Monday / April 22

Want to Stop Bullying? Forget Bullying Prevention As We Know It.

The most recent government statistics on school bullying have shown no significant progress in our schools: the percentage of students who report being bullied at 2-3 times per month has remained at about 28 percent. The needle has been stuck on this issue the last five years in spite of the following:

  • Anti-bullying laws in 49 states
  • Plethora of programs, curricula and resources available, many at no cost
  • Research indicating what needs to be done
  • High degree of public awareness and demand for addressing the problem

The issue is that schools are looking at the wrong problem. Schools think that bullying is the problem and it’s not. The real problem is change, or the lack of it in schools. Think of it this way: if there were a treatment for a disease readily available and a hospital or a medical institution failed to provide it, the problem would no longer be the disease, but rather the medical establishment itself.

For bullying to significantly decrease in schools, schools themselves must change how they view the problem, how they treat students, and how they educate. Up to now, bullying has been viewed like any other discipline problem that can be controlled with appropriate adjustments in procedures and protocols. If bullying hasn’t decreased in schools, most schools have responded automatically with an increased or tightened control over student behavior. Schools haven’t been able to look honestly and inward at their lack of progress. Their basic approach has stayed stuck under these false assumptions:

  • The status quo of schools is fine; they just have to stop bullying as a separate problem.
  • The students are really the only ones who need to change; if they stop bullying the problem will be solved.

Schools function on the basic premise that they need to control students first in order to educate them. Bullying is the type of human behavior that exposes the flaw in this way of thinking. Bullying is about power and control. It is about justifying the mistreatment of others based on rationale that the victims of such treatment deserve what they get or what happens to them is really for their own good.

In a system based on controlling people and using power to keep people in line, bullying can be easily camouflaged; it finds the conditions to function with little detection. Bullying for some students affords them the type of control and consequent prestige and protection that they can’t find in the typical school environment controlled by adults. If staff use power routinely to get students to do things, they are modeling the very behavior they tell students not to do to others.

As students reach adolescence, many view this double standard as a fact of life and therefore simply tune out adult messages. They view bullying prevention efforts as just another adult rule imposed on them from above. This message is divorced from the social world of their peers, where they have been left to fend for themselves because their teachers are much more concerned with getting them to learn academic content.

Students need more than rules, regulations and slogans to become empowered to care for each other. This is a more powerful and meaningful message that expects more from them than just telling them NOT to do something wrong or against the rules. Students are ready to hear this message from their schools and there is research confirming this.

Recent brain research has revealed that humans are wired toward empathy and compassion. The automatic assumption that they can’t be trusted and must be controlled is a false one; it is much more a function of the fear of those in power losing control than it is based on any truth about the people who are thought to need controlling.

Brain research has also revealed that our innate tendency toward moral behavior is tempered by an initial trepidation and bias against people who appear different. Any environment that does not promote and cultivate an appreciation of differences is suppressing our innate moral tendency and feeding our fear of others.

This research, it seems, would indicate that schools need to reverse their course not just in how they approach bullying prevention but how they should view and treat the students.

Here are the two basic shifts that schools need to make:

  1. Drop the assumption and all the control apparatus designed to prevent students from doing “bad” things or trying to get them to do “good” things. Instead of adults projecting their fear of their loss control unto them, which only produces behaviors that justify those fears, educators should take this research and take a leap of faith. Schools can step away from the automatic thinking that control is the answer to problems. Schools should believe and trust in students and assume that they want to learn and be “good” as much as school staff do. Afford students that same faith and trust that is given to the people who are in charge of schools. “Might makes right” shouldn’t be applied to places of learning.
  1. Focus time, energy and resources on helping students develop into unique people, not standardized versions of themselves. Make diversity rather than conformity a central and core value. Actively help students see and appreciate the value of each member of the school community.

In short, schools need to say (in word and deed) to students:

  • We believe in you, and we need you to make our school a community.
  • We are all different in different ways. We are united in respecting, appreciating and promoting our diversity.

These messages convey that bullying prevention is NOT about stopping a negative behavior. The term itself, bullying prevention sells everyone short! The core purpose of schools should be about becoming a strong community where people support each other and learn from each other without needing to control each other. Making each school a strong community is not just the best way to stop bullying, it is the best way to optimize learning for all of its members.


Written by

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 35 years including 20 as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written three books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden), No Place for Bullying (Corwin) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin). He writes a blog at Schedule an on-site or virtual consultation, seminar, or workshop with Jim Dillon today!

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