At the elementary level, bullying really comes down to children picking on differences in each other. It's inevitable that this will occur shortly after the beginning of the school year. I think that's an ideal opportunity for a pre-emptive of strike against bullying in any classroom.
A special classroom meeting can accomplish this, as well as nipping any put-down culture before it gets established. Let's start with the meeting.
Teaching tolerance is really about celebrating differences
Invariably, close to the beginning of the year a “teachable moment” will arise when one of my students points out something that is different about somebody else. I always wait for it to happen because it provides a perfect opportunity to stop, gather the whole class on the carpet and teach a lesson they will remember all year.
Then we go around the room and I ask what sets each of them apart – what makes them feel different from anyone else, either in a positive or painful way?
Be warned: you may be shocked at what you learn!
Little hearts with heavy secrets
For example, I once had a little girl who was both embarrassed and proud that her parents were illegal immigrants from Mexico. She was proud because they had started with nothing and fought their way to a better life in America, but embarrassed because she still felt like a second-class citizen.
Another example was a student who shared that her twin sister was severely disabled with a type of dwarfism and suffered a lot of bullying because of it. People made fun of the student in my class when they learned that these two girls were twins and always inferred that there was something “wrong” with her, too.
As I said, even very small children can carry some very heavy emotions inside of their little hearts. Be prepared to hear anything: skin color, height, wearing glasses… you never know what is burdening a child.
These children will share things that could turn into bullying, but when they are dealt with as a celebration with great respect students won't pick on each other about them. This is especially true when they see that their favorite person in the entire school (you!) Is handling it in this manner.
Nipping student put-downs in the bud
Often, America seems to be a “put-down” culture. Trash talking during sports is institutionalized and sometimes it seems that making fun of others is our go-to approach to humor.
So it's no wonder that elementary students will often try to assert themselves by putting down others. Perhaps it makes them feel better by making somebody else feel worse or they're just following along with what they hear from their friends and at home.
Regardless, I can tell you that there is nothing that will hurt your classroom community faster than students putting each other down without any consequences.
No tolerance for put-downs
I simply have never allowed it in my classroom, starting from the very first day of school. Put-downs will hurt a kid more than walking up and kicking them in the shin, so it’s something to be managed immediately.
For example, if a student makes a silly mistake or gives a wrong answer and another student laughs, everything in my classroom stops immediately. Using my best dramatic voice, I'll say
“Whoa! Ouch! That hurt my feelings so you can imagine how Shania felt.”
That will make the entire class get quiet, and into that silence I’ll say:
“You know what? Shania will accept an apology when you are ready to give one.”
If it's bad enough, then this could be a time to give your class a mini-lesson, possibly using a favorite book about building community and celebrating differences.
Video tips: handling student put-downs
Providing the words to say
It's also very important to give kids the alternative words to say when they feel that they need to express themselves:
“You know, Shania, I have a question about that…”
“Hey, Shania, did you ever think that…”
When you give kids options to say instead of “you're so dumb”, they'll use them.
Word, words, words… SO important in human interactions. Kind words shape kind actions.