to the children that do seem to struggle to make friends. There are many ways to boost a child's confidence, particularly those that seem to have trouble making friends or appear to be targeted by bullying. Some examples include: asking the child to help you with classroom tasks, spending more one-on-one time (and often during targeted times like lunch or free-time when they may feel more alone), or giving them a classroom job that provides them with a sense of accomplishment and reduces isolation. Finding older student mentors is also another great option.
Involving parents is also crucial — both preventatively and in the solution. Parent workshops led by teachers and students can be extremely informative for many well-meaning but unaware adults. It is extremely difficult to monitor every online and in-person action of a child, highlighting the importance of education and support from a school. Parents can do a great deal to reinforce confidence and find new outlets that engage their child, such as after-school programs. Focusing on the bully is of equal importance; they are often struggling with confidence themselves and ignoring those behaviors can be extremely damaging. Estimates show that about one out of four elementary school bullies have a criminal record by the time they are 30.
No matter what issue gets brought to your attention, or any suspicion that you may have, it is critical to immediately and sensitively respond. As a teacher, I felt scared that I wouldn't do a good job protecting every student, and I often felt like I tried and yet failed. But there are successes and with support, I've seen many kids bounce back, find new friends, and learn to ignore the problem until it ends up dissolving. There often feels like there is no right answer — but being a bystander is certainly the wrong answer.
The APA, OLWEUS, and StopBullying.gov are just some examples of many programs with great support — an important read for parents, teachers and students. For those being bullied, please know you are not alone and that adults can help. Try reaching out to different people until you find a comfortable mentor such as siblings, teachers, parents, older students. Reaching out to teachers and adults can be intimidating but this isn't a problem you should face alone. You might be surprised but those peers that make you feel small are nothing compared to the many, many people out there that love you.