If there’s one thing my students have taught me over the past 15 years, it’s that bullying doesn’t subscribe to any demographics. Every day, children from all backgrounds—whether they’re from affluent or underserved communities, whether they’re in elementary school or high school—fall victim to bullying or are the perpetrators themselves. With the popularity of social media, bullies are indeed finding new, innovative ways to target their more vulnerable peers. Unfortunately, with greater awareness surrounding bullying, more misinformation among teachers seems to be the norm. Here are four things I’ve learned about bullying:
It Often Starts at Home
The way our children act and are treated at home extends to the classroom and their interactions with their peers. Part of the work of building resilience in our children is teaching them ways to grow self-confidence. They need to know that they don’t have to belittle someone else in the process.
I’ve seen so many students begin the school year confident in a particular subject or self-assured because they excel in an extracurricular activity. Time passes, and something happens—they perform poorly on an exam or make an innocent mistake. Common missteps like these can be the catalyst for ongoing self-esteem issues. These issues can make some students vulnerable to performing bullying behavior while others can become more susceptible to bullying.
That’s why I consistently encourage my students to focus on their positive attributes, to always try their best in everything they do, and to believe they can succeed despite the negative opinions of others.
It May Start with the Company They Keep
Sometimes we underestimate the power of peer pressure. Once our students enter the classroom, they are highly influenced by other students. Some feel pressured to go along with whatever the majority is doing. So, if the majority is targeting one student, some children find it easier to fit in if they imitate the same behavior.
I always encourage children to make friends with peers who celebrate their talents and those of others. To grow up to be healthy adults, kids need to first feel good about who they are and surround themselves with likeminded people. During group activities, I often partner students who struggle to do this with their positive-thinking counterparts. This gives each student the opportunity to learn ways to support one another.
It’s Not a One-Time Event
Bullying is definitely a serious issue, but we shouldn’t let it steal our students’ childhoods. They need the space to just be children. That means they deserve the opportunity to make mistakes and to learn from them without being referred to as bullies or victims of bullies. For example, what does it mean to call someone a bad name one day or steal their pencil another day? Are these examples of less-than-perfect behavior? Yes. Should these be considered bullying? The answer is no.
I’ve learned that bullying is repeated, aggressive behavior that’s used when someone does not know how to express themselves in an appropriate, respectful, or safe way. I encourage teachers and parents to ask more questions if a student tells them they’ve been bullied. Ask about the details—for example, when did the incident happen? where did it happen? what was the severity? and how many times did it occur? It’s critical to know these details before drawing any conclusions.
Today, we use the term bullying much too casually. This creates a culture of misconception that is difficult to see. The overuse of the word can lead to labels that hurt our children long-term instead of protecting them. Often, so-called bullies don’t realize the impact they’re having on others. It’s important to help them recognize how much their actions and language impact their peers. On the other hand, many of the children deemed bullies are students who are battling personal issues like anxiety or depression. We must do our best to help them overcome these challenges.
Labeling a child as a bully before finding out the facts, can present a missed opportunity to help a student who is suffering—often, from the very same trauma we accuse them of carrying out. On the other hand, telling a student they’ve been a victim of bullying can encourage isolation.
It’s important to me to teach my students how to navigate uncomfortable situations, stand up for themselves in a safe manner, and interact with others—even when they don’t particularly like the circumstances. The truth is—whether we’re talking about the classroom or the boardroom, there will always be people in our lives who we don’t like, and who don’t like us.