We’ve all wondered how to handle bullying in the classroom. Usually, there’s a specific behavior that’s happening, and it’s so much more complicated at the human level than the media makes it seem.
It would be great if you could just slap a consequence or two on the “mean kid,” call home, and nip the bad behavior in the bud. But why does it seem like our interventions often just make kids sneakier?
Is it just me, or do most parents want us to always solve this in a way that will almost never serve the weaker, picked-on kid?
How to Handle Bullying in the Classroom with Prevention
The main thing I’ve learned in addressing classroom bullying is that prevention works far better than anything else. Once you’ve got a grade-level or classroom culture of chaos and meanness brewing, it’s going to be much harder to end the behaviors.
Preventing bullying comes down to equipping kids with information, creating a kindness culture, and empowering all kids to maintain the learning environment THEY want. When teachers are forced to get involved in individual instances of bullying, matters get messier AND less effective.
Teach kids (and parents) the difference between being rude, being mean, and being a bully.
The simple fact of the matter is that most kids don’t know the difference between rudeness, meanness, and bullying because most PARENTS don’t differentiate between them.
Rudeness: I was being self absorbed or careless and accidentally (or just without much thought) said or did something that hurt someone else – physically or emotionally.
Here are examples of rudeness.
- I was rushing to get to lunch and bumped into someone in line.
- I kept interrupting a friend because I wanted to be heard.
- I got over-excited on the playground and cut in line.
- I didn’t let anyone else work on our group project because I need to work on my manners and desire to control outcomes.
Meanness: I intentionally hurt or embarrassed who is my social equal, but it only happened a few times or less. Once made aware of my actions, I stopped.
Sometimes kids just don’t like each other very much and will be mean on purpose. This STILL isn’t bullying, especially if the two are roughly social equals and it only happens a few times. Jealousy often creates this dynamic, as a student who feels jealous will sometimes pick on the kid who they perceive to “have it all.”
Fortunately, this kind of nonsense can often be stopped when you point out the bad behavior to the student who is being mean. They don’t genuinely want to be a bully, and a thoughtful conversation can end it effectively. Even if there is still a personality clash, they’ll just avoid the student, stop the gossip, and move on.
Here are some examples of meanness.
- A student gossips or tells lies about another student as an act of retaliation. When confronted, they’ll stop the behavior and either apologize or try and pretend it never happened. They won’t be friends going forward, but they’ll both move on.
- In front of the whole class or on social media, a student makes fun of another student of equal or greater social standing. It happens a few times or less. If the target or a classmate confronts the bully and asks them to stop, they’ll quit.
- At a football game, a student trips another student on purpose in the stands, because the other kid was gossiping, “stealing” a boyfriend, or some other drama. The student falls down and is embarrassed. Once a tough consequence is applied for the behavior, it never happens again.
Bullying: It involves repeated mean behavior toward a student who does not or cannot stand up for themselves. The target is usually socially weaker and has done nothing to provoke (or deserve) the bullying. This is often meanness for the fun of it or because the bully enjoys the power of watching the target cry or become even more meek.
Here are some examples of bullying:
- A student repeatedly harasses another student on social media. The target takes down each post and then avoids eye contact at school. Ultimately, the victim has to stop social media while the bully continues to enjoy it, because it’s causing too much crying and embarrassment to be fun anymore.
- A student is about to sit down when another kid pulls their chair out from under them. The behavior goes unchecked, and the next day, the student gets tripped on the playground by the same child. Later that week, the bully peeks into the bathroom stalls while the victim is using the restroom and starts laughing. The teacher sends a note home but nothing changes.
- A student constantly makes fun of another student’s religion, culture, appearance, sexual identity, or race.
- One student finds an embarrassing photo of another student and circulates it around campus.
Differentiate with kids between tattling and telling.
Once students know the difference between rudeness, meanness, and bullying, you can talk to them about tattling.
You want to create a culture where bullying is handled efficiently. Sometimes, this requires kids to TELL the teacher what is happening. On the other hand, you can’t fully appreciate how out of hand and ridiculous tattling can get until you’ve taught elementary school. Almost all classes of kids go through phases where the tattling is so out of control that no one is learning anything. Kids will tattle about cutting in line, drinking for too many seconds from the water fountain, littering a pencil shaving, and more.
Walking this fine line is REALLY difficult, especially with little kids who struggle to know the difference between appropriate an inappropriate tattling.
It helps to differentiate between tattling and telling. Since you could never teach kids about every possible scenario, it works better to ask kids to evaluate their REASON for telling a teacher about bad behavior in the classroom.
If they are wanting the teacher to know because they want someone else to get into trouble, that’s usually tattling. Some kids just love to watch others get into trouble, so they’ll tattle about line cutting, cursing in the classroom, if someone else told a lie, or other infractions that don’t even jeopardize anyone else’s safety or well-being. Teach kids that tattling is not appropriate. We don’t need an entire classroom of disciplinarians. Students need to mind their own business.
If students feel inclined to talk with the teacher because they are worried about someone’s safety or feelings, that’s usually a clue that it’s okay to tell. It gets a different name than tattling because tattling has a negative connotation. So if Sally wants to tell a teacher because Jose’s group keeps excluding him from participating and she is worried about Jose’s feelings, that’s okay.
As teachers address students who are tattling, they can redirect with a simple, “Are you tattling or telling? Are you saying this because you want Student A to get into trouble or because Student B is hurting?”
Create a welcoming culture of kindness.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you can create a culture (usually as a grade-level team) where kindness is celebrated and students feel comfortable being themselves, you’ll have so many fewer instances of bullying. Your disciplinary slate will be much easier to manage.
Check out this post about using restorative circles as a proactive measure in your classroom. With better relationships across the grade level, students being open and vulnerable with each other, and moments each week to connect deeply, I had WAY more time for quality instruction and wrote far fewer referrals.
Other restorative practices help, too. Brain breaks, ice breakers, and dance parties all help.
When students are mean or rude, try not to overemphasize it. Have private conversations with them. Say things like, “You were really mean just now to student A, but you’re not a mean person. That’s not who you are. You’ve got a great heart. So what’s going on today? What caused you to do that?”
Conversely, every time you notice students being extra kind, offer an incentive. Something as small as a sticker, a high five, or an encouraging text home to a parent can make a huge difference. When students see these behaviors rewarded and noticed, they’ll look to duplicate those behaviors.
Be an example.
Finally, remember that you set the culture in your classroom. No matter how frustrated you get, never hit below the belt. You can discipline kids without a biting, sarcastic tone or unkind words. If you resort to that sort of mess, you’ll be creating more trouble for yourself down the road as students copy it.
Remember to never use your position of power to hurt kids. As teachers, we often feel powerless, and that can create some ugly behaviors. But kids don’t understand the burden of being an educator. All they see is you – the adult in the room – picking on a child.
Develop classmates’ ability to apply positive peer pressure.
By late October, your classroom should have a welcoming culture of kindness that’s deeply embedded in the way your students relate to one another.
When students feel happy and secure in their environment, they will protect it.
When students experience kindness and security in the classroom, they’ll correct bad behavior and meanness before it escalates to bullying.
It is MUCH more effective when fellow students apply pressure to the mean student than when adults intervene, especially in upper elementary students and older. By third grade, most students are already eager to please their friends. If students don’t like the way someone is treating another student, they’ll put a stop to it quicker than you can. That’s why prevention works so much better than intervention.
When a student corrects another kid’s meanness, discreetly pull that child into the hallway or whisper in their ear, “Thank you for standing up for so-and-so. You were a great friend today and you make our classroom more fun for everyone.”
How to Handle Bullying in the Classroom Once It Has Already Started
Bullying can happen even in the most well-run classrooms and schools, particularly as students get older. How can you make a meaningful difference in the situation, instead of making matters worse?
Also, there is so much pressure on teachers and administrators to STOP the bullying, as if we are 100% capable of ending bullying in our classrooms. Do everything in your power to influence the situation, but rest assured that you are limited. Only the kids involved can end it.
Know your campus’s bullying policy, and follow it.
You can’t change the situation without knowing your campus bullying policy back and forth. At our school district, we are all required to watch training videos about bullying at the start of the year and take a little quiz afterward.
Unfortunately, it’s just 1 of about 20 policy videos, so we tend to forget by the end of the first grading period. This is one you probably need to remember, so refresh your memory as often as needed, and especially when mean behaviors are starting to crop up in the classroom, hallways, and on the playground. If those relationship dynamics turn into full-blown bullying, you’ll want to act quickly.
Empower the target.
So many parents (and even students) want the teacher or principal to just punish the bully without equipping the target.
The problem is that as long as the target is perceived as meek and unable to take care of themselves, a different bully will just crop up next year.
What makes me the most sad is when parents decide to pull their kid to another school or district, thinking it’s just negligence on the part of the school district. While that CAN be true, they quickly find that after a brief period of calm, their child is being targeted again.
Here are some ways to equip a target of bullying:
- Re-teach social skills – Unfortunately, kids who are bullied often are missing key social skills or seem immature for their age. It’s certainly better to proactively teach these skills, but avoiding social errors can slow down the instances of bullying.
- Teach your child to assert him/herself
- Prepare smart “comebacks”
- Talk to kids about social power dynamics
It’s not what most parents want to hear, but teaching the target to stop the bullying themselves makes a huge difference in outcomes. When parents and teachers deal with every single mean behavior, it usually just creates sneakier and more subtle acts of bullying.
Get to the root of why the bully is acting out.
Kids aren’t just born mean. Bullying is a learned behavior, and it can be unlearned. Is the child being bullied by a parent, adult role model, or older sibling? They often take it out on others.
At the very least, bullied children are sometimes trying to take control of a situation as a coping mechanism. So many behavioral challenges are the result of a child (or even adult) trying to take control over their chaotic lives. For that reason, it’s not unusual for a child going through a divorce, major relocation, or loss of a family member to bully another child.
Apply classroom and school consequences consistently.
In accordance with your campus bullying policy, apply classroom and school consequences for hurtful behavior the same with each child.
Avoid getting involved in every last dispute or classroom drama. Particularly at the middle school level, you should take care not to let micromanaging student relationships take over your entire day. You’ve got to teach.
Students will often do a better job than teachers at stopping bullying behavior in its tracks. If the most popular or quick-witted kids in the class will deliver an embarrassing retort when a bully behaves badly, it will almost always work to end the cycle.
But when you MUST get involved, per the bullying policy, make sure you’re enforcing it evenly and fairly. If the entire school can get in sync with each other, it will go a long way toward preventing future bullying incidences – assuming the consequences are tough enough.
Inform administrators, counselors, other teachers, and all guardians.
Parents of both parties need to be informed that you’re aware of what’s going on, following your campus bullying policy, and doing anything extra you can to stop the behavior. Don’t be afraid to make the call. Parents get REALLY upset about perceived or actual bullying, and it will save you so much time and emotional energy by getting ahead of the situation and communicated early and frequently.
It can also be really important to involve parents so they can make decisions around social media usage, ensure that the child isn’t unsupervised in dangerous locations, and work on social skills if necessary.
Notify your campus administrators so they can be fully informed if a parent calls, especially if they might be angry or demand changes be made at the school. Some parents don’t understand that teachers and administrators have extensive training on how to best serve kids who are being bullied.
Finally, talk with your campus counselor. Occasionally, the counselor will have insight into the bully and target’s home life that can be helpful. Further, they’ll be equipped with specific social emotional learning tools that can help both parties.
Have frequent check-ins with both parties.
Make notes in a visible place that will remind you to stay in contact with both the target and bullying student.
At least once a week after the initial complaint, you’ll want to touch base with the target and see if matters are improving. If they are, be sure to speak positive words over the aggressor. If you focus on the progress being made, you’ll amplify that behavior and continue to see improvements.
If the victim is still struggling with bullying behavior, be sure to listen and make note of how they responded to each incident. Talk with the student about ways they can handle future incidences to try and limit their exposure and also ensure that the bully isn’t being rewarded by their reactions. You’ll also want to make the bully aware that you’re involved and taking notes on his or her behaviors.
With each incident, notify parents of all parties. With cooperation from parents, the situation can be locked down quickly.
Remember – quality discipline is rarely fast and easy.
Good discipline takes time, energy, and intentionality. When our response to troubling behavior is to just yell or complain at the student, we rarely get far. Kids need to know that there’s a coordinated effort on the part of all adults to stop the behavior and protect the target.
This is almost never convenient or easy. Taking extra time out of your busy day to call both sets of parents, document actions taken by both parties, and coordinate visits to the counselor’s office is a pain in the butt. However, doing a great job addressing bullying can make a huge impact on the overall health of your grade level.
When teachers and staff people take a single instance of bullying seriously, kids across the grade level learn what will and won’t be tolerated. It’s much easier to build a positive and kind classroom climate when good behavior is incentivized AND bullying activities receive a consequence.