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What Should Schools Do About Bullying? A Q&A with Lissa Albert

In the first part of my discussion with researcher and cyberbullying expert Lissa Albert, we discussed what a parent should do if they suspect their child is being bullied. Today, we’ll look at what schools can do.

Q1.  What do you believe is the most effective approach for tackling bullying in schools?

As an educator, I believe that we must always begin with as much as we can learn about any topic before we make a plan to tackle the problems. This is very important where bullying and cyberbullying are concerned; many people are unaware of just how these behaviors are defined and manifest, and my thesis topic centered around the need for awareness in the educational field before any action is taken.

Q2. In your experience is the “zero tolerance” policy in schools proving effective at lowering the incidences of bullying? 

Zero tolerance, in my opinion, is not the answer. When we enforce zero tolerance, we are automatically branding the bully and sending a message that there is no room for improvement. Absolute zero tolerance does not take into account the entire picture, only the behavior. If we do not work on the situation, we are simply trying to eliminate players who are a symptom, not the problem.

There is a danger of zero tolerance that extends to those who become caught up in the policy and who are victims of bullying. Ty Smalley was 11 years old, bullied for years. On the one day he retaliated, he was the victim not only of a bully but of the school’s zero tolerance rule, and he was suspended. The results were tragic — unable to process this injustice, and forever changing his family, he took his own life that afternoon, feeling his parents would be disappointed in him.

Zero tolerance is too broad a brush to use when in a school bullying situation. Your earlier question about whether it is “teasing” or “bullying” – unless we investigate, get the full picture, we cannot identify what has happened. A zero tolerance policy takes that option off the table and eliminates the ability to resolve what may NOT be bullying after all. It removes the flexibility to handle the problem instead of eliminating the perpetrator.

There are many other reasons why zero tolerance is not the right answer for bullying; for example, younger kids who have not yet developed the proper filters for their teasing would be consequenced in the same way as an older student who may know exactly what he is threatening when he utters verbal threats or bullies verbally.

And because bullying is hardly ever a one-time incident, zero tolerance sweeps every incident under the umbrella of “Bullying” which not only devalues the true bullying situations but also unfairly labels those minor situations that are not bullying at all.

Research has shown that zero tolerance is ineffective in many different situations, bullying being one.

Q3. From your experience and research, are there any particular tactics that have proven successful in eliminating bullying in school environments?

The best ways in which we will begin to eliminate bullying is for schools to educate their personnel and their student and parent bodies. This is the first step to understanding what bullying is, how to recognize the signs in a child who may be bullying others or the victim of bullying, and how to deal with it from both the parental perspective and the school level. We can read from resources in book or article form, but having a live person who can answer questions is more effective, especially in answering questions specific to the setting or circumstances.

Integrating bullying education is — in my opinion — a crucial step. There is a lot for students to learn, and there is a huge load of material every teacher must impart over the course of a year. But bullying is part of our tapestry now, and must be given the weight of its importance.

There are ways in which bullying can be used as a topic in any classroom environment; English teachers can design entire units around the topic, History teachers can design research projects into cases of bullying throughout history, and how intolerance has shaped our world. There are many studies coming out that reinforce the idea that education is the first step to making bullying a topic, not a cause célèbre. Many schools and school boards in North America are beginning to embed bullying into their curriculum topics as a very real issue to address on a regular basis. I’ve no doubt that creative teachers, from K-12, can find new and engaging ways in which to integrate the topic.

Once we get the language into classrooms, we can begin to help kids help themselves, and the culture will begin to change.

Q4. What about assemblies and anti-bullying days?


Assemblies can be effective if interesting enough; there are many parents who have taken their grief of having lost children to bullycide and are out in the field talking to schools and telling their stories so that this never has to happen to another family. Kirk Smalley is one, John Halligan is another. These parents are profoundly effective in moving students of all ages to understanding the impact of bullying and the ultimate price no family should have to pay.

That being said, an assembly or a workshop in which students partake for an hour (they can be no longer than that, attention spans at any age are fairly short) and are not followed up are ineffective. As an educator, I’m happy to speak at parent evenings, but I’m happier to to do so in conjunction with helping to train school personnel in the subject so that those “on the ground” can learn to deal with it as it happens, or proactively. Speaking to parents is wonderfully effective as a supplement to what teachers are learning, as well as discussing with students. I’m always readily available to hold parent workshops to help them learn how to open the lines of communication, how to recognize bullying and the signs in their children of potential victimization, but it should not be conducted in a vacuum.

I know from the accounts of the aforementioned parents who speak to students that this has begun to make a difference; kids stating, in so many words, that they will never bully another, kids apologizing to those they have victimized, kids learning how to be “upstanders” instead of bystanders, kids pledging to conduct awareness activities of their own (and then following through) — these are all results of visits from those who know all too well the impacts of incessant bullying.

One-day awareness campaigns, such as Pink Shirt Day are great, only if used as a jump-start to actual consistency in discussion and dialogue and not just an isolated “feel-good” day. Bullying will stop when it becomes less of an expectation and more of an anomaly. The only way we can do that is by talking about the positives of responsible, empathetic, respectful behavior instead of laying out the “you should not” lists that our kids have heard for years. Emphasize the positive, eliminate the negative. Teach kids how to — don’t lecture them on what NOT to do.

A great program to help jump-start bullying awareness is National Bullying Awareness Week, in its 11th year now. Started by Bill Belsey, the entire program is available online at www.bullyingawarenessweek.org, and schools are encouraged to develop their own activities in conjunction with the suggestions given. Many awareness week activities have spurred action on a continuous basis. I definitely believe these kinds of programs have their place in our educational institutions but must be followed up with consistent and ongoing action.

Q5. To your knowledge, are teachers and administrators (the Vice-Principal and Principal) provided with effective training on how to handling bullying in the school?

Commonly, teachers are not given courses in bullying education in their training — either pre-service or professional development. Bill Belsey states: “this is like having nurses or doctors who can’t help the public with the flu!”

In my opinion, professional development must now incorporate bullying and cyberbullying education.

The Harvard Graduate School of Education stresses that “one-timers” — workshops, speeches, assemblies — are as effective as doing nothing at all. We need to empower students and one-shot deals are not empowering nor do they hold the weight for kids that an integrated curriculum could hold.

Mindfulness of the situation, of the behavior, constantly discussed, regularly addressed keeps ever-changing students doing their own mental inventory of behavior; developing empathy can happen in concentrated efforts to do so in schools.

But we must begin with education and training, because we cannot eliminate bullying unless we are proactive; otherwise, it is simply a band-aid response to a situation that, by the time it becomes a known issue, has already caused a terrible amount of damage.

Lissa Albert, M.A., Educational Technology

I would like to express my sincere thanks to Lissa for volunteering her time  to continue the discussion on bullying here on Coffee with JulieIf you would like to learn more about Lissa and her work, please visit her website Stay Smart Online

Photo at top of post: John Steven Fernandez, sourced from Camp North Star.

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Comments

  1. Amazing, amazing series Julie – and many thanks to Lissa. I’ve never had bullying explained so clearly, and with such sense. I love that she is full of concrete ideas as to how to address the problem and what we can do, as parents. Thank you both so much!

  2. I think the first thing we need to accept as parents is that, regrettably, this human behaviour will never be eliminated. For whatever reason, it’s something that’s in our DNA with how we socialize and interact, especially as children. Not to say educators and parents shouldn’t take action, both proactive and reactive as Lissa has outlined above, but there’s no ‘zero-tolerance’ or other policy that will eradicate this from our childrens’ lives. If we could remove all bullying from the schoolyard (dubious proposition, since it’s not just obvious, physical bullying that takes place but more more subtle verbal and ‘clique-based’ bullying, etc), then these activities will simply move elsewhere.

    As Lissa outlines making it socially unacceptable through awareness and education needs to continue. And, this is old-school, but frankly bullies need to be stood-up to. I resist giving my children those tips since then they will be punished with the zero-tolerance policy, but it’s an old adage that’s often true.

    • Your point is well taken, Brendan – and I should stress that
      bystanders should step in and stick up for victims but bullies should
      not be responded to in kind. You’re right that standing up is an
      effective method but in cases where the bullies are physically stronger
      or more volatile, or there is more than one, it is best to report to
      adults and have it taken care of at a level of authority.

      Retaliation,
      as I stress, is not the way to stand up to bullying – but bystanders
      should learn to be what we call “upstanders” – stepping in, if there is
      verbal bullying, and offering either statements that defuse the
      situation or putting the victim in a positive, caring light to let the
      bully know the victim is not alone.

    • Brendan – You’ve raised a lot of things that nag at me when it comes to the issue of bullying.

      Firstly, I’m skeptical as to whether teachers really have any control or power over bullying in school hallways and yards. It is certainly not done in plain sight and even when reported to them — what are they supposed to do to curtail it? Forced apologies don’t work. But I do really like Lissa’s overview of how teachers can integrate anti-bullying messages directly into curriculum.

      The other notion you raise is to stand up to bullies. This is a tough one. Some kids might be in a position to do so (large enough physically, or through the help of an influential or bigger older sibling, etc.) but I think that the majority of victims are vulnerable and don’t necessarily have this option. In movies and books, the “old school” approach usually works, but in my own life I haven’t seen it. For example, I did see one boy consistently stand up to bullies but when those ones faded away, others simply re-appeared to replace them. In the end, his situation had a fairly tragic result in high school when he simply couldn’t stand it any longer and lashed out with severe violence against a bully, landing himself in juvenile detention.

  3. I am so thankful that there is real conversation going on about bullying. As the Mama of two girls I am sad to say I have had to, and am still dealing with bullys. Sigh. Every little bit of information helps!

  4. I wonder myself what schools really can do. I think that people need to learn how to treat other people and teachers need to stay on top of it. That is one thing.

    grace

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