Teachers and students and staff are heading back to school for another academic year. It can be an exciting time full of possibility and energy. But for some who are the targets of bullying, it can be a time of fear and hopelessness.
What if this school year was declared “bully-free?” How would hallways and playgrounds and locker rooms and lunchrooms be different if each and every kid felt confident enough to just be themselves without fear of being picked on, laughed at, manipulated, or minimized? Wouldn’t that be great?
This would be the time to start, you know, right at the beginning. (A very good place to start.) If the bullies in our schools were never allowed to get traction in the first place, it would go a long way toward making this a bully-free school year. Stop them before they even start.
How? Most of the time, bullies do what they do because it draws a peer group tighter to them by ostracizing another. It is a power play that feeds off of attention. Whether the peers draw closer to the bully out of fear or genuine admiration or some other factor varies. But the end result is the same; the bully has a posse, an entourage. Not necessarily “friends,” but definitely relationships that are intense and fraught with emotion. These relationships feed the bully’s self-esteem, which may or may not be low to begin with.
So there seem to be two streams by which kids could approach the elimination of bullying. First, diffuse the posse. Second, attach to the target.
Diffuse the Posse
Diffusing the posse means ignoring the bully and giving positive attention to the individuals in the bully’s crew. This may be tricky, since they are probably bully wanna-be’s themselves. Nonetheless, connecting to the people in the bully’s posse pulls them away, and denies the bully the attention they are seeking. Actually, the kids in the bully’s entourage may be secretly eager to disconnect from the bully, and (maybe subconsciously) looking for an out.
A group of kids can diffuse the posse more easily than a single kid, so a coordinated effort would work well. A bully usually has a pretty small posse, and kids who are outside the posse greatly outnumber them. If two or three kids will intentionally befriend a posse member (invite them to play, sit with them at lunch, ask them to be on the same team playing basketball or whatever), how in the world will that posse member ever be able to stay attached to the bully? The healthy pull of two or three kids in a positive direction will be stronger than the unhealthy pull of the bully. And if two or three kids do that for each posse member, pretty soon the bully is left without an entourage, and finds him- or herself to be the one ostracized, with no more attention and therefore no more power.
Attach to the Target
The second approach is to attach to the target. I know, “target” is an impersonal word that objectifies the person, but that is exactly why I chose it. The bully does not see a person, but a target. The target might be selected because they are bad at sports, or they are gay, or they do not wear fashionable clothing, or they have a quirky personality - some characteristic that places them outside of the “norm” as the bully defines it. To the bully, they are not a person at all, and that makes it easier to bully them.
“Attaching to the target” is to personalize them, affirm their identity, embrace the very characteristics the bully rejects. This approach requires kids to first of all NOTICE when other kids are targets, and then risk making themselves targets also in order to make a friend. This can be very, very difficult to do. It is much easier to coast through school not noticing the problem than to keep your eyes open to it. And also bullies can be subtle about it, wielding their manipulative influence in ways that may be very difficult to detect.
And once a kid notices that another kid is a target, it is a risk to befriend them. After all, you might become a target yourself. Again, if there is a group of kids who will make a point to work together, the risk is lessened. The key is to give attention to the kid who was the bully’s target, rather than the bully, which derails the power trip the bully might have taken.
Notice that these two approaches involve other kids. Teachers, it seems to me, have a very limited role to play in the elimination of bullying. Any discipline they enforce in response to bullying only serves to draw more attention to the bully. When a teacher has to react to a bully, that means the bully has power over them. No amount of scolding or detention or sending off to the principal’s office is going to lessen bullying. In fact, it may encourage it by validating the behavior in the eyes of the posse. “Ooh, he IS bad. He got sent to the principal’s office!”
What a teacher can do is limit the bully’s opportunity for an audience. Figure out who the bully is, and who is in the entourage, and intentionally keep the bully separate from the entourage members. Seat the bully in the back of the room, not the front. Nobody can see them in the back but you. Remember that the bully is not just “being bad,” she or he is seeking attention. Eliminating the attention might escalate the behavior for a short time as the bully tries to figure out where the new boundary is, but if it holds consistently, ultimately the lack of attention will erode the bully’s power and eliminate the bullying.
I’m not naïve enough to think that there will be no bullying at all this year, but I am hopeful enough to think that if a few kids make a few changes, take a few risks, and start to “diffuse the bully’s posse” and “attach to the bully’s targets,” it could make a big difference. And this is the perfect time to start, right at the beginning of the year, before it really has a chance to begin.