Taller and huskier than many of the 9-year-olds in his suburban Michigan school, Matt* seemed an unlikely target for someone to pester. But that’s what happened when a smaller fourth-grader named Blake, whom Matt knew slightly, began running across the cafeteria and the playground to pull Matt’s hair or jump on his back.
Matt felt more annoyed than threatened. Still, he told the lunch monitor about the situation. She instructed the boys to leave each other alone, but Blake continued to bug Matt even when he was with his buddies.
When Matt told his mom, Danielle, that Blake refused to stop, she was surprised the lunch monitor hadn’t enforced her own rule. So she called the principal, who set up a meeting in his office for both boys and their parents. “The principal explained that the school’s motto is ‘Be kind, fair, and respectful,’” Danielle recalls. “He told both boys to stay away from each other, yet his only comment to Blake was, ‘Keep your hands to yourself.’”
Blake’s behavior continued for months. One day Matt told his mom, “He’s driving me crazy.” Soon after, he lost it: He threw Blake on the ground and sat on him, yelling, “Stop touching me!” Blake began to cry and the lunch monitor pulled Matt off. “They left the kids to figure it out for themselves. Fourth-graders don’t always make good decisions,” Danielle says.
Given his size in comparison to Blake’s, according to the school’s then-policy, Matt’s use of excessive force constituted bullying. The principal said the behavior couldn’t be tolerated and suspended both boys.
Matt and his parents were left angry and confused. Even though Blake had been bothering him daily, Matt was given the same punishment for just one mistake. As unfair as it seems, the outcome isn’t that surprising.
Despite the well-intentioned efforts of anti-bullying advocates, many schools and parents have lost sight of what bullying actually is, saddling a wide swath of kid-on-kid clashes with the term. Instead of focusing on the larger goal of the movement — to create a safe, respectful educational environment for kids — school officials have become reactive, says Jo Ann Freiberg, Ph.D., co-chair of the National School Climate Committee. They’re spending precious resources investigating bullying claims rather than boosting their students’ social and emotional learning — something that’s truly effective in combating bad behavior, actual bullying included.
How did we get here? To find out, we went to experts and, in the process, discovered what it will really take to turn schools into kinder, more considerate places.
PLUS: WHEN SIBLINGS BULLY
A Loaded Term
Let’s set the record straight: According to experts, “bullying” refers to instances where a child (or a group of kids) physically or verbally abuses or excludes a less powerful child repeatedly over time. “The idea is that the target is unable to ‘give it back’ in the same way,” says Beth Yohe, director of training in the national education division of the Anti-Defamation League. (For examples of behaviors that constitute bullying, see “Bullying or Just Mean?” below)
Unfortunately, instead of one legal definition for schools to go by, there are 49 different state laws, each with its own criteria. “Some states require that the action be repetitive; others do not. Some require intent to harm. Others require a power differential, which is difficult to prove,” explains Yohe. To make matters worse, these laws have been amended close to 130 times since 1999, the year the Columbine High School shooting spurred states to action.
If laws can’t provide clear boundaries for what bullying is, it’s no wonder the term has become a catchall for any type of kid conflict, serious or not. That has fostered what Dr. Freiberg calls “one-bucket” thinking: A behavior is either bullying or nothing. Before, parents might say, “Jasper hit my child at recess.” Now, Dr. Freiberg explains, “Parents say, ‘My child is being bullied’ because that’s the only bucket they have. Really, there is a huge spectrum of behavior, and bullying is just one part of it,” she says.
Because of the need to comply with state laws, school policies have become hyperfocused on dealing with this one extreme behavior. Once a kid conflict is labeled “bullying,” decisions follow a particular sequence and often result in cookie-cutter punishments that aren’t necessarily right for addressing the problem, says Yohe.
The Myth of the Crisis
The irony is that bullying isn’t as common as we think: A 2010 study found that, between 2003 and 2008, physical bullying dropped from 22 percent to 15 percent, and since then the rates have remained flat.
“Research consistently shows that 75 to 90 percent of kids don’t bully at all or with any regularity,” journalist Emily Bazelon noted in her 2013 book Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. “Of course it still occurs,” Dr. Freiberg explains, “but most of what we’re seeing is just inappropriate peer interactions, sometimes unintentional ones.”
That’s perhaps one reason kids are now tuning out when they hear the word “bullying” — and why studies show that those once-yearly anti-bullying assemblies tend to be ineffective.
“If you ask kids, ‘How many of you have been bullied?’ a ton of hands will go up,” says Dr. Freiberg. “If you turn around and ask, “How many of you have bullied?’ maybe 2 or 4 percent of them will raise their hands. But if you ask, ‘How many of you have been mean?’ they will own up to that. It’s a more comfortable philosophical position to be in for them.”
PLUS: ANTI-BULLYING RESOURCES FOR PARENTS, TEACHERS, AND KIDS
Reframing the Discussion
Even though we’re not in the midst of a bullying crisis, students mistreat — and, yes, bully — one another every day. If the goal is to reduce such behavior, experts say it’s critical to foster a climate of empathy in school.
That means shifting the attention away from punishing all incidents in the same manner, which just does kids a disservice. Case in point: Matt. His mom says he learned how to handle adversity, but schools shouldn’t have to suspend kids or label them bullies to teach this lesson.
So what should we be concentrating on? Standards. “Educators and parents should be asking, ‘What’s the quality of school life, not just for the average kid, but for the newest kid, for the ones with the least power?’” Dr. Freiberg says. As Bazelon has noted, “When kids understand that cruelty isn’t the norm, they’re less likely to be cruel themselves.”
Here’s what schools and parents can do to change the climate:
What Schools Can Do:
If your child’s school is stuck with rigid policies, bring up the need to change them at the next parents’ association meeting. You might suggest the following tactics:
Educators need to know when to intervene and how to handle a clash the moment it happens. That’s why all the adults at Daisy Ingraham Elementary School in Westbrook, CT, are learning strategies that help create a more civil environment, says the school’s principal, Ruth Rose.
Most students fall under this category — kids who do nothing when they see a classmate being picked on. When schools teach students to act in more supportive ways, like telling an adult if another child is being picked on or not egging on fights and drama, it can reduce the incidence of bad behavior, according to a UCLA study.
Make kids think
When students are asked to reflect on their behavior and come up with a way to make amends after treating a classmate poorly, “it helps kids put themselves in others’ shoes,” says Rose. For example, when one of her students spat into a classmate’s lunch, the girl wrote an apology and expressed remorse in person. She also had a chance to make amends by inviting the other kid to join her in an activity. “Sometimes kids fear they’ve dug a hole too deep to get out of. We give them a chance to make things right,” says Rose.
Get parents involved
Schools should brief moms and dads on kid conflicts while reassuring them that the issues are being taken care of. Rose also suggests that educators ask for their help in reinforcing the rules. That way, the expectations at home and in the classroom are the same.
What Parents Can Do:
There’s a lot you can do at home to raise a kinder kid. First step: Be a good role model and try not to refer to others as “bullies.” Then:
Make sure kids have a buddy
Research shows that having at least one good friend can translate into caring for all classmates, generally, says Mara Brendgen, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Quebec at Montreal. Here’s why: Kids not only have someone their age to talk to but must also learn to resolve squabbles and recognize that differences in opinion are okay. (The caveat: Having a mean best friend can just lead a kid down the wrong path.)
Assertive kids know how to speak their minds calmly and talk to other kids about being angry without letting negative feelings fester. “Practice! It feels weird, but if we don’t give them specific words and actions, it’s hard for kids to respond in the moment,” says Yohe.
Teach smart social skills
“Kids need to learn empathy, how to control their negative emotions, and to listen to what others have to say,” says Dr. Brendgen. “Moms and dads can reinforce these traits by praising their children whenever they act in positive ways toward their friends, siblings, or schoolmates.”
Bullying or just mean?
The two bullying criteria: a power imbalance and abuse that’s repeated over time.
A more skilled teammate deliberately trips your newbie soccer player every day during practice and then calls him a klutz in front of the others.
A teammate calls your kid a klutz for fumbling the ball once during practice.
The alpha girls decide every recess which classmates get to join their club — then tease the ones who are excluded. They never pick your kid.
Your child’s BF tells her she’s not playing with her today — then flounces off with another classmate.
A few times a week, a fifth-grader on the bus keeps calling your first-grader a stupid baby until your child breaks down.
A classmate keeps reminding your child what a slowpoke he is whenever he takes a math test.
PLUS: IS MY CHILD BEING BULLIED? KNOW THE SIGNS
*All parents’ and kids’ names have been changed.