Stop using the word ‘bullying’ in school, researchers say

By Anne Collier

“Bullying” is a loaded term to say the very least, and not using it could not only defuse a lot of fear and harmful overreaction when it happens, it could save lives. I’ll get to the life-saving part in a minute, but first the problem with using the word.

Because of all the (certainly well-intended) awareness-raising and media attention lately, “bullying” has come to mean every imaginable mean behavior – from the rolling of eyeballs “to ‘not wanting to be your friend’ to sexual assault,” USATODAY reports, citing some examples from University of Illinois professor Dorothy Espelage. “The word ‘bullying’ has really obscured our ability to focus on what’s happening to children,” the paper reports.

Some of the behaviors people mistakenly call “bullying” are normative or part of being a human being (such as saying something mean when angry or making an honest mistake that one later regrets). Some are cruel and/or illegal. But calling every kind of negative behavior “bullying” is a problem because…

  1. A lot of extra unnecessary fear of tragic outcomes and/or lawsuits gets associated with behavior that isn’t serious and actionable. That deters kids from getting adults’ help in addressing any problem, whether big or small, because adult overreaction can make things worse for kids by drawing unwanted attention to them or something they report.
  2. Problems that are serious aren’t addressed fast enough (if they don’t fit the definition of “bullying” in a school policy) or addressed at all (if they go unreported).

On that second point, Espelage told USATODAY that it’s sometimes hard for teachers to address cruel behavior on the spot because they’re “often hampered by policies that require mistreatment to be repetitive.” She’s referring to the repeated aggression that’s “part of the classic definition of bullying.”

So Espelage and other researchers recommend that we just use the word “victimization” (e.g., see this) – because anytime anyone is victimized, the behavior needs to be addressed, and that word allows for about as many shades of gray as the spectrum of human interaction has.

Parents and teachers need to be able to work with kids – with the focus on them and the situation more than on a policy’s wording. Kids need to feel they can come to us when they’re hurting or seeing someone being hurt, for whatever reason and at whatever level of aggression, and they’re more likely to if we focus on them more than a policy (listening to what happened, getting multiple perspectives, and responding to the conditions of the particular incident).

As for how avoiding the term can save lives, Espelage told USATODAY that she “has served as an expert witness in legal cases in which a child committed suicide after being bullied. In several cases, she said, school staff members said in depositions that they were waiting for the alleged bullying behaviors to be repeated so they could treat them as bullying, in accordance with school policies.”

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