As children return to their classrooms this fall, experts say parents and educators should look for signs of bullying at school, an age-old problem that often emerges in new and different forms every year.
“It appears that bullying went down during the pandemic,” Dorothy L. Espelage, a professor at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill and an expert in bullying prevention, wrote in an email. “But it will likely increase or be back to our pre-COVID rates.”
Bullying, or at least reported cases, likely decreased when schools were closed by the coronavirus pandemic, taking students out of close proximity and into a virtual learning environment. But many experts say a return to school will almost certainly change that trend. Some fear that face masks and other COVID-19 protection measures could become a source of bullying.
What Is Bullying?
At its most basic level, bullying is behavior that hurts or harms another person. It can be physical, emotional or psychological. It can occur between friends or within groups, either in-person or online. Bullying can be overt and direct, with physical behavior such as fighting, hitting or name-calling, or it can be covert, with social interactions such as gossip or exclusion.
Roughly 1 in 5 children ages 12 to 18 are bullied in U.S. schools, according to data released in 2019 by the National Center for Education Statistics. Bullying is more prevalent in middle school than in high school, with almost 1 in 3 students reporting incidents in sixth grade. Overall, girls are more likely to report bullying, with almost 24% doing so, compared with about 17% of boys.
Experts say there are many effective ways to handle bullying at school, so long as parents, teachers and administrators work together to create a safe and inclusive environment and confront problems when they arise.
“Preventing bullying is first and foremost an adult responsibility,” Ellen Walser deLara, author of Bullying Scars: The Impact on Adult Life and Relationships, wrote in an email.
Diagnose the Problem
To handle bullying at school, adults must first be attuned to the symptoms. A change in a child’s behavior or mood is often a sign, according to Bailey Huston, coordinator of PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center. One example might be “a usually happy child who loves getting on the bus each morning suddenly demanding that their parents give them a ride to school,” she wrote in an email.
Other potential indicators may include avoiding school; a decline in academic performance or grades; an inability to concentrate; unexplained headaches and stomachaches; sleeping problems; or increased anxiety, isolation or aggression, Huston says.
“Parents need to pay attention to bullying as a possible cause if their children’s behavior changes from a positive place among their friends to an avoidant, sad, angry or anxious demeanor,” Joel Haber, a psychologist and author who is an expert on bullying prevention, wrote in an email.
Parents can ask open-ended questions to help their children discuss a bullying situation. Start with questions that address the child’s environment, Huston says. For example, “How was your bus ride today?” or, “Have you ever seen anyone being mean to someone on the bus?” Then move to questions that directly affect the child, such as, “Are you ever scared to get on the bus?” or, “Has anyone ever been mean to you on the bus?”
Take the Lead at School
Experts say that parents can and should take the lead in asserting that bullying behavior is not acceptable at school. They should communicate with other parents, share information and talk to teachers and administrators when they learn about problems.
According to experts, parents are well within their rights to ask that the school take measures to address bullying and provide a safe environment. Many schools are proactive and may already have a policy in place.
“Schools that create a culture of inclusion, train staff about bullying and follow clear protocols rewarding efforts to create a community for all faculty and students have better outcomes against bullying and greater safety,” Haber says. “Schools that ignore bullying in their student body and faculty and don’t take steps to protect the community allow those who bully a place to use their power to marginalize others. They create a culture where those toward the bottom of the social ladder are victimized.”
Create an Intervention Plan
Experts say that parents should not teach children to fight back with aggression, nor expect them to figure out how to handle bullying at school on their own. Instead, parents should work with their child and create a plan together to address both the immediate problem and long-term solutions.
Children should know that they can walk away or avoid bullying situations, and that they can and should talk to an adult — a teacher, parent or anyone else — as soon as possible. There should be no negative connotation or consequences associated with sharing information about a bullying incident.
Make sure the plan incorporates the child’s strengths and abilities, in order to help build self-confidence and resilience. The agreed-upon strategies should then be shared with others involved in the child’s life, such as teachers, administrators, coaches, aftercare professionals and any other adults who interact with the child regularly.
It is important to remember that the student who is bullying others has often been bullied themselves, notes Maria Blaeuer, director of programs and outreach at the nonprofit Advocates for Justice and Education. Any intervention around bullying should therefore involve teaching new skills and strategies to both the bully and the victim.
Encourage Peer Support
Peer support can also be a crucial piece of handling bullying at school.
“Students are powerful in bullying situations, as they often know about bullying long before adults are aware of it,” Huston says. “Students telling a peer to stop bullying has much more impact than adults giving that same advice.”
It’s important that students know they have options when responding to bullying on behalf of a peer, and that they can pick those that feel safe for them in different situations. They can directly intervene by discouraging the person bullying, defending the target or redirecting the situation away from bullying. Other options include reporting the bullying to adults or rallying support from peers to stop the bullying.
Model Proper Behavior
Parents can also help prevent bullying by modeling proper behavior in their own power dynamics at home.
“Parents who utilize and teach empathy and compassion through their own behavior, and do not abuse others who are less powerful, are the best teachers of anti-bullying behavior,” Haber says.
That same idea applies in schools, where dozens — sometimes hundreds — of professionals are often working together in close quarters. How those adults interact can have an impact on how children relate to one another.
“Teachers in school have the same opportunity to teach compassion and empathy and role-model behavior,” Haber says.
Learn More About Bullying and Prevention
While it is a common occurrence, experts say that bullying can have serious consequences.
“Bullying can have lifelong effects,” Haber says. “The lack of safety, connectedness, and isolation that can emerge can be life-altering.”
For parents, teachers, administrators and others who want to learn more about bullying and prevention, there are many resources available:
— PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center is filled with activities that can be conducted at school, materials that can be used in a classroom setting, information on National Bullying Prevention Month in October and other resources.
— The American Society for Positive Care of Children has a downloadable resource kit.
— Stopbullying.gov contains information from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
— The National Association of School Psychologists maintains a bullying prevention page for families and educators.
— The Children’s Safety Network maintains a page with information on bullying, detailed statistics and resources such as guides, webinars, infographics and publications dedicated to prevention.
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