To Get a Jump on Bullying, Start with Young Children and the School Culture

The world is suffering from a global bullying epidemic. According to the 2007 Kandersteg Declaration Against Bullying in Children and Youth, 200 million children around the world are being bullied by their peers at school, on the playground or online. As a result, victims of bullying tend to miss class, perform poorly in school, experience higher incidences of depression and, in extreme cases, cause physical harm to their peers or themselves.

In this Q&A, Merle Froschl and Barbara Sprung, co-directors of FHI 360’s Educational Equity department and co-authors (with Dr. Blythe Hinitz) of The Anti-Bullying and Teasing Book for Preschool Classrooms, offer insights on addressing the problem early. FHI 360’s Educational Equity department produced Quit It, an anti-bullying curriculum for kindergarten through third grade.

October is National Bullying Prevention Month. How should we address bullying in schools?

Our research, which included in-class observations and focus groups with teachers and parents, found that bullying and teasing were prevalent in early childhood and early elementary grades. It’s important to look at behavior in the early grades because bullying progresses as children get older.

We also address the issue school-wide, not just in the classroom. Our philosophy is to create a proactive climate where bullying is not an acceptable part of the culture. It’s very important to create a school-wide approach where differences are appreciated so that they don’t become triggers for bullying and teasing.

How does this approach empower adults and children?

We reach out to all adults who are involved with children at school, including parents and non-teaching staff such as paraprofessionals and bus drivers. We found that when bullying or teasing occurred when an adult was present, the adult did not intervene 75 percent of the time. To the children, it appeared that the incident was ignored. But often, adults don’t deal with bullying and teasing because they don’t know how. We offer adults strategies that help them intervene appropriately.

We also help children understand that they shouldn’t just stand by when someone is being bullied. Our approach teaches them that while they shouldn’t put themselves in harm’s way, they should “do the right thing” — say something or get an adult to help.

How has this approach worked?

We found that after working with everyone — teachers, parents and children — adults did a complete turnaround and now intervened appropriately 75 percent of the time. Bullying and teasing incidents were down by a third. The results were the same in various school settings. So it works.

If there’s a lot of bullying and teasing, teachers cannot teach and students cannot learn. Many teachers tell us that addressing bullying and teasing proactively creates more time for learning because of the change in the classroom environment.

What’s the next step?

Cyberbullying has taken the problem to a completely different level. If you’re a target, you can’t even be safe at home because the bullying is on the Web. Children have access to technology at younger ages, such as the third-grader with a cell phone or the young child playing games on an iPad. We’re beginning to talk with teachers, parents and children to develop age-appropriate strategies to address cyberbullying. Technology is part of their world, and they need to be able to navigate it safely.

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