Bullying: Building Effective Interventions

Last week I attended an author talk at the Denver JCC by Emily Bazelon (@emilybazelon) of Slate and Yale Law School. She has researched and written about bullying extensively, including her book Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. Some more of my thoughts on her research:

In choosing effective interventions when bullying occurs, it’s important to do so judiciously and proactively, even when it’s in response to a series of incidents (remember, bullying is inherently patterned and not singular, though these singular events must be addressed.) Responding to bullying incidents reactively indicates to those involved that those in authority do not maintain a healthy power balance in the environment; otherwise they wouldn’t appear back on their heels.

While children and adolescents need increasing freedom to explore and try on new looks and behaviors as part of building their own identities, they still need the structure, expectations and boundaries that keep them in check and keep things predictable (this is a power balance, hopefully maintained healthily).

One strategy that has been adopted in our judicial system and now some educational systems to address bullying is mandatory minimum punitive measures. At one point, these seemed to offer a useful edge as a deterrent and to avoid overly complicated and nuanced decision-making processes. However, this strategy has fallen short and raised more problems in the judicial system than it has solved. In schools, zero-tolerance, blanket policies that anyone caught bullying will be suspended create a straitjacket approach. When we are trying our hardest to teach children that life is not black and white, and they must learn to navigate the nuanced grey areas of life, why are we treating them like, and modeling for them, that it is black and white? This is misleading and confusing.

Where is the flexibility in these policies for children to understand behaviors have consequences with origins in the targeted behavior? The consequences should have purpose and utility. Also, consequences should empower the person to understand what went wrong, learn from the situation and prepare them to navigate that situation differently in the future.

The consequences should give room for identity development (Is this the person I want to be?) while enforcing and making clear the expectations and structured boundaries (If you want to function freely in this community, those behaviors won’t work, here’s how to repair the hurt you’ve caused, and here’s how to get your need met effectively next time). As Bazelon discusses, we need to help our children discover the power of character and help them foster character that works for them, while we develop communities empowered by empathy.

If a child came to school disempowered by a family situation, becomes sidelined or ridiculed on the sports field, and acts out negatively (bullies) in the locker room to regain some sense of power and agency, this will not work. This situation must be addressed. Suspending them to stay at home for a week isolates them in an environment in which they feel powerless. It deprives them of a positive, engaging, supportive environment in which they can find release, power, agency in healthy ways. They are likely to harbor resentment for this empty punishment, and still suffer from the powerlessness that led to the primary problematic event in the locker room.

Another option is to engage them in dialogue with trusted adults and the other(s) involved in the event. Instead of removing them from the wounded community, empower the child who bullied to stay in the environment (school or team), develop and show remorse, and face the difficulty of repairing the fissure. This also empowers those hurt in the incident to face the person who bullied them, see them fully and honestly, and learn to be resilient and reclaim their power appropriately with the one who aggrieved them. They can work together to share the power of the social negotiation.

This is a process that takes time, patience and resolve. It is not a process that is secured in one meeting of apologies and shaking hands. It takes many small steps and it takes many big steps. Some examples might include versions of studying together supervised, partnering together on projects, co-captaining a team for a week, repairing and improving some physical aspect of the community (like re-painting, gardening, repairing a bench), and speaking to younger kids together about the conflict and how it is being resolved. These are some ideas to bring children back together, build pro-social behaviors, foster the resilience of the children hurt, build compassion, and strengthen community.

This involves the parents coming together, setting an example, and modeling for their children. This involves one or two trusted classroom teachers, a coach perhaps, a social worker or guidance counselor. And it certainly involves peers who can commit to helping implement the change. Adolescents have limited impulse control and executive function. They’re likely to act off the cuff. Peers can help their friends remember the process, the agreement, and choose the productive, helpful behaviors that will achieve the targeted resolution. There is also follow-up through the months with everyone involved.

Easier Said Than Done! No doubt. Absolutely. At the same time, this is an opportunity for our children to learn that Life is easier said than done.

Of course, this description is just broad strokes on the one model how schools can address bullying incidents. It does not give due weight to the energy, scheduling and work demands of the students and adults involved. Those factors cannot be underestimated. They also can’t be used as excuses to forgo some kind of culture-change, enduring process that works more than a one-off assembly soon forgotten or a straitjacket one-week suspension forgotten until the pattern repeats itself.

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