Ever since that fateful day at Columbine High
School in 1999, the term “bully” has taken on a much different meaning than when
children were told by adults: “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but names
will never hurt you!” We now know that this is not a true statement and that all
those children who were admonished for seeking protection from bullies were let
down by the very adults who should have defended them.
For purposes of this discussion, we must
accept or agree on certain premises about bullying. Premise one is that bullying
takes place in every school in America. Second, bullying is a social process
that not only occurs between adolescents and teens but also between adults, such
as in the workplace. Third, bullying occurs when any person purposely attempts
to make another person feel inferior or inadequate. Fourth, bullying can destroy
a person’s self confidence, which is often low to begin with. Fifth, bullying
can result in long-term problems with personal relationships and personal
At the extreme, bullying can result in
physical harm perpetrated on an innocent person. This is intolerable. The pain
of being bullied can lead to self harm and/or the desire on the victim’s part to
hurt — even kill — the bully or the people perceived to be guilty of neglect for
not protecting the victim.
We now realize the emotional damage that words
can do to a person. A person often internalizes the painful taunts of bullies
and harbors resentment not only towards the bullies but those whom the victim
believes should protect them. These victims sometimes seek relief from their
pain by becoming bullies themselves — deriving a contorted sense of satisfaction
from seeing others hurt as they have been.
I have held the positions of high school
principal, assistant school principal, high school and middle school teacher,
college professor and psychologist. On a daily basis I interacted with students
who came to me for help or showed the effects of having been a victim of
Due to the severe damage that I observed in
them, and the personal pain that I remembered from being bullied myself, I
developed a classroom policy that I now offer as a model available for use by
any school district that really desires to end this behavior.
My approach is unique and successful. As a
teacher of a government class required of all high school seniors, I had as many
as 40 students in my classes and a waiting list from parents requesting that
their teen be assigned to me. I have told every group of students that I have
ever taught: “When I was a child I could not do anything about bullies, but now
I am the teacher and I will not put up with bullies in my class or in this
school.” As you can imagine, this sends a powerful and hopeful message to
students who have previously been bullied.
The most valuable tool a child can have when
confronted by a bully is that the child already likes himself or herself. A
confident child will be able to reject another child’s efforts to demean. For
example, when my own daughter first attended kindergarten, another child tried
to make fun of her dress. My daughter responded that such comments were mean,
and that she would look elsewhere for friends. She was able to do this because,
as her parents, we had prepared her for just such a situation.
However, many children come to school
unprepared for such scenarios and thus become easy targets. What can be done to
stop these situations? I recommend that schools have a clear policy regarding
bullying, and that parents be informed of the policy and how it will be
enforced. (While the Michigan Department of Education has a formal policy that
deals with bullying, the content of that document mainly deals with definitions
and terms rather than strategies to correct the problem.) Teachers should be
trained on how to explain the policy to students and carry it out, starting on
day one in every class. In my own work, this was my procedure:
On my door was a sign saying: “Mean People
Not Welcome!” This gets the students’ attention as they walk in.
I told the class the true story that, as a
child, I could not do much to stop bullying, but that as a teacher, “I am in
charge and will NOT accept bullying!”
I then asked the students to take a “time
machine” to kindergarten or elementary school and think about a time when they
were bullied or teased, and to recall how they felt. Every student came up with
an example, and three or four were usually willing to share their story.
Next, I reinforced the fact that everyone
understands the pain of being bullied and the consequences: wanting to cry, run
away, or stop coming to school.
Finally I asked this question: “If you know
how badly a person who is bullied feels, then why would you do this to another
I then told the students that anyone who
would deliberately continue to demean another person, knowing the hurt they are
causing, is acting as a bully and that this would not be tolerated in my class.
Further, I said that if someone is behaving like a bully, then he or she is
probably feeling pain as well, and I offered to get them help.
During the course of the year in my classroom,
students became sensitive to teasing. They were empowered and encouraged to ask
a fellow student if he or she felt hurt by a specific comment. That student had
the right to say yes or no, and also to ask for an apology or an explanation
from the student who made the comment. Sometimes it was just a misunderstanding,
and sometimes not. This process is overseen and directed as needed by the
classroom teacher. The result is that all students soon realize that words have
power and that their selection of words is important.
This is a very hands-on approach to preventing
and stopping bullying. It also provides for ways to help the bully, and trains
parents and teachers to assist children, whether the children are victims or
perpetrators. I recommend that every teacher try this approach in their classes
and observe the difference it can make.
A Detroit native, Grenan holds master’s degrees in
education and psychology and a doctoral degree in hypnotherapy. He formerly worked as a teacher, coach and assistant
principal at Grand Haven High School and as a principal at a USA Job Corps
Center in Grand Rapids. Currently he works with the Muskegon County courts
system and maintains a private practice. He can be reached at email@example.com.