Bullying: 5 Common Responses to Avoid

While we all want to do the right thing when confronted with a bullying situation, the right response may not always be clear to us. It is clear that some strategies are more effective than others. Here we review a few strategies that researchers suggest are not effective at reducing bullying or stopping it from reoccurring. While some of these may surprise you, others will probably make sense when you consider the reasons why they are not recommended, because they either increase bullying behaviors or make the situation worse.

  1. Zero-tolerance punitive policies: These policies and practices are often put in place because schools want to get tough or convey the message that bullying will not be accepted or tolerated. While we understand the motivation behind these policies, the research results are not entirely positive, as these approaches often send mixed messages to kids and families about how these issues will be handled. For example, when a school uses threats of severe punishment (suspensions, expulsions) to address bullying behaviors, such as a three-strike rule or immediate suspension for one offense, this can really deter students, parents, and teachers from trying to get help for the student who bullies. They may not report the behaviors, or may wait until the behaviors are really extreme. But this type of exclusive and punitive response does not address the underlying reasons for bullying, or shift the norm to getting help for skill development—for both the kids who bully and those who are bullied. Rather, it focuses on punishing the child who bullied, when we know that prosocial skills training for the student who bullies is more effective.
  2. Conflict resolution and peer mediation: While these strategies can help students resolve conflicts, model appropriate social behaviors, and increase communication skills, this method assumes joint peer-led problem solving. Given that bullying is not merely conflict and includes a power imbalance and repetition, victims often do not have the ability or social power to provide a solution to repeated hostile bullying.
  3. Groups for children who bully: Having small groups for treating children who display bullying perpetration behaviors (e.g., anger management) has been found to propagate the negative behaviors. Groups that include both prosocial children and children who bully would be more effective. Importantly, children who bully do not always have self-esteem issues, so it is important not to focus on building confidence alone. Some children with strong leadership skills may bully because it brings a desired outcome, like being popular. Other topics include helping children to use their power for good and using their social status and leadership capabilities to improve their relationships with friends and to help out others in need.
  4. Brief assemblies or one-time awareness events: If a school provides only a quick and simple response such as a school-wide assembly or an awareness-raising hour or pledging event, it is unlikely to decrease bullying behaviors. Similarly, a single teacher may not be able to affect systemic change in the school through these types of events. So a more holistic and systemic approach is needed, whereby the topics of bullying, empathy, and peer relationships should be incorporated into class lessons and highlighted in the curriculum and through daily examples.
  5. Awareness-raising events focused on suicide and bullying: The media has a tendency to use fear-based approaches, emphasizing a causal association between suicide and bullying. Schools may take this approach as well to raise awareness of the two complex behaviors. However, there are increasing concerns regarding suicide contagion effects (this is when exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one’s peer group or through media reports result in an increase in suicide and suicidal behaviors; Flannery et al., 2016; Holt, Bowman, Alexis, & Murphy, 2018). Schools should be extremely cautious about focusing on this link (see National Academies of Sciences, 2016). Suicide among children is a highly challenging issue with increasing concern. Thus we strongly encourage that you get the advice and help of a mental health expert, guidance counselor, or school psychologist in how best to address this issue with your students.

Catherine P. Bradshaw, a professor at the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia, and codirector of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence, lives in Charlottesville.

Tracy Evian Waasdorp, Ph.D., M.Ed. is a research faculty member in the Department of Mental Health at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and a research scientist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. 

This post is an excerpt from Catherine and Tracy’s forthcoming book, Preventing Bullying in Schools: A Social and Emotional Learning Approach to Prevention and Early Intervention (W. W. Norton), publishing January 7, 2020.

Back to School: Creating a Safe Learning Environment

On the last day of my last class before beginning my first teaching job, the professor asked us if there were questions – perhaps things not addressed in class.  My determined hand shot up. “What are we to do if we ask students to do something and they refuse?”  This was not just my burning question – it was my biggest worry in the middle of the night.  I was embarking on a high school position with over 150 students in my charge– how would a young woman who looked a lot like a teenager have any credibility with these students? Would they even do what I asked of them? What were my next steps if they did not comply? How long would I last? What if things spiral out of my control? What if I get fired?

The very nice professor became a bit flummoxed, stammered a bit, but no answer came forth.  Fast forward: After teaching a jillion students, working with thousands of teachers in professional development, coaching educators, and being honored to witness fabulous work in countless classrooms, here’s what I know: It was the wrong question to ask.  Rather than ask about mechanisms to control students – an impossible task – our focus is really: How can we ignite an intrinsic joy in learning that significantly reduces the need to manage, control, or even kick out kids?

Environment and Motivation

A captivating lesson combined with high student self-efficacy are key pillars of motivation.  But students must feel welcomed, relaxed, and safe in their classroom and school environment as well. For some students, school is the safest place they go.  Whatever tumult is occurring outside of our walls, school offers a place of sanctuary in which adults model civility and a calm, respectful predictability.  Schools are fascinating places.  Students come from different neighborhoods, economic and cultural backgrounds, and home situations…as do teachers.  We merge together into a classroom to learn and work together.  From that perspective, one can make the case that things typically go pretty well.  But students are not just mastering content, they are learning ways to handle conflict, interact with others, manage stress, and solve problems. The student-centered classroom offers ongoing opportunities for supporting students in these efforts, because, for the bulk of class, teachers are in the midst of students learning with them, not positioned at the front of the classroom. 

Tips for Creating a Safe Environment

In the same way that there are highly effectively practices for instruction, there are time-tested principles for creating a positive, safe learning environment for all students.  Combined with evidence-based instructional practices, students can be relaxed in class and focused on learning.  For some students; however, additional strategies will be needed.  Some considerations for creating positive learning environments for all students:   

  • The term “expectations” rather than “rules” is now used in many buildings.  The reasoning is beyond semantics: some students face dire consequences for breaking rules at home, so this might seem more negative than intended.  In addition, for students seeking to exert control, a rule may feel like something to break out of.  Conversations with students in which these handful of expectations are established together can be valuable, so that these are not simply imposed.  These expectations should be framed in a positive manner, as ways to be successful and work together, and modeled frequently.
  • Avoid practices that bring shame or embarrassment.  An example I frequently see is to have students publicly move a marker, such as a clip, to a consequence, such as loss of a privilege.  Conversations about behavior should be private and promote more positive steps. 
  • Provide opportunities for students to exercise autonomy over their situation.  An example might be to allow students to have some say about seating, organizing materials, whether to stand or sit to work, or partner selection.  Students, like teachers, need to feel in control. 
  • Model that mistakes are part of learning.  “Gosh, I made a little calculation error there, didn’t I? Thanks for catching that!”
  • Get to know students’ interests and promote conversations about them, be it movies, baseball, or skateboarding. 
  • Encourage movement.  Read the room and have everyone take a stretch break. Better yet, build movement into lessons. 
  • Model stress reduction.  An example might be to utilize a computer breathing application and invite students to do some deep breathing with you or have stress balls on hand.
  • Monitor the volume of voices in the classroom, including our own. 
  • Model the civility that we expect of our children.
  • Provide a fresh start for students who had a rough prior day.  They are understandably nervous about coming back to class.  
  • Create lessons utilizing teams so that students learn the joy of working together. In addition to building content knowledge, students build relationships that provide a support system and help build resilience in them. (Jennings, 2019) 
  • Avoid ultimatums that may create power struggles and may be interpreted as threats.  

Suzy Pepper Rollins is an author, speaker, and consultant based in Athens, GA who works with schools across North America to create academic success for all students.  She is also the founder of Math in the Fast Lane and MyEdExpert.com.

This post is an excerpt from Suzy’s forthcoming book, Teaching Vulnerable Learners: Using What Works, Ditching What Doesn’t (W. W. Norton 2020)

Back to School: Learning about Students

I love the beginning of school.  August and September hold new possibilities full of hope and promise, a chance to start fresh, to learn from last year’s failures as well as successes, and to build something even better than the year before.

I didn’t always look so excitedly toward the beginning of another school year. When I was new to the field, I taught the prescribed curriculum that was handed to me.  Although I was “teaching by the book,” my students were struggling. I came to realize they were struggling precisely because I was teaching the prescribed curriculum.

It was obvious my focus had to shift from teaching curriculum to teaching students.  But to do so meant I first needed to learn about them, who they were as readers and writers, as senior students in my composition class, as young adults with interests and passions that exist outside my classroom walls.  My new belief:  An effective teacher does not begin the year by teaching.  She begins the year by learning.

Just as physicians must examine and question their patients before diagnosing their conditions and prescribing a course of treatment, we teachers must examine and question our students before we determine a course curriculum.

What follows is my “Learning To-Do List” completed before or at the beginning of the year to help me determine how best to select, scaffold, sequence and pace my curriculum. 

Learn about students’ performance

The beginning of my school year actually starts in May.  Before students leave for summer break, I conference with their current English teachers to get their perspectives on my future students’ skills.   These teachers are also generous enough to lend me their students for two class periods during the last few days of school, so I can introduce myself, answer questions they may have about the course, and have them complete a written assessment that will help me learn about their current English skills and abilities. I assure them the assessment is not for a grade.  Reading and analyzing their responses on this assessment is my summer work. 

Learn how students perceive themselves as readers and writers

On the first day of school,I ask students to write me a letter explaining how they currently see themselves as readers and writers and how they want to see themselves in the future.   

This assignment asks them to consider some of the questions below:

  • Are you satisfied with yourself as a reader/writer?
  • Is there something you would change about yourself as a reader/writer?
  • What reading/writing will you be expected to do in your future career?
  • Do you feel prepared to successfully read/write for your future career?
  • What could I do to help you become the reader/writer you want to be?

Below the assignment directions, I stress that “together, we will work from today until the last day of class to get you where you choose to be” as a reader and writer. 

Learn about the students from their parents or guardians

I send a letter to my students’ parents or guardians inviting them “to help me learn more about your child and tell me anything you think I should know to help me teach your child more effectively.”  While not every parent sends a response, those who do often provide me with important information that the students have not volunteered. 

Learn what students expect of me as their teacher

My favorite beginning-of-the-year activity is asking the students to write my job description.  They must come to consensus about what they expect of me as their teacher.   

Learn what students expect of themselves as learners

This activity is exactly like the job description they write for me, except this time, they detail the specific “dos” and “don’ts” they will expect of themselves.

The completed teacher and student job descriptions become posters that hang in the front of our room.  We refer to them often, and from time to time throughout the year, I will have them evaluate the job I am doing and evaluate the job they are doing.   

Learn about students’ interests and passions

After reading Gerald Graff’s “Hidden Intellectualism” excerpt from his book They Say/I Say, students write a short essay explaining their hidden intellectualism, when and why they became interested in this particular area and what else they want to know about this topic.  Learning my students’ areas of interest allows me to apply the work we do in class to their hidden intellectualisms.  I invite students to bring their interests and passions into the classroom  in order to, as Graff says, take students’ “nonacademic interest as objects of academic study.”  Throughout the year, they will read and write about their own areas of intellectualism.  Knowing my students’ passions also helps me connect with them.  This year, students will share with me and each other their expert knowledge about topics such as softball, dirt bike racing, photography, reptiles, and multiple sclerosis. 

Taking the time to learn about my students early in the year helps me provide a solid foundation upon which my curriculum is built.  That being said, the more I learn about my students as the year progresses, the more my plans are altered.  So while the foundation is firm, what ends up getting built above it is a continual work in progress.  But as experience has shown me, no matter what form the finished structure takes by the end of the year, it is always beautiful.

Jonna Kuskey is a National Board Certified Teacher at John Marshall High School in West Virginia, where she has taught English for 14 years. She writes a monthly column for the Wheeling Intelligencer, and is a 2018 winner of the Arch Coal Teacher Achievement Award and the 2017 recipient of the CEE James Moffett Memorial Award for Teacher Research.

Back to School: Finding Stillness

The beginning of the school year can be stressful for students and teachers alike. What better time to introduce a calming break within the school day? By structuring a quiet minute at the start of class, after lunch, or when transitioning between activities, we offer students and faculty a chance to catch their breath, literally. By offering our students the gift of quiet, even for a moment or two, we can transform our classrooms into a zone of peace. I hope this post, composed of excerpts from my book, Classroom Yoga Breaks (2016), will inspire you to create some moments of stillness in your days at school.

If you spend any time in schools, you know how noisy they can be. Hallways are filled with students jostling, hollering, and shrieking. The cafeteria is a roar of continual chatter and shouts; bells squeal; loudpseakers bellow—noise, noise, noise. Silence is enforced during tests and lectures, but there are rarely quiet times during the school day that are not fraught with stress. Outside school, kids are bombarded with loud volumes from TV, computer games, and music.

Research has demonstrated that children exposed to chronic noise during their school day experience higher levels of cortisol and increased stress response, and may function more poorly in school than children in quieter settings (Seidman & Standring, 2010). In fact, “noise significantly elevates stress among children at . . . levels far below those necessary to produce hearing dam- age” (Evans et al., 1998, p. 75). According to a World Health Organization report, chronic exposure to low-level noise may result in the impairment of cognitive tasks such as “reading, long term memory, attention and motivation” (2009, p. 40).

Quiet has a soothing effect on most mammals, yet it’s a “sound” that is unfamiliar to many youth. What happens to children when they are reintroduced to the sound of quiet?

Importance of Quiet

Stillness gives students an opportunity to reset their inner rhythm. Refocusing attention from outside to inside is the fifth rung of yoga, according to Patanjali. There are many ways to help students turn their attention inward.

In Chime Listening, the teacher strikes a chime one time, instructing students to listen quietly to the sound for as long as possible, then raise their hands when the sound becomes imperceptible (Flynn, 2011). Mindful listening is an excellent tool for quieting a group or to begin a class activity. I often use a singing bowl or vibratone to encourage quiet listening. For more lessons on tuning in, see Part V, Unit 5.

Donna Davis asks her Edgewater High School PE students to stash their cell phones in her drawer, so they can disconnect from the outside world for 45 minutes each day. Although not required, she highly encourages this commitment to participate fully in class. Yoga, she explains to her students, is about being present and in the moment. Davis sees “many kids addicted to their phones. It’s really hard to give it up. When they do it, even for a short time, it’s a big thing” (personal communication, April 10, 2015). Yoga and mindfulness teacher Kelli Love explains that classroom yoga helps students “transfer the emotional regulation strategies that are reinforced daily in the yoga room to everyday school and home environments.” The students in her school have a “reflection area in each classroom where they can go to do their own quiet practice if they need a break in their day” (personal communication, December 17, 2014).

Create a Peaceful Mood

Leading your class through a short yoga break at the beginning or end of a lesson is an excellent way to reset the mood. Here’s how you might begin.

Dim the lights, put aside your work for a moment, and play soothing music.

If you don’t have time to make those adjustments, you can rely on your own voice and breathing to change the tenor of the classroom. These are tools that you have with you at all times. Remember, you are the mirror for your students: They perceive your level of stress or calm. No matter how many times you may tell them to relax or be still, it won’t mean much if you are agitated when you say those words.

Breathing in a slow, relaxed manner shifts your body into rest and restore mode. Brown and Gerbarg (2012) recommend “coherent breathing” at approximately six breaths per minute. As your breathing calms, you create an atmosphere of tranquility within your classroom. Using a gentle tone of voice sends a message to your students that you feel safe, that they are safe.

Consciously relax your facial muscles and jaw. Keeping your voice soft, direct your students to take three Huh Breaths (inhaling, shrug the shoulders up to the ears; exhale and drop). Continue with Bellows Breath (see Unit 2): Instruct your students to interlace their fingers and place their hands behind their heads, elbows open. Inhaling, look up; exhaling, look down.

Repeat twice more. Drop the hands and take three more Huh Breaths before returning to normal breathing.

By participating with your students in this 1-minute yoga break, you not only guide them, but you give yourself a moment to relax. In this way you reflect for your students a world that is kind, caring, and calm.

One New Jersey K–8 school uses a 2-minute lesson delivered over the public address system. According to Newark Yoga Movement founder Debby Kaminsky, “Since starting the program two years ago, the principal says that this Monday routine has changed the culture of the school. After a weekend of who knows what, it brings kids back into a place of calm and learning readiness” (personal communication, March 3, 2014).

As difficult as it may be for students to change their thinking or their behavior, it’s relatively easy to change how they breathe. Just focusing on the breath creates a calming effect. As the breathing rate slows, the heart rate follows.

Louise Goldberg is a yoga therapist (C-IAYT) and educator. She has taught English at the middle school, high school, and college levels. Louise leads trainings internationally on Creative Relaxation, mindful yoga for educators. She is the author of Classroom Yoga Breaks, Yoga Therapy for Children with Autism and Special Needs and co-author of S.T.O.P. and Relax, Your Special Needs Toolbox.  Learn more at her website, https://www.creativerelaxation.net/.

Back to School: Promoting English Learners’ Assets

The proportion of English learners (ELs) in the United States public school system has reached nearly ten percent of all students, and is on a nationwide growth trajectory1.  Along with this growth in numbers, ELs tend to experience an opportunity gap, which generally refers to the impact that factors such as students’ English proficiency, socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity have on their achievement. For example, 79% of English fluent eighth graders scored at the basic or above reading level in 2017, while only 32% of ELs scored at those levels during that same year.2  In addition, ELs have one of the lowest graduation rates among all students on a national level, approximately 63% as compared to 82% of all students3.Gaps such as these have helped lead far too many educators to see ELs as one-dimensional, defined primarily as being lacking in areas such as English proficiency, achievement in content areas, and/or ability to graduate. Recent research4 on teachers’ perceptions of ELs in kindergarten through second grade suggests that classifying students as ELs has a “direct and negative effect on teachers’ perceptions of students’ academic skills.”

That’s a lot of bad news, right? It doesn’t need to be that way, however.

In this blog post, I hope to raise your awareness about the importance of recognizing the multiple assets that our ELs bring.

An assets-based perspective values students’ home languages and cultures and sees these gifts as foundations for future learning, rather than as hindrances to overcome. An assets-based perspective also recognizes that parents of ELs are involved in their children’s education and support their children in varied and perhaps unrecognized ways 5, rather than blaming them for their children’s perceived lack of academic skills. Also, it provides multiple opportunities to honor students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds and incorporate what students already know into their learning. Thus, it stands in direct contrast to a deficit perspective, in which the focus is on ELs’ challenges.

The good news?  Despite systems which may impede ELs’ assets to be recognized, individual teachers possess the agency to chip away at the deficit perspective.

3 Strategies for Promoting English Learners’ Assets

Engaging in an assets-based approach with ELs requires a shift in our thinking from what we believe is lacking in our students to the many strengths and assets that they and their families already possess.  To do this, we must take time to learn about our ELs’ and their families’ invaluable personal, cultural, social, and world experiences and draw from these strengths-based understandings to create instructional opportunities that are meaningful, purposeful and appealing to our students. Not only will our ELs benefit, but English-fluent students will learn from their EL peers and see them in a new light. Here are three replicable ways to promote ELs’ assets.

            Encourage Storytelling.  We all love to hear a good story, and ELs sharing their own stories is one way we can build bridges and help foster connections with EL students. Teachers of younger ELs can first model the task of students drawing a personal narrative storyboard or series of images6 , then have students write a response to the sentence prompt—“What I wish my teacher knew about me.” Teachers can ask older newcomer students to write a personal narrative and then share it with colleagues and school administrators. To begin this project, interview students and ask them to write about themselves in their home languages, offering scaffolding for these tasks. Each of these activities supports the process of learning more about students’ lives and experiences so that we, as educators, develop a better understanding of the linguistic and cultural assets that our students bring to our classrooms. One piece of advice: be sure to give EL students the choice to tell as much of their stories as they feel comfortable with or to have the option to not share them at all, as students may have experienced traumatic events that they wish not to share. Students and their families who are open to the idea could also publish their stories in school newspapers to reach a wider audience. Artwork can provide an alternative way for students to contribute their stories.

            Spread the Word About ELs’ Success.  To disrupt deficit thinking, I also encourage you to share news of ELs’ successes – both great and small – with your school or district. There are lots of examples, if we are more aware of where to find them, of ways to demonstrate ELs’ growth academically or personally. For instance, I love reading each spring about current or former ELs who have become high school valedictorians. These success stories highlight the metalinguistic superpowers ELs develop (not to mention hard work and persistence) as they learn content in a new language. You can also invite successful former ELs–including those in college, receiving technical training, or in careers–back to your school in person or by video to highlight what helped them achieve. I encourage you to investigate multiple ways to disseminate your message, such as in assemblies, local newspapers, and/or on your school or district’s social media channels (with students’ and families’ permission).

            Thoughtfully Confront the EL Deficit Mindset. Once your awareness of the importance of promoting an assets-based perspective of ELs is raised, you may begin to notice when others make deficit-based statements about ELs. This gives you the opportunity to support a colleague’s shift from a deficit to an assets-based disposition7. We need to be thoughtful about challenging others’ thinking in order to do so without disrupting our crucial relationships with our colleagues, especially those relationships that are formed in a new school year. All educators—no matter what their title or how many years of experience they have—are positioned to serve as agents of change when it comes to helping others shift ever so slightly to an assets-based view of ELs and their families. But how can we best challenge others’ deficit thinking when we find ourselves in the uncomfortable space in which we hear someone apply a deficit perspective in describing an EL or an EL’s family?

When you encounter such a situation, I suggest following these steps8:

  1. Recognize and acknowledge your colleague’s expertise.
  2. First listen and try to understand your colleague’s perspective, even if you may not agree with them.
  3. Consider what might be happening on a systematic level to promote EL deficit thinking around this issue.
  4. Suggest some potential strategies to them to better support their ELs.
  5. Lighten their load by offering to help implement a new strategy or approach to support them in their work with ELs.
  6. Follow up on your support for ELs by checking back in with them.

We all have the ability to spread a culture of EL assets in our sphere of influence. If you begin the school year with ELs’ assets in mind, you and your colleagues will be better positioned to create a more welcoming environment for our ELs who have so much to contribute and offer.

Sources Cited:

1 National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). English language learners in public schools. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgf.asp

2 National Center for Education Statistics. (2017). The Nation’s Report Card. (2017). NAEP reading report card. Retrieved from https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading_2017/#/nation/achievement?grade=8

3  National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition. (2018). National- and State-Level High School Graduation Rates for English Learners. Retrieved from https://ncela.ed.gov/files/fast_facts/OELA_FF_HS_GradRates.pdf 

4 Umansky, I, & Dumont, H. (2019). English Learner Labeling: How English Learner Status Shapes Teacher Perceptions of Student Skills & the Moderating Role of Bilingual Instructional Settings. (EdWorkingPaper: 19-94). Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University: http://www.edworkingpapers.com/ai19-94

5 Staehr Fenner, D. (2014). Advocating for English learners: A guide for educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

6 Zacarian, D., & Staehr Fenner, D., “From Deficit-Based to Asset-Based” (in press). In Calderon, M. et al., Breaking down the wall: Essential shifts for English learners’ success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.  

7  Zacarian, D., & Staehr Fenner, D., “From Deficit-Based to Asset-Based”  (in press). In Calderon, M. et al., Breaking down the wall: Essential shifts for English learners’ success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.  

8 Adapted from a 2017 blog post by Diane Staehr Fenner on SupportEd: https://getsupported.net/supporteds-top-10-ways-support-english-learners-2017/

Diane Staehr Fenner, Ph.D. is president of SupportEd, LLC, a woman-owned small business located in the Washington, DC region that provides professional development, technical assistance, and research to empower ELs and their teachers. Diane is a former ESOL teacher, the author of five EL books, and is a frequent keynote speaker on EL education across North America.