Lessons from bullying are extremely important in your classroom – in fact, handling bullying without drawing a lesson for your kids to learn from can be a real disservice.
You see, as sweet as elementary kids can be, there is a little mean streak running through most humans. That's the little voice that whispers to all of us at all ages to gossip, or pile on when someone is down, or make fun of differences.
You know what I'm talking about, because all of us have it. We learn that it's not OK as we grow up, and we learn to control our unkind impulses. But our students are still in that learning phase, and it's our responsibility to help them through it.
School is about all kinds of learning
The reason we create strong classroom communities is because dysfunctional ones get in the way of learning, while strong ones magnify every teaching moment in the day.
Easy community-building things include sending a note home to a parent about something amazing their child did in school, or asking for a round of applause for a student's selfless act.
Harder things… well, here are a few case studies about bullying in school to illustrate just how hard things can get. And how the value of the lessons to be learned are worth the effort from a dedicated teacher.
“Grayson is dead”
Oh, that sub-behavior!
In spite of all your preparation, it can bring out the worst. When I returned from a day away, I learned that someone had started acting as if one of my diagnosed ADHD/OCD boys was dead… meaning that everything Grayson said or did was ignored as if he didn’t exist.
Half the class joined in and it continued for the entire day and clear up until the next morning at the 9:00 AM line up. It was perhaps even sadder that Grayson was not entirely aware of what was happening.
Teachable moment? Absolutely, with a lot of work.
When Grayson was out of the room at his special education session, I discussed what ADHD/OCD is and how it affects children. I then got to the bottom about who instigated it, who joined in and who tried to stop it (and some did try to get the sub to intervene… one even tried to get permission to go get the principal).
I then held all the responsible kids in during lunch recess and let them know in no uncertain terms how personally hurt and disappointed I was in their behavior. I was not stern or mad, just sad. I asked each student to reflect on the day and share their part in the unfortunate string of events.
Because of the community structure, all students felt safe to share and admit their part in the incident. Many shared that they felt really badly and all asked if they could write a note of apology.
I also had the principal stop by to deliver a “no tolerance for bullying” speech. That night I called every parent of involved kids and told them what happened. This probably had the biggest impact on them.
The next day, to finish it up, I wrote a nice note to the parents of the kids who tried to intervene, calling them my personal heroes.
In all, I contacted 18 parents. Whew! Hard work but worth it.
Video: bullying students – Grayson
“Danielle isn't clean”
It came to my attention as I waited for the kids to finish their post-recess bathroom break that my girls were bullying Danielle, a large, special-needs girl. They loudly refused to use the stall after she used it. Further investigation revealed that this had been going on for a few weeks.
There was no doubt about it – Danielle was hard to get to know and she danced to the beat of her own drummer. She was sweet, but had trouble making friends with the other girls. This, combined with her absences from class every day for Special Education, made her a little bit of an outsider – and therefore a tempting target for both boys and girls.
To address this issue, I held a class meeting while Danielle was out of the room. I read the book A Train to Somewhere by Eve Bunting, a story about a little orphan girl who doesn’t feel pretty and thinks nobody wants to love her.
Then we talked about things we are born with that we can’t change. This led to a conversation about what it would feel like to be in Danielle’s place.
From that day on – even when they moved on to middle school – the students in my class became Danielle’s champions, enjoying her “differentness” and repeating and sharing the funny jokes she made.
Video: bullying students – Danielle
Another sub-behavior issue: a case of a substitute teacher understandably not being in tune with the nuances of what was happening. Upon my return, I learned that girls had spoken out of turn about each other and feelings inevitably had been hurt.
I first learned that something was going on when I checked my work e-mail from home and found a message from one girl pleading her side of the case (our e-mail addresses are available on our district’s website). This was classic “who likes who” type of gossip, nothing too serious… except that if it was left unaddressed, it would eventually tear the group apart.
Having been a ten-year-old girl myself once upon a time, I had little patience for this whole scenario. I kept them all in at lunch for a stern lecture about the inevitable consequences of gossiping – no one escapes without injury. Each of them desperately wanted to tell me the real truth about the situation, but I refused to allow it. I delivered the message and sent them on their way.
The only intent of gossiping is to inflict pain, alienate and splinter the group. Allowing a group venting session would, I felt, allow an explosion of she said/she said.
This was a zero-tolerance, “Mean Mrs. Weigle” moment. That Mrs. Weigle only has to make an appearance a few times a year, but when she shows up she makes a pretty forceful point.
Video: bullying students – gossiping girls
Lessons from bullying
The biggest lesson? Kids are human.
There is nothing in any of these case studies that reveal some aberration of parenting, some impact of low socioeconomic status, or some defect of the education system.
Rather, these cases reveal nothing more startling than the fact that children are human and unless they are guided appropriately, they can easily display all the things that make humans disagreeable.
If you are willing to confront some unpleasantness and expend extra effort to learn lessons from bullying, you can use any teachable moment to strengthen your classroom team-building activities and your classroom community.
Take at look at these classroom team-building books for good read-aloud ideas.