My daughter was one of the millions of students who was bullied by her peers.
She was emotionally and physically bullied on the playground away from the watchful eyes of adults.
And it broke my heart.
Because the words out of these bullies’ mouths almost broke my daughter’s spirit.
But the part that really stung, was some of the bullying was happening inside the four walls of her classroom.
Right under the nose of her teacher.
Next to this poster that hung on the wall: “Bully-Free Zone”
Which almost broke my spirit.
Because bullying can be spotted and stopped if adults know what to look for and take the time to notice.
And as a parent of a bullied child and a classroom teacher who does not tolerate cruelty, teachers need to take the time to look for bullying behaviors in classrooms.
Because we can stop it before it escalates or before permanent damage is done.
Why bullying can be hard for teachers to recognize:
The statistics about bullying are shocking. One in four kids are bullied.
One in four.
If you have a classroom of 20 students, statistically speaking, 5 of them are being (or will be) bullied.
And this is going to be harsh, so I apologize in advance, but you need to hear it: if you think none of your students are being bullied in your classroom or on the playground, you are probably wrong. You’re just not noticing it, recognizing it, or paying attention to it.
But it’s not your fault.
Many adults don’t know what bullying really is so they don’t know what to look for.
Once you know what bullying looks like and sounds like, you’ll be able to spot it a mile away and more importantly, you’ll be able to put a stop it.
But first, you need to understand the true definition of bullying.
Some kids are mean. Some kids are mean without realizing they’re being mean. Our young students are learning how to navigate social structures and social cues and how to not hurt people’s feelings.
But mean kids aren’t always bullies.
So what is bullying?
There are 4 different kinds of bullying:
For our younger students who don’t have access to social media, cyberbullying is pretty darn rare. Thank goodness.
Physical bullying is often the easiest to spot because it usually leaves physical marks. Although, my daughter was physically bullied in her classroom and the teacher didn’t see it at all.
Because bullies are often smart.
And they know when adults aren’t looking.
The other tricky part with noticing bullying behavior is adults assume it only happens in the older grades.
But sadly, bullying behavior starts young. Startlingly young. Especially social and emotional bullying.
I caught my youngest daughter in a “mean girl” situation where she was doing a bully’s bidding on the Kindergarten yard.
Yep. You read that. Kindergarten.
So if you have an early education classroom or a younger elementary school classroom, you need to start to look for bullying behavior so you can prevent bullying in your classroom.
You’ll see who needs your help, your protection, and your intervention.
How to Recognize Bullying in Your Classroom:
Most bullying happens away from the watchful eyes of adults. Bullies aren’t dumb. They don’t want to get caught.
So pay attention when your students don’t think you’re paying attention.
When I taught elementary school, I would stand and watch my kids on the playground or in the cafeteria or during P.E. where they couldn’t see me watching them.
I peered out my window before school while they waited for the bell so I could see how they treated each other when an adult wasn’t standing over them.
And use these techniques to prevent bullying in your classroom:
1. Follow the cliques
Cliques and groups of kids are exclusionary by nature. If there are kids who are always together no matter what, then there are kids they aren’t letting into the group.
And while not everyone needs to be friends with everyone, our students do need to be friendly with everyone.
But groups/cliques can quickly morph into a posse mentality. Inside these groups, mean behaviors can spiral and escalate quickly because peers give each other “permission” to act and speak in ways they wouldn’t do if they were flying solo.
Peer pressure is a real and powerful thing, even for our young kids, because they want to remain in “good standing” in the group.
So know who is in the group and who isn’t. Then try to figure out why certain kids are allowed in and why others aren’t.
2. Know who your strong personalities are
Every class has at least one kid who has extraordinarily strong-ahem-leadership skills. These kids could be called bossy or controlling or “trouble kids” because they easily get kids to do what they want.
As teachers, we have to know who’s “in charge,” calling the shots, and deciding who’s in the in-crowd.
These are the kids who are either going to grow up to lead a multi-million dollar business or a small gang. Hopefully, they use their authority for good.
But pay attention to these kids. Watch what they’re doing, who’s listening to them, and who’s following them.
And then you’ll notice who is not in their “good graces.” Those kids might be targeted.
3. Know who the targets are going to be
Bullies target kids who are different, or who bullies perceive to be different.
If you have a child in your class with special needs or food allergies or who is a different nationality or is in a different socio-economic situation than the majority of your class, pay extra close attention to these kids.
Sadly, they are an “easy target” for bullies.
Pair these students up with other kids who are unwaveringly kind and are good friends, so they will have a voice who will stand up for or stand beside them if they are bullied.
4. Pay attention to changes in personalities or behaviors
Kids will often not tell an adult- even a trusted adult-when they’re being bullied.
So we need to look for subtle changes in their behavior or their personalities.
If you have a student who used to enthusiastically raise their hand but no longer does, that’s a red flag.
If you had a group of girls who were inseparable and now one of the girls is off playing by herself, that’s a red flag.
If you have a student who was happy and jovial and is now quiet, withdrawn, or verbally hard on themselves, that’s a red flag.
Start asking questions. Start having private conversations with these kids. Get to the bottom of it.
5. Know who the “nice” kids are
In our society, we often use the word “nice” and “kind” interchangeably. But there is a big difference between the two words.
Kind kids are kind because they want to be. They’re not looking for something in exchange. These kids genuinely, from the bottom of their hearts, want to be kind.
They share their red crayon because their seatmate needs it.
They rush to pick up papers you dropped.
They quietly go sit with the kid who is all alone and strike up a conversation.
But nice kids want something in return for their actions. They’re looking for an angle. They are nice for a reason.
And they’re often the Eddie Haskells of the world. The Leave It to Beaver character was so polite and always so nice to the adults. When he wanted to be. But he was manipulative and needed something in return for his niceness.
Kids who are “nice” will say things like:
- I’ll be your friend if you do this…
- I’ll give you this if you give this to me…
- I won’t tell if you won’t tell…
- I won’t be your friend anymore unless you…
Nice kids won’t be nice if it doesn’t suit them. Pay close attention to those kids.
6. Know your kids’ families
Bullies are taught to be bullies. It is a learned behavior.
I knew who my daughter’s biggest bully was. And I couldn’t stand him. But then one night I saw him in the corner of the gym being yelled at by his father who towered over him. This dad pushed his pointer finger into his kid’s chest as the boy hung his head and took the verbal lashing for not doing well enough on his presentation.
It wasn’t an excuse for this kid’s bullying behavior. But it was an explanation.
Not all kids who are bullied will become bullies.
But almost every single bully has been bullied. Or is being bullied right now.
If you witness a parent or older sibling bullying, belittling, or being cruel to your student, pay extra close attention to that student’s behaviors.
Not only do you need to step in to protect that student, but you need to make sure they’re not passing on that behavior and lashing out against your other students.
How to Prevent Bullying In Your Classroom
Looking for bullying behaviors and stopping them before they escalate is crucial.
But there are also ways to minimize the amount of bullying in your classroom in the first place.
To prevent bullying in your classroom, you can, in essence, Bully Proof Your Classroom.
1. Create a strong classroom identity
When we take the time to make sure our classroom feels like a community, where everyone belongs and everyone is welcome, our students will be less likely to encounter bullying behaviors inside our four walls.
Come up with a class cheer, work towards class rewards, or create a class handshake as you greet them or say goodbye to them.
Make your room a safe place where no one feels like they can or should bully anyone else.
2. Teach kindness, expect kindness, and celebrate kindness in your classroom
We aren’t just teaching kids their alphabet and numbers and to raise their hand before speaking. But we’re also teaching kids how to be the best versions of themselves. And that includes character education.
Hopefully, kindness is being taught at home, but we can also foster and encourage kindness in our classrooms.
Which will create kinder kids, a kinder classroom, and a kinder school environment.
You can also have “Speaking and Acting with Kindness” one of your class rules.
3. Teach the difference between tattling and telling
We don’t want kids tattling every few seconds. We would lose our ever loving minds.
But we do need them to tell us when a classmate is hurt or is being bullied. So we need to teach our kids the difference between tattling and telling.
I tell my kids: “If someone is hurt, or is about to get hurt, tell me so I can help. That is not tattling” And I explain that hurt can also mean their feelings are hurt.
And when a kiddo is about to tattle, I ask them: “Is someone hurt? Is someone going to get hurt?” If they answer no to both questions, I politely deny their tattle as something they can keep to themselves.
4. Teach your kids to include others
If your school has a buddy bench, teach your kiddos how to use it and then remind them daily to check the bench.
When they’re playing on the yard and see someone sitting there, they should pause their play, walk over, and invite the student to join in.
They can offer to sit with a friend at the food allergy table if they have a safe lunch.
They can pair up with a classmate who needs a partner without whining, sighing or wishing they were with their friend.
We can actively teach our students to invite others, welcome others and include others. And we can teach our kids the words they need to do it:
- Do you want to join us?
- Can I sit with you?
- Do you want to sit with us?
- Can we play together?
- Do you want to play with us?
5. Talk about kindness and what makes a good friend
During your circle time or morning meeting or if you have an extra few minutes in your day, talk to your students about what kindness looks like, sounds like, and feels like.
If you’re not sure how to start the conversation, try these 60 Kindness Discussion Starters or this silly Skittles Game. Because when kids talk about kindness and what it means to be a good friend, they’ll know what to do when an adult isn’t standing over them.
And you can also read kindness books or have them in your classroom library to encourage kinder behaviors, like these:
Because at the end of the day, we want our students to be safe and feel safe at school.
We want them to love school and love learning.
And that simply won’t happen if they’re being bullied in our classrooms or out on the playground.
But we can do everything in our power to make sure that bullying doesn’t happen on our watch.
It’s up to us to ensure our school really is a Bully-Free Zone.