Why We Don’t Call Kids “Bullies”

When I was in third grade, I was bullied by a girl in fourth grade named Alex. She rode my bus and always sat at the back. Whenever I could, I sat at the front, but if those seats were taken and I had to sit near Alex, she teased me the entire way home: about my clothes, my hair, the way I spoke, the way I acted. I felt ashamed and embarrassed. To me, Alex was just a bully: a mean kid, rotten to the core. I hoped she’d drop off the face of the Earth, or, at the very least, go to middle school and not ride my bus anymore.

Looking back now, as an adult and an elementary school teacher, I see Alex differently. She doesn’t tower over me anymore; she’s just a kid.  Tall for her age and overweight, with few friends. I see her wearing the label of bully, as in, Alex the Bully, with bravado and false pride.

And I wonder, how out of place, how low and vulnerable must she have felt?

Labels abound in school (especially middle and high school): the smart one, the geeky one, the jock, the drama queen. The bully. But that label is as false as the rest. Alex wasn’t a bully.  She was a hurt, insecure ten-year-old who thought she needed to put down others to feel better about herself.

These days, teachers are supposed to be vigilant about noticing and stopping bullying behavior. By law, no one can ignore the problem any longer. Thank goodness for that. But we have to do more. We have to put as much effort into helping kids who use bullying behavior as we do the targets of bullying behavior if we are serious about putting a stop to it.

To address and prevent bullying, we must choose our words carefully.

In my school, we use the Open Circle curriculum and talk about the four roles kids can play in a bullying or teasing situation. There are kids who:

  1. Use bullying behavior (not “bullies”)
  2. Are the targets of that behavior (not “victims”)
  3. Are bystanders (and have a choice to make)
  4. Become allies by standing up for the target or getting help

Our school rule is that if you see a Double D — a behavior that is dangerous or destructive, including bullying or teasing behavior — you must report it to an adult. We teach the difference between reporting and tattling, and we teach kids how to become allies and not just bystanders.

When a bullying situation comes up in my classroom, the first thing I do is gather information. I talk separately to the kids who were targeted, to bystanders and allies, and to the kid who chose to use bullying behavior. I get the facts.

To the kids who were targeted, I tell them that the bullying will stop and that they deserve to feel safe and happy at school. No one is allowed to make them feel unsafe or hurt. I tell them that if the bullying behavior happens again, they must tell me immediately.

But I am very clear with my kids that the person who used bullying behavior isn’t a bully. They aren’t a mean person. They are a member of our class who made mistakes and will work to fix them. They used bullying behavior, but they’re not a bully.  And we don’t call people “bully,” just like we don’t call people other hurtful names.

With the child who used bullying behavior, I get right to the root of the problem: to why they made the choices they did, to the hurt that made them choose to hurt others. I empathize with them. And together, often with the help of our school counselors, we work as hard on building self-esteem as we do on making better choices.

I certainly put in place the logical consequences you’d expect for bullying behavior — letters of apology written during lunch and phone calls home — and those consequences are more severe if the behavior is repeated. But we also have lunch together one-on-one, write “All About Me” books to build self-esteem, and use behavior plans that reward good choices.

Kids who use bullying behavior are still my kids, even if they’re not in my class. Stopping bullying behavior is not just about enforcement of the rules. It’s about having empathy for all children. And teaching children to have empathy for one another.

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One thought on “Why We Don’t Call Kids “Bullies”

  1. Your post is so on. It brings up a great question, what are our schools doing for the one that is using bullying behavior? I don’t believe in “bad kids”. I believe that kids want to do good.
    Last year at my daughter’s iep meeting, they got to a part of the iep that addressed if the child was at risk for bullying. When the counselor on her team brought up that she would be more likely to bully, I quickly jumped in to advocate for my child. “She can be bossy, she can say mean things, but she is a kind, loving, scared little girl who has a challenging time communicating and a low tolerance frustration. And it is the grown-ups’ jobs around her to help build a secure, confident person with coping and communication skills.” I do believe she definitely should have consequences to help shape her behavior, but she also needs help with her underlying challenges and messages that she can do this. If just labeled and punished, she will begin to wear that label and the problem will be exasperated, and any consequences really wouldn’t matter.

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