School bullying, despite on-going efforts to curb it, is still a troubling problem in classrooms today. Recent research suggests that 36% – 40% of American adolescents are victimized (Borba, 2005). Persistent efforts to stop the bullying has, on average, reduced bullying by an underwhelming 50%. What is worse, after extensive “comprehensive” anti-bullying programs, some schools show an increase in bullying incidents of as much as 15%. Apparently some students, instead of learning how to stop the bullying, learn more effective methods for perpetuating it! We have not yet conquered the problem. Discouraging, isn’t it?
In an attempt to better understand bullying, I conducted a research project in which I interviewed twenty volunteers ages 10 to 56 who had experienced being bullied. One after another they told their stories, describing how differences in ethnicity, socioeconomic status, physical characteristics (strong girls, small boys, overweight, blind), gender differences (tomboy or gentle male), or just being new to the school, resulted in them being targeted. On the whole, it seemed to these victims that if they were seen as outsiders of the “popular” group, they were at risk of being bullied.
The participants also described how they were victimized, not by particular anti-social individuals, but by different individuals who emerged from the “cool” popular group, by group dynamics, and by the teachers’ ignorance, complicity, and participation. The following is a summary of their concerns:
The teachers don’t really help….They say to ignore the bullying, to tell them to stop, or tell someone, but none of this really works. If I complain to the teacher, she says to stop tattling, and doesn’t believe me. Most of the time the teachers don’t really know what’s going on, and I don’t know why, but they usually side with the popular group. I have to defend myself… I admit that sometimes I become the bully.
As a conscientious teacher surrounded by conscientious, hard-working colleagues, I was surprised to hear how so many of the victims considered that the teachers were part of the bullying problem. Have we not for decades been disseminating well-researched educational programs for reducing such things as racial and ethnic prejudice, gay and lesbian sensitivity training, eliminating “put-downs” and promoting kindness and respect for all? Do these problems really still exist in classrooms? Perhaps not quite as visibly, because students now know not to be racist or sexist publicly in front of the teacher or the goody-goody students. But in the hallway or playground, it is often a different story. Some researchers have pointed out that 80% of bullying occurs within 10 feet of the teacher—but behind his/her back. We put out all this effort, and get minimal results. What do we need to do differently? What is missing?
The participants in my research study all pointed to classroom group dynamics as the birthplace of bullying, where if you do not conform and fit into the prescribed requirements of the popular group, or conform to the teacher’s expectations, then you risk being the target of abuse. If the teacher has publicly expressed frustration with you, or demonstrated lack of support for you, you are doubly vulnerable—the popular group can harass you, lie to the teacher and be believed. You are now labeled both an outsider and a trouble-maker.
It reminds me of a long-established principle of social psychology, called the fundamental attribution error:
A failure to recognize the importance of situational factors in affecting behaviour, supported by the inflated belief in the importance of personality traits and dispositions in affecting behaviour.
Is there room in our busy teaching agenda to consider the “situational factors”? We often automatically resort to teaching friendship-building skills to individuals at risk, implying they have some deficit in personal social skills, but we are perhaps likely to neglect issues of mutual respect and social intelligence that emphasize understanding the other, and respecting differences.
If bullying can be characterized as a power game played for the purpose of establishing and maintaining the pecking order, the social status, the hierarchy in a group, then to effectively minimize the possibility of abusive bullying, perhaps we need to step back a little and look at the bigger picture. Some degree of jockeying for power is probably inevitable in our competitive culture, but the limited lens through which we see individual bullies engaged in aggressive behaviour may be keeping us focused on symptomatic behaviour, and may be omitting the context that drives the development of bullying.
A recent study on gang prevention (can we consider gangs the school bullying graduate course?), found that there is no simple and clear solution for preventing or reducing gang activity, but points to an interesting conclusion.
Prevention efforts that concentrate only on individual characteristics will fail to address the underlying problems….a multifaceted approach that targets individual youth, peer groups, families and the community is required. (Esbensen, 2000)
Perhaps the same principle might apply to the smaller matter of bullying—prevention efforts that concentrate only on individual students who are misbehaving, and applying standard consequences (like “zero tolerance” policies) will fail to diminish school bullying, because these strategies fail to address the underlying problems of bullying. We need to develop a “multifaceted” approach that addresses the self-acceptance and social skills of individual students, that includes the related issues of group dynamics and respecting differences, and also considers teacher leadership practices and the classroom/school culture.
Although bullying involves individuals, the act of bullying requires that two individuals interact, that bullying behaviours must occur in the context of a relationship. We can continue with codes of conduct and enforced consequences for breaches of the same, but we also need to assess why these particular students are the ones involved. Perhaps our remedies for bullying need to be directed less onto behaviours (symptoms) and more on developing relationships of respect (attitudes)—respect for oneself, respect for others, including some understanding of how an attitude of respect can inoculate a social environment against bullying.
Respect for oneself involves an attitude toward oneself, an appreciation of one’s abilities and an understanding of one’s shortcomings—not self-esteem but a certain self-acceptance and certainty that I am acceptable the way I am. Along with such a sense of adequacy I need an understanding that I will never be perfect, that nobody is perfect, that all of us are on a journey to become the best we can be. Such self-respect and reasonable expectations constitute insurance against the cycles of name-calling and retaliation that often infect classrooms: If I feel comfortable with who I am, the insults, name-calling, and social aggression will not make nearly the impact upon me—in effect, I can ignore it and keep my dignity.
The name-calling and social abuses of bullying, though rooted in personal feelings of inadequacy, is directed at others, and thereby becomes a relationships issue, involving social status and hierarchy— “I’m better than you.” Punishments and consequences often feed into the cycles of retaliation, with the issue of respect for others often not on the agenda (“I’ll get you back for telling!”). Defeating bullying, then, requires empathic listening in order to “understand the other before expecting others to understand you.” (S. Covey, 1998). Respecting differences—noticing and accepting how we are all the same in some ways, and each of us unique and different in other ways— this is the attitude that undermines classroom bullying.
Can the teacher’s leadership style in a classroom affect the group dynamics and individuals’ behaviour in that classroom? Can authority-based leadership spawn bossy, abusive student behaviour? Can a competitive learning environment produce winners and losers in a struggle for status in an academic hierarchy? Is school bullying the “canary in the mine” hinting at bad air in the learning environment? Hmm.
Leadership may have at one time meant muscles, that “might is right.” But today the meaning of leadership is meant to incorporate social intelligence: how well the leader gets along with people is an integral factor in the effectiveness of the leadership. It is easy enough to be friendly to the people or the students we like, who are like us, who do not confront us with negativity, who appreciate our efforts on their behalf, and who follow our directions obediently. But what about the student who we do not like, (because he/she reminds us of someone else unpleasant), who is very different from us in interests, abilities, energy level and personality, who questions and argues with us, who ignores our efforts on their behalf and who fails to follow directions, whether intentionally or not. What about this student?
For the classroom teacher, responding respectfully, with social intelligence means making friends with the classroom scapegoat—not making concessions for him, but modeling for his peers how to express irritation and frustration in a respectful way. We are not required to be perfect, to perfectly embrace him/her as we do the friendly student that likes us, sits quietly, follows directions, and achieves academically, but we can interact respectfully.
If we are to successfully teach social intelligence and prevent bullying, as part of the personal planning curriculum to our students, then we need to demonstrate and model it by our behaviour. In Mohandas Gandhi’s words, “an ounce of practice is worth more than a ton of preaching….We must become the change we want to see.” If we want respectful behaviour to characterize our classrooms, then we must begin by responding respectfully to every student. Responding with social intelligence means looking beyond the individualistic culture that prevails in our schools, and developing a sense of community, mutual responsibility and respect in our classrooms. Probably integrating and modeling such examples of socially intelligent behaviour will be more effective, and take less class time than the current “personal planning” anti-bullying curriculum that competes for structured learning time, and begets such limited results. We have been working hard to defeat bullying. Maybe now is the time to start working smart. When we can begin to “be the change” we want to see in our classrooms, perhaps then our idealism about developing healthy schools can become a reality.
C. Battaglio (2008). Bullying: Understand and Managing it. First Choice Books.
M. Borba (2005). Nobody likes me, everybody hates me. Jossey-Bass.
S. Covey (2003). Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
F. Esbensen (2000) “Preventing Adolescent Gang Involvement.” Juvenile Justice bulletin, USA Dept. Of Justice.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Carol Battaglio, currently a school counsellor in Surrey School District in British Columbia, holds a Ph.D. in Counselling Psychology from UBC. Dr. Carol Battaglio provides practical and experiential workshops based on recent research on bullying. Her workshop gives teachers specific strategies to maximize social-emotional intelligence in the classroom. Dr. Battaglio can be reached via email firstname.lastname@example.org, or via telephone 604- 777-2800.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s January 2010 issue.