Bullying can be hard to identify and deal with, especially if your students are actively trying to hide it from you. I had one such case and, while it wasn't easy, I managed to deal with it constructively and turn it into a teachable moment for my students.
Bullies in the Classroom
Bullies in the classroom can impact more than the target of their ire. They can leave a mark on the whole class. I was tipped off to a recent case of bullying in my classroom not because the victim or the offender came to me, but because of the impact it had on the rest of my students. Here is what happened, and how we managed to bring the peace back.
The Bully Effect
An early learning classroom is like a tiny biome of its own. When one student feels something, it tends to have a cascading effect, impacting everyone in some way, even if they don't know it. Such was the case when I noted that one of my more exuberant students had lost some of his luster. He was no longer our social butterfly during free-choice time but was instead playing alone in the corner.
I assumed this change was due to some issue at home. I sat with my student while he played and asked a few probing questions:
- Were mom and dad okay?
- Was he feeling well?
- Was a big change coming?
My questions were a bit more detailed than that, of course, but that was the general idea. Each time my student indicated that all was well. He could offer me no answer other than he was sad.
The Bully's Targets
I decided to call in my young student's parent's to see if they had any observations that might help. They had a bit more information for me. One of my little one's friends - an older student in our afterschool program - was being more aggressive. There was no report of violence, but what had once been a fun, nurturing relationship between the two had soured.
I began to notice other issues with the older student as well. She stopped eating with us. Her clothes were untidy. She spent her afternoons dragging out homework, rather than socializing. In short, her behavior was changing, and there were no obvious physical changes to account for it.
I called her parents to discuss the issue. They claimed to be as clueless as I why she was suddenly so sullen here and at home. There had been no great changes. She had neither gained nor lost new friends.
We were stumped.
Over time, her grades began to slide, and she became more and more introverted and sullen. It wasn't until another parent confronted me that I began to understand the issue. One afternoon, when my students were preparing to leave, an angry mother stormed in demanding that I remove this girl from my program. She claimed my sullen student was spreading damaging rumors about her daughter at school.
I was shocked. This behavior wasn't at all in character for this young girl.
I called a meeting with both girls' families. While we discussed the issue, I noted that the accusing parent's daughter was refusing to answer questions and wouldn't meet our eyes. She attempted to leave the room twice. I found this highly suspicious.
The Bully Revealed
After nearly half an hour, the truth came out. The accuser's daughter had been mercilessly bullying the other girl at school. When she got caught, she attempted to turn it around. It almost worked. The victim had been so beaten down that she wouldn't even speak up to defend herself.
The parents who had originally accused this girl of bullying their daughter were horrified. It turns out, they had been having a rough time at home. While the parents thought they were keeping their problems to themselves, their children noticed, as children often do. Afraid and confused, their young daughter took her negative emotions out on her classmate, who in turn, acted out in the afterschool program.
By the time we got to the bottom of the problem, nearly all the people in our class were showing signs of stress. Many were even taking it home to their families.
Peace Plans for Bullies & Targets
The bully's parents are in counseling now, working towards restoring peace within their relationship. The bully and her target, after much discussion, are also learning to get along again, but it hasn't been easy.
Words hurt. They leave scars that sometimes take a long time to heal. We take the time now every day to talk about what we love about one another and to lend extra support where we are needed. This exercise is helping to rebuild some of that lost self-confidence for both girls.
Realizing that bullying often stems from a sense of powerlessness, we gave the girls their power back. They no longer feel the need to take it from someone else.
Because they now know they can speak freely when they have issues, they have more confidence in themselves and in the adults who care for them.
Tips for Dealing with Bullies
Being busy with so many bodies, it was hard to see nuanced changes until they became big issues. I took a page from the Smart Classroom Management blog to help me better manage my class. I want to ensure that, going forward, I am more in tune with my class and they feel better supported.
Some of the tips I use include:
- Be proactive: If you see something off, say something.
- Discuss bullying: Make sure the students understand what bullying looks like.
- Enlist aid: My students see things I cannot and they can report if something concerns them.
- Supervise: More helpers make it easier for me to know what is happening in my classroom.
I was fortunate that no one was physically harmed and we were able to resolve the bullying issue peacefully. In the future, my students will have the tools they need to deal with these issues on their own. When they can't, they know they can come to me or another teacher for help.
In the end, it was a learning experience for us all, but one I hope not to repeat.