Wanted: Anti-Bullying Partnerships with Families
by Les Parsons
Teachers need help with anti-bullying. Research into the implementation of anti-bullying programs indicates that while some schools make dramatic inroads into student bullying for a short period of time, in general, the positive results have been disappointingly meager and difficult to maintain. In 2005, for example, Dr. David Smith from the University of Ottawa published a paper in the School Psychology Review in which he synthesized the existing evaluation research on whole-school anti-bullying programs. He discovered that the majority of programs yield insignificant outcomes on measures of self-reported victimization and bullying, and that only a small number yield positive outcomes. Dr. Wendy Craig of Queen's University found that 15% of the schools in her study reported that bullying had worsened in spite of their whole-school, anti-bullying programs. It seems that the culture of bullying in schools is more resistant to change than we would like to believe.
Fortunately, the help teachers need is close at hand. The day has long passed when it was possible to believe that a school ended at the school's front door. Families in the school community have a number of essential roles to play in a whole-school anti-bullying program. If schools hope to make inroads into controlling bullying behaviors, they must enlist their families and communities in anti-bullying partnerships.
Cyber-Bullying: A New Arena for Collaboration Cyber-bullying is a case in point. One of the downsides of the computer age has been the natural fit between the computer and relationship aggression. Cyber bullying encompasses relationship aggression and all manner of electronic threatening, and it's becoming ubiquitous. As use of the Internet has exploded among young people, so has cyber bullying. According to the York Region Parent Health Connection in Ontario, 60 percent of all students use chat rooms and instant messaging and one student in four reports receiving bullying messages; fourteen percent of young people have been threatened on the Internet, 16 percent have admitted to posting bullying messages, and 44 percent possess an e-mail account without their parents' consent.
Access to accounts is relatively easy. Just as students trade locker combinations with their friends, they trade passwords and screen names. Trust is such an important part of relationships among young people that it's difficult to get students to protect themselves. At the same time, the anonymity of e-mail, instant messaging, and chat rooms frees aggressors from normal restraints and puts targets at added risk. Bullies can easily post offensive messages attached to a target's name and photograph. A few keystrokes, and those messages can reappear anywhere. Meanwhile, most students are afraid of reporting this kind of abuse in case their computer time becomes supervised by an adult or curtailed.
Mass messaging, cyber stalking, or negative postings about someone on a personal web site can be emotionally devastating. And there's no escape from the abuse. With the proliferation of cell phones added to online access, bullying can now go on 24 hours a day, in person and via a variety of media.
To be effective in routing out and controlling this kind of bullying, teachers must first accept that their responsibilities require them to examine and intervene in the personal lives of their students, and to pursue signs of misbehavior within and without the classroom walls. Parents and teachers must work as a team to supervise students' online behavior at home and at school; and they must act decisively when warranted. Parents should be urged to check e-mail accounts at home to find out who is on their child's personal network. They also may need to check their child's cell phone for the nicknames that might supply a clue to online screen names.
Schools also need to actively mobilize the community. An information meeting can be held at the school to give parents and teachers the most up-to-date facts about online and Internet behavior. A summary of what experts have to say on the issue can form part of a school newsletter. Parents should be encouraged to contact the school whenever they have questions or concerns, and the school must immediately contact the home when a student's behavior breaches the policy. Stopping the behavior at school merely stops the behavior at school. Unless parents are involved, cyber bullies are free to trot home and turn on the power.
A Broader Look at Bullying In dealing with any kind of bullying behavior, adults must first recognize that something is wrong before they can attempt to resolve the situation. All the adults in a child's life, both at home and at school, need to be alert to any significant changes in a child's behavior and collaborate to track down the source of these changes. In this regard, it's crucial that family members and teachers respect each other's perceptions of a child's behavior and share significant observations whenever they occur. Those shared observations may be the only clues that a child has been targeted for abuse.
Targets fear an increase in bullying if they tell, for example, and suffer from a sense that nothing can be done about it anyway. Their shame and guilt at their inability to cope with the bullying make them anxious and unhappy. Targets also suffer from the isolation and exclusion that removes them from the company of other children. Not surprisingly, they often feel less capable and less assured than those around them and need constant reaffirmation from adults. They may have difficulty forming interpersonal relationships, may present as academically troubled, regardless of their abilities, and could display a variety of physical symptom, including sleeplessness and even depression. Targets may also begin taking the long way to and from school to avoid their tormentors, or may begin to steal to pay a bully's extortion.
Parents and teachers also have to be careful not to stereotype their perceptions of bullies. Since bullying depends on an imbalance of power, student bullies are attempting to display their dominance by exerting control. Stereotypes are misleading: power isn't restricted to physical force. A bully could be an admired athlete; a successful academic student; the attractive, articulate, personable class leader; or the unpredictable, aggressive class troublemaker. Anyone can bully.
The Need for Adult Intervention Adults can only intervene effectively if they agree on the need to intervene. Teachers and parents need to reflect on their ingrained beliefs about and attitudes toward student bullying. They often effectively blame the victim, criticizing the target's behavior instead of focusing on the bully's aberration. The most common reaction -- admonishing targets to "stand up for themselves" in the mistaken belief that fighting back will help them develop strength of character -- actually plays right into the bully's hands. To varying degrees, targets already feel insecure and threatened. The added perception that they are somehow at fault for the bully's actions only adds to the erosion of their self-esteem. As one Grade 7 target of relationship bullying explained, "Even though I fought back, I still believed what they were saying."
Some adults tend to discount certain kinds of student bullying by ascribing the behaviors to gender acculturation, using value-loaded language to describe events. Boys are merely rough housing or indulging in a bit of normal, macho, testosterone-fueled posturing; they can't be faulted if someone "can't take it." A girl, on the other hand, might be viewed not as a target of bullying but as someone who takes her friendships too seriously or reacts too sensitively to the normal ins and outs of relationships. The claim that "boys will be boys and girls will be girls" masks socially unacceptable behavior. Bullying by either gender is unnatural, destructive, and intolerable.
Adults, in general, have difficulty recognizing relationship bullying and crediting the seriousness of the behavior. Research has confirmed that many teachers remain oblivious to this type of bullying. When it's drawn to their attention, they trivialize it. One targeted girl explained, "I spent eight years of my life staring at my shoes and no one intervened." She couldn't understand why no teacher ever noticed.
Relationship bullying can be subtle, vicious, and profoundly destructive to the self-esteem of targeted girls. The pattern of abuse is well documented. A clique forms around an admired, attractive, articulate, and aggressive ringleader. She and her supporters create their own code of dress, deportment, and behavior. At some point, the ringleader feels threatened by someone else, either a person with characteristics similar to her own who could provide competition for her leadership or someone who stands between her and a personal goal. She and her posse conduct a campaign of exclusion, wild fabrications, insults, and rejection to single out their target and crush her self-esteem and potential social status. If she is a member of their group, she is expelled as punishment. Anyone sympathetic to the target's plight is manipulated with the threat of similar treatment.
Adults need to be sensitive to both the subtle and overt signposts in relationship aggression. Students are especially vulnerable when they enter a new school or classroom culture. Any situation in which cliques and roles are well defined spells danger for anyone new forced to enter the established pecking order. By the same token, relationships are constantly shifting and changing, and a perceived slight or misunderstanding can instantly ignite a volatile emotional atmosphere. Teachers and parents should be on the alert for abrupt changes in an individual's mood, signs of upset and distress, individuals who are isolated or seem fearful, hostilities among groups of friends, or heightened emotions and angry language. A rumor, for instance, is a serious and sometimes cataclysmic event in someone's life. Unless parents are willing to contact the school when their suspicions are aroused, busy teachers may not pick up on the danger signs. Without a teacher's sincere and understanding mediation at school this kind of aggression and exclusion will proceed unabated.
Teachers Join with Families By the same token, teachers need to reach out to parents for information and advice whenever they're concerned or confused about a student's behavior. Parents feel part of a team effort when they're consulted for their opinions instead of merely being informed when something goes wrong or during report-card periods. Working together, parents and teachers can nip many bullying behaviors in the bud and save children from personal harm.
Finally, families and teachers must be united in the values that infuse and underlie their respective environments. A direct link has often been assumed between parenting styles and bullying behavior in children.
A long-term Canadian study, The National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, is the latest to verify that link. A group of 4100 children and parents were surveyed in 1994–95 when the children were between two and five years old, and again eight years later in 2002–03 when the children were between ten and thirteen years old. Preschoolers who were parented with fewer incidents of hitting, yelling, or threatening at home were, eight years later, found to be less aggressive as preteens and less likely to be involved in fighting and bullying at school. This trend emerged regardless of the child's gender, the family's economic situation, or the area of Canada in which they lived. Additionally, if parents changed their parenting style over those eight years and became either more or less punitive, their children displayed a corresponding change in their behavior, becoming more or less aggressive.
This kind of research has gradually confirmed that families are pivotal in the development of aggression in children. Some children begin their schooling already possessing a bullying mentality. Aggression in the home, a reliance on corporal punishment, a primarily punitive approach to child-rearing, or an inconsistent parenting style, in which expectations are set but seldom followed up on, can all contribute to aggressive, bullying behavior in children. Teachers, of course, act as surrogate parents and their classrooms in many ways are extensions of the home environment. Bullies thrive on inconsistency. If they can point to a discrepancy in values between their home and their classroom or school, it fortifies their sense that values are a relative commodity. Teachers who develop a collaborative, problem-solving culture in their classrooms and who present as respectful, firm, fair, and consistent in their approach to discipline model for students the pro-social values that undermine a bully's belief system.
Some Suggested Actions For any anti-bullying program to be effective, families clearly can't be left on the outside looking in. They have to be fully informed, consulted often, and recognized as equal partners in the anti-bullying process. They need information, for example, on the behaviors that constitute student bullying, the home factors that contribute to bullying, the warning signs that will help them detect both bully and target, and the actions they can take to stop bullying. Items in the school newsletter are a start, but not enough. Schools need to organize informational meetings at school both during the day and in the evening, to provide parents with details about the school's anti-bullying policy and to introduce school and community resource personnel who will support the school's initiatives and assist parents.
Schools should also solicit the community's observations, advice, and questions about bullying each year. An essential component of an effective, whole-school, anti-bullying program is a student bullying questionnaire. At the same time the student bullying questionnaire is completed, schools could send a comparable questionnaire home for parents. The questionnaire items would remind parents of the behaviors that constitute bullying and reinforce the importance of anti-bullying in the school.
Family members also contribute a unique perspective on what they notice around the school and what they hear from their children to fill the gaps in how the school staff is evaluating the situation. Their questions will also indicate the kind of information the school still needs to disseminate. During informal conversations with family visitors to the school and regular parent council meetings, principals can stay abreast of the community's perception of bullying in the school and the effectiveness of the school's anti-bullying initiatives.
Partnerships with the community are forged little by little and over time. When families are welcomed into the school on a daily basis and their participation is valued, collaboration on anti-bullying becomes a natural extension of that partnership. The talent, commitment, and enthusiasm family members possess can energize a school. Community members have valuable expertise that can be used throughout the curriculum. Parents are eager to volunteer, not only for fundraising or helping in the library but also in the classrooms and as part of specialized programs.
The more families engage in the school in meaningful activities, the more the division between home and school is blurred. With students, teachers, and parents working collaboratively under one roof in an atmosphere of trust and respect, bullies have no context for their self-centered attitudes and no arena for antisocial behavior. But commitment, like change, develops in a school over time through a recurrent process of shared reflection. A consensus to stop bullying emerges only through a review of established fundamental values, an objective and critical look at the state of a school's bullying culture, and a renewed, sincere commitment to the essential partnership of all stakeholders.
Since the topic of bullying in schools is finally receiving the attention it deserves, the field is rich with any number of excellent texts, studies, and commentaries. As this article developed, the following references emerged as touchstones. The list is decidedly idiosyncratic, and notable for the many fine texts not mentioned.
Dellasega, Cheryl, and Charisse Nixon. Girl Wars: Strategies that Will End Female Bullying. New York: Fireside: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 2003.
Fried, SuEllen, and Paula Fried. Bullies, Targets, and Witnesses. New York: M. Evans and Company, Inc., 2003.
Geffner, Robert A. Bullying Behavior: Current Issues, Research, and Interventions. New York: The Haworth Press, Inc., 2001.
Lind, J., and G. Maxwell. Children's Experiences of Violence at School. Wellington, NZ: Office of the Commissioner for Children, 1996.
Olweus, D. Bullying at School: What we know and what we can do. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.
Rigby, Ken. Stop the Bullying: A Handbook for Schools. Markham, ON: Pembroke Publishers, 2001.
Sullivan, Keith. The Anti-Bullying Handbook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Wiseman, Rosalind. Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realties of Adolescence. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003.
About the author
As an English consultant, workshop leader, and university lecturer, Les Parsons has collaborated with classroom teachers from all grade levels. His work with innovative curriculum initiatives ranges from implementing response journals and writer's workshop techniques to developing effective evaluation and promoting equity issues. Les is the author of numerous books, including The Classroom Troubleshooter and Grammarama. His latest, Bullied Teacher: Bullied Student, was published in 2005 by Pembroke Publishers and distributed in the U.S. by Stenhouse Publishers. Contact Mr. Parsons at