My epiphany happened when I was walking with a first-grade class on their way from the gymnasium to their classroom.
I had spent time in their classroom supporting their teacher with her behavior management skills. There was one student, Joey, who presented quite a challenge to the teacher. Joey had difficulty following directions and staying on task. The teacher, who was well-liked by her students, did a good job managing her class overall. To her credit, she was honest and open enough to admit to me that she was relieved when Joey was absent. I offered some strategies and they seemed to be working, yet Joey remained a challenge.
On that journey from the gym to their classroom, I was deliberately not walking next to Joey. He stayed in line and walked along with his classmates but occasionally he would kick the wall as he walked. He was quite adept at doing so, although no damage was done to the wall. Then a student tugged my shirt sleeve. I turned to look at him and he calmly informed me, as if it was his duty, that Joey was kicking the wall. He waited for me to respond and looked a little disappointed when I paused and then said, “Okay, we will be at the classroom soon.”
I was haunted by that statement from the student about Joey. Why did he care about something as minor as kicking a wall? Why did he bother to tell me? Joey had done nothing to him. In fact, Joey didn’t bother his classmates; his issues were primarily with the teacher.
I kept trying to make sense of that comment. What did it mean? Suddenly, the answer became as clear as day, and I finally got the insight to a problem that I had been wrestling with for quite some time. Although I had already written a well-researched book, No Place for Bullying, about prevention, I couldn’t quite understand what it was that made kids bully other kids. They didn’t enter school as kindergarteners with a desire to bully others. When and how did bullying become an issue in our schools? Why has it persisted despite all the attention it has received and all the programs designed to reduce and prevent it? Why has the statistic of 20% of secondary students reporting being bullied 2-3 times per month remained so consistent over the years? With that tug on my sleeve and the “report” about Joey kicking the wall I got the answer I had been searching for.
The student who informed me about Joey must have seen me as a surrogate for his teacher. He knew the teacher and I worked together, so he concluded that “we” needed to keep close tabs on everything Joey did. This student loved his teacher and was trying to help her by providing information about Joey. In his mind, Joey was the troublemaker, the one who was making life harder for his teacher. I realized that there were two teams in the classroom: the teacher and the “good” students were one team, and the other team was Joey. I was on the teacher’s and “good” students’ team, so I needed to know what was up with the other team.
Joey became the “other” and was being marked with an indelible X on his back. He would probably become, as his time in school increased, an easy target for some students to bully. In many students’ mind, Joey deserved to be bullied because he made things difficult for everyone. In a perverse and sad way, students who bullied Joey would be acting like proxies for some of their teachers.
I realized that one of the first things that students learn in school is the hierarchy: the “good kids” and the smart kids in the top tier, most kids in the middle tier, and some kids in the bottom tier. They can sense this from their teachers, who convey to them (almost by osmosis) what tier they are in and what tiers their classmates are in.
I realized that one of the first things that students learn in school is the hierarchy: the “good kids” and the smart kids in the top tier, most kids in the middle tier, and some kids in the bottom tier.
As students become adolescents, they switch allegiances from the adults in authority to their peers, but by then the students are already locked into this tiered hierarchy: Students want to raise their status by cracking mean jokes at the expense of students who have few, if any, friends to defend them. Most of the students in the middle tier, the “audience” for the bullying, are silenced because they don’t want to be associated with the targeted student and want to avoid becoming targeted. Unfortunately, this inaction gives silent and tacit approval to the bullying.
I took my epiphany and related it to research I read on child development: From a very early age, before they can walk and talk, babies show a preference for good acts over bad acts (the researchers often used puppets to perform the acts). Researchers concluded that humans seem to be born with a rudimentary sense of right and wrong. However, one factor affects it: They also demonstrate a preference towards those who are like them and are wary of those who they perceive as different. Joey, in this first-grade class, was the one who was different. He was the “other” who deserved mistreatment. Students suspended their sense of right and wrong when it came to Joey.
The more I thought about bullying, the more this phrase rang true: Bullying doesn’t wound people; it pours salt in a wound that was already there. The wound is from being excluded and the pain of not belonging. Students like Joey become more separate and alone as time goes on. Not only do they become targets of bullying, but they also suffer when they see that no one sticks up for them. They perceive that the adults in authority are indifferent to what is happening to them, i.e., they don’t care. They are wounded by their daily experience of school and vulnerable to words and actions that remind them of just how different they are.
Guided by my epiphany, I decided to dig deeper into the social psychology research, and this problem only became clearer. The more autocratic and hierarchical the school environment is, the more bullying occurs. When any form of mistreatment is tolerated in a school, including staff’s treatment of students, the door opens for greater degrees of mistreatment. Bullying is engendered and fostered in those types of school culture, and that culture is likely invisible to those who are in it. To them, that’s just the way school is. Therefore, culture trumps programs, speakers, and anything else that a school uses to “solve” the problem of bullying. This is the real reason that the problem of bullying is so persistent in schools.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
To change school culture and build a stronger sense of community, I offer a way to begin. Schools need to have the courage to ask students questions like these and then use the data from the responses as the basis for improving their school environment:
- Do I feel like I belong in this school? If I don’t, do I feel like I can tell someone about it?
- And if I do belong, do I think that all students should belong?
- If I think that all students should belong, am I willing to do something or tell someone about a student I know of who might feel like he/she doesn’t belong?
Having worked in schools for over 40 years, I am not critical of the dedicated and caring staff. Schools operate with a traditional power structure that is very resistant to change. I wrote my second Corwin book, Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities, to help them. In this book I offer research from social psychology and translate it into practical strategies for changing school culture. I still have great hope for our schools if they become intentional about building community and do the right things to achieve it. Regardless of their starting point, schools can trust that the process of students and staff working together to become a stronger community is the best way to become one.