How to Handle Bullying in the Classroom

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

Bullies are people who dominate others through force or threat of force. When they appear in the classroom, they can disrupt and injure, causing many kinds of problems. In this article we'll discuss how to deal with them.

What Are Bullies?

They seem to show up at nearly every school. Bullies. People who make other people's lives miserable for their own profit or enjoyment. In this lesson, we will discuss how teachers and administrators can control and eliminate bullying in the classroom.

A bully uses force or the threat of force to dominate other people. Bullying can take the form of verbal harassment or physical assault, and is typically targeted against certain victims or types of victims. Bullying in the classroom can be eliminated, if teachers and administrators are willing to take effective measures.

Why Are There Bullies?

Where do bullies come from? Bullies are bullies because they think that it works. Yet bullying is actually a broken response to a perceived situation. Like other forms of antisocial behavior, bullying is essentially a cry for help.

''Notice me!''

''Value me!''

''Help me to meet these needs or deal with these feelings!''

''Help me to feel powerful, effective, or significant!''

Typically, bullies have observed (or been victim to) bullying by people they admire or fear, such as a parent, coach, older sibling, or peer group. They are trying to turn the tables. The grim reality is that it doesn't fully work the way they want it to. The damaging effects of bullying are just as destructive for the one doing the bullying, as they are for the victim. Bullying has negative effects for all parties involved.

Teachers can either be part of the problem or part of the solution. Sometimes, bullying is encouraged because the teacher mistakenly thinks that some benefit is involved. A coach might encourage stronger students to bully their classmates, hoping to 'toughen them up'. An advanced placement teacher might encourage psychological bullying (negative peer pressure) by the ''best'' students, hoping to bring the other students up to a higher level of performance. This approach leads to poor social development, and can ultimately cause issues in how a student learns to interact on a larger scale, within society. The football player who bullies (or is bullied) might play harder on the field, but has now learned a negative behavior and may continue to use it or respond to it throughout life.

Other teachers might adopt a passive role, avoiding the bullying situation and hoping it will go away. Sometimes as a teacher, it feels hopeless. You have enough problems just getting through the lessons and focusing on the educational side of things, without becoming involved in student interactions. Yet, in order to be a well-rounded, effective teacher, and especially if bullying is present, it's extremely necessary to step in. Emotional influences on the human mind are powerful, and the best lesson in the world will be useless if the student is so troubled that he can't pay attention. If you either support or are passive about bullying, you are undermining every effort to effectively educate your students.

Breaking the Cycle

As a teacher or administrator, it is important to send two messages to bullies:

  1. ''Bullying WON'T get you what you want or need; it will make things worse for you''
  2. ''There is alternative behavior that WILL work for you''

This can be tricky, because bullying can be very deeply ingrained in the habits and internal rewards system of the bully. He/she can be quite addicted to the feeling of power, control, and underlying sense of justice (the bully was wounded, so he/she needs to 'get back' at someone, or anyone). What helps in the process is the fact that, deep inside, bullying doesn't feel good. When a student bullies, they are hurting people, and they know it. Bullies lessen themselves every time they deliberately ''step on'' someone else. If you can break the cycle, bullies in your classroom will begin to realize more genuine sources of worth, and can become some of your most powerful constituents.

Establishing Safety

So what can you do in the classroom to break the cycle? You have to admit it, you're outnumbered. When you're the teacher in that classroom, there's one of you and 20, 30, 40, or more students. Since bullying can take on many forms, some of them quite covert, you're going to need help. Fortunately, you have many potential allies right there in the classroom with you.

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