Notes from a conference on bullying

By Anne Collier

The only way really to change a school culture to one that’s respectful and safe is to get everybody involved, and everybody has to include students, of course, because it’s their school, their workplace and they represent the vast majority of the people there. “So how do we involve them?” I asked Stan Davis of the Youth Voice Project on a panel I was moderating at the International Bullying Prevention Association conference this week.

I wish I had a recording of what Stan, whose comments I found both heartening and inspiring, said, but a couple of my takeaways were: You can get them involved by starting with a survey of their thinking and experiences (use a free tool like and be sure to include text boxes where students can type in their observations) and asking them questions like, “What kinds of things have you done to make things better for yourself and others, and how has that worked?”; “What kinds of things have teachers or other staff done to make school a better place?”; “Which specific behaviors should adults at school help to stop?”; “What staff actions help all students feel safe and learn?”; and “If you were mistreated by peers, what did you do that helped? What did adults do that helped? What did peers do that helped? For each, what happened next?”

Stopping victimization is vital, but hopefully we’re also doing something equally vital for our intrepid explorers of vast new online and offline territory that doesn’t have playground monitors: helping them develop resilience. Stan, also an author who was a school counselor and child and family therapist for 41 years, said that two things add up to resilience: unconditional belonging and self-efficacy (see this on how efficacy in online spaces can increase positive use of them). We need to ask ourselves, “To what extent are we providing for a sense of belonging and self-efficacy?” We also need to break the code of silence that adults themselves condition in kids by telling them from early childhood on that it’s bad to “tattle.” “Twenty percent of victimized or traumatized high school students who’ve reported to an adult were told to stop tattling,” Stan said, adding: “This is the most damaging thing adults can do.” Because we’re sending them the message that their problem’s not important, not worth our attention.

A handful of other important insights among so many gained over three days:

* A bullying survey of 30,000 Finnish students found that verbal abuse was the most common form and cyberbullying (phone and Internet) the least common.
* Bullies bully not out of anger but to get something they want (approval, attention, social status, etc.). They have perceived popularity (often seen as most popular but not most liked). They generally need witnesses (most incidents occur when peers are witnessing) – one reason why it’s so important to empower witnesses to support targets (privately or publicly) and/or take a stand for what is right/civil/respectful, the Finnish study found.
* Don’t focus on changing victims (by somehow making them less vulnerable), but rather on encouraging bystanders to reduce the bully’s rewards (attention, support, etc.) and supporting targeted students, according to the study’s authors (see Related links below).
* Defended targets or victims are “better adjusted” than undefended ones, even if only one peer comes to his or her defense, confirming many scholars’ comments on resilience.
* Schools need to have clear policies on bullying and act on them with consistency and care, but student suspension cannot be the only response, much less “zero tolerance” leading reflexively to suspension.
* Schools need systems in place for safe, anonymous reporting of incidents, especially if a strong code of silence seems to be in place.
* Helping students feel safe about coming to staff with their concerns needs to start in kindergarten.
* School communities need to do both situational and culture-change work – situational is incident-related (“teachable moments”) and culture-change or culture-of-respect is obviously ongoing and involves all community members, including parents.
* Adults need to model the behavior they expect to see in children. If they are dismissive of children’s concerns, talk about others negatively in front of them, embarrass them in front of others, or otherwise show disrespect, they will have a hard time creating a school community culture of respect that mitigates bullying and increases academic success.

Above all, note these two insights from teens who have been victimized: 1) what helps most is having someone listen, preferably a peer (where what helped most was “spent time with me”) but also an adult (where the biggest help was “listened to me”), and 2) the time-honored” advice kids have always gotten from adults – “walk away,” “tell the person to stop,” “pretend it doesn’t bother you” – usually only makes things worse. When we work with children we’ve just got to stop defaulting to the advice we heard as kids and base our response on solid research. Best of all, though, might be to give advice less and listen more!

Related links

* Microsoft study on adults’ views on bullying: Highlights of a study of parents and educators Microsoft unveiled at the conference included: 90% of parents are familiar with cyberbullying, and 73% are either very or somewhat concerned about it; 73% of educators are familiar with the issue, 76% believe cyberbullying is a very or somewhat serious problem at their school, and they consider cyberbullying (76%) a bigger issue than smoking (75%) or drugs (75%); 56% of educators have received cyberbullying training and – among those who haven’t – 47% say it isn’t offered and “36% say the school/school district doesn’t consider cyberbullying a priority.”
* The Finnish national anti-bullying program, KiVa, is this year being used in about 75% of Finnish schools, according to its co-creators, Profs. Christina Salmivalli and Elisa Poskiparta at University of Turku.
* Here’s a press release about a mobile app for making anonymous bullying reports
* Missouri has a School Violence Hotline.
* At-a-glance findings (Report No. 2) on bullying victimization from the Youth Voice Project
* “Clicks, cliques & cyberbullying, Part 2: Whole-school response is key”

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