Is anti-bullying education possible?

I’ve been hearing a lot in the news lately about anti-bullying education in schools. I have to admit that I was surprised when I first heard about it because bullying was always one of those “kids are like that” sort of things that I’d never questioned. But now that I’m thinking about it, I’m thinking that maybe it is possible to change it.

Let’s start with the reasons why I’m a little sceptical of the whole idea:

I remember, when I was in elementary school, having a weekly educational program called “Project Charlie.” The idea behind it was to have kids play self-esteem-building games in order to avoid later using drugs. And I remember — as a fifth and sixth-grader — thinking that this was the dumbest program that I could possibly imagine. It wasn’t the usual “stuff grown-ups want us to do is by definition dorky” kind of assessment. It’s that the program was a series of social games where the popular kids were encouraged to take center-stage as usual, and no effort was made to draw out the less-popular kids and make them feel included.

As an example, they would start every session by choosing one kid to come to the board and compose a sentence starting with “You are someone special…” Naturally, the popular kids were selected early and often. When I finally got a turn, kids from the class teased me and mocked my sentence. This wasn’t surprising — I expected to be teased and bullied for anything I did in front of the class — but it kind of left me going “What the hell is the purpose of this exercise?!” And I learned the lesson that the phrase “You are someone special” is just words when it’s coming from an institutional program.

Fortunately, in my own home, I was never made to feel like I deserved it. I come from a long line of nerds, so being bullied was just one of those things that you expect to have to cope with, like really cold weather in the Minnesota winter. The coping mechanisms I was taught (or figured out) were the following:

  • Ignore it, if possible; attempt to pretend you don’t even hear it,
  • try to blend into the crowd; don’t give the mean kids any reason to notice you,
  • keep in mind that when you are older and out of school you will not have this problem.

Following these strategies, already by high school it started getting a little better — Jr. High was the worst.

But bullying isn’t just a question of a handful of bad-apple mean kids. Once an outcast has been selected, joining the group in mocking that person (or at least being obviously complicit in it) becomes a badge of belonging for everyone else in the group. And kids who are bullied will often give back as good as they get, when they get the opportunity. That was one of the more disturbing things I discovered when I re-read my early-teen journals as an adult. My actual teen and childhood memories were full of vivid, horrible scenes of being that outcast. Yet I found that when it came to writing my stories down (in my good little Mormon-girl journal), I was far more inclined to recount the few incidents when I was on the bullies’ team against someone even more socially rejected than I was. This is, quite frankly, because I had internalized the idea that there’s far more shame in being the outcast than in tormenting the outcast. (This is illustrated a bit in the story Young Womens’.)

As I grew up, I learned from experience that being a bully is more shameful than being an outcast. But I’m sure I could have learned this lesson earlier if the adults around me had thought it was an important and valuable lesson to learn.

Just because Project Charlie was poorly designed and implemented, that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to design a good program. And targeting the specific behaviors of bullying — teaching kids that it’s not OK to do that — may well be a more realistic goal than the rather nebulous goal of “raising self-esteem.”

Kids’ expected behavior (and their corresponding actual behavior) can change pretty dramatically from one generation to the next. Reading some kids stories from the American frontier, it’s kind of shocking the degree to which it was just expected that little kids would fight each other for dominance, to determine which one was the toughest. Parents of the time probably just figured “Hey, kids are like that,” and maybe gave them some pointers on how to win. But even if it seemed like “that’s just the way kids are,” modern society has clearly shown that this behavior is not immutable.

The more I think about it, the more I think it might work. The key is to change people’s expectations. If adults see taunting and bullying and turn a deaf ear, thinking Ah, kids…, then kids learn that it’s acceptable. But if you train everyone in the school (adults and kids alike) that certain behaviors aren’t acceptable, it stands to reason that the behavior will change. (And according to this answer sheet that’s the kind of program that works.)

One can argue that this addresses only the symptom. After all, even with no bullying, it’s not like the popular kids were going to like me or pick me first when choosing teams in gym class. But, y’know, I could totally accept that I’m never going to be prom queen. Just not having kids shove you and laugh about it or make up a mean song about you for the rest of the class to sing in unison — already that would make a big difference.

Originally posted on my personal blog here.

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12 Responses to Is anti-bullying education possible?

  1. Arduinnae says:

    I’ve heard that the program in Sweden is actually very successful. But I do think that it’s something that has to occur on the culture level. An anti-bullying program in schools is a nice first step, but we also need families not to reinforce that verbal and physical abuse is an adequate way to deal with problems. That’s something that Sweden has been able to accomplish that we simply haven’t.

    As to your three tips on avoiding bullying, I have to disagree. My husband and I were/are both very nerdy kids in school and made for perfect victims. I tried to ignore it, which just made it fun for the kids to see how far they could push me before I reacted (usually by crying, which was like little droplets of ecstacy for these psychopaths-in-training). If I persisted too long in ignoring the verbal taunts, they moved on to physical violence. I quickly found that just giving in early and letting them have their laugh was the only way to avoid not going home bloody and bruised (or at least having a chance at it).

    My husband took a completely different tack. If someone made fun of him, he pretended they were his best friends and they were just ragging on each other as friends do. He would laugh and make fun back. What started as an attempt at bullying quickly became a more harmless banter. So while he was always the outcast, always a bit “weird,” he also forged for himself a kind of friendship with all of his classmates and bullying never escalated or became unmanageable for him. He never became a “victim” (as I did, and subsequently had to spent years trying to get over).

    This is something we’ve been giving a lot of thought to now that we’re expecting our first (and, let’s face it, this poor kid has no chance of being Mr. Popularity with parents like us!). We’ve decided that the best advice we can give him is not to try to ignore negative social interactions, but rather to manipulate them into positive ones. People are amazingly suggestible and will always be looking to you for cues. If you act like this is a bullying situation that you are trying to manage, it doesn’t matter how well you manage it because you will still be reinforcing the social dynamic of bullier vs. bulliee. Rather, change how everyone involved interprets the situation, take it completely out of the realm of bullying.

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  3. chanson says:

    Arduinnae — I don’t mean to imply that the strategies I listed are the best strategies. It’s just that’s what I was taught. It kind of worked a bit (but basically had the flaws you mention). I’m glad to hear ideas about alternate strategies. :D

    On top of that, it’s nice when the community is interested in solutions that don’t just focus on what the victims need to do, but rather try to engage the whole group.

  4. Arduinnae says:

    @Chanson – Absolutely! But we victims are the ones who are right in the thick of it and we need to make our experiences as little traumatic as possible. So the burden is on us, at the individual level, just from a purely selfish perspective.

    But as I said, there needs to be more done at the social/culture level. There are twenty states in the US that still practice corporal punishment in schools. How can we possibly tell our children not to hit each other if we are hitting them? We can’t expect children to absorb one set of values that is the complete opposite of what parents and teachers practice. When it comes to children, many of us are still showing our dominance through physical means and kids learn that.

    Actually, Parenting Within Reason had a great episode about this (episode 29: and they do mention some of the progress that has been made in Sweden.

    But yes, I agree with you that the discussion needs to be had at the social level. But until society gets its act together, the burden is on victims. Unfortunately.

  5. see to learn says:

    Thank you for posting this.

  6. kherbert says:

    The more I think about it, the more I think it might work. The key is to change people’s expectations. If adults see taunting and bullying and turn a deaf ear, thinking Ah, kids…, then kids learn that it’s acceptable. But if you train everyone in the school (adults and kids alike) that certain behaviors aren’t acceptable, it stands to reason that the behavior will change.

    Program’s don’t work because it isn’t a cultural change. I’ve had several parents tell me that my school was the 1st time in a long time they didn’t have to drag their child into school.

    We have life skills, for severally mentally disabled children. It is completely unacceptable to tease or bully these kids. That has become the norm. Kids will call each other out on the difference between teasing (both people laugh) and bullying (the person the comment is directed to does not laugh)

    Last year I had a new student look at a 3rd grade autistic student wearing headphones to dampen the noise in the caf and launch into a taunt. The utter look of bewilderment on his face, when instead of joining him in the taunt both the 4th graders (my class) and 3rd graders (autistic child’s class) looked at him like he was something they had stepped in. The class leaders in both groups instantly said – “Stop you had better leave him alone. We don’t play that way here.”

    Because he acted like a bully he was the outcast, for several weeks. We had complaints about this from his parents, who were told he is bullying other kids and the kids won’t put up with it. He is still on the margins, because of acting out.

  7. John H. says:

    I’m not sure human nature can be changed, certainly not easily. Humans are notoriously competitive, and bullying behavior is part of that. The “winners” lord their dominance over the “losers.” The biggest reason this changes in adulthood, IMO, is that most of us “loser nerds” grow up to be successful – many times more successful. The big jock who tormented me in high school grew up to be a sports photographer.

    I ignored the abuse, because you give them power by being bothered by their actions. But I still remember it. I also think it’s very funny that all the popular ones who treated me as invisible were oh-so happy to sit and talk at the class reunion, as if we were old friends, or something.

  8. chanson says:

    John H. — I agree that humans are competitive and that when you get a certain number of kids together, they’ll probably try to work out a pecking order. Bullying is one of the tactics that can be used in that struggle. We were talking about this in the corresponding thread on my personal blog. It’s theoretically possible that this particular tactic can stop being a useful way to get a leg up in the popularity contest if you convince the entire community that bullying is not acceptable.

    It was funny at my 20 year HS reunion. Since we’re all grown-ups now, naturally the popular girls organizing the event were polite to me and I was polite back. It did seem like a silly charade though, considering that they weren’t my friends last I saw them, twenty years earlier, when it mattered…

  9. Liz Ditz says:

    Please see Nestor Lopez-Duran’s review of the literature on the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs in schools:

    In short, there are programs that have proven effective.

  10. chanson says:

    Liz — Thanks, very informative!

  11. Julia says:

    I was worried about my daughter going to elementary school because of all the bullying I experienced as a child at that age, but her school has a strong “anti-bullying policy and program”. I’m not quite sure how it works but I see a big difference than in the school I went to. There are still bullies but what appears to be happening is they make themselves outcasts and other kids are not joining them in their bullying. The one boy in my daughter’s class who was your stereotypical bully (ie: yelling “so-and-so is ugly” during class and laughing about it, then getting angry cause no one laughed with him) ended up having his parents pull him out of the school “because no one understands him”. He didn’t have any friends by the time he left cause the kids didn’t like how mean he was.

    I have no clue what is different than when I was a kid to be honest. Maybe it’s better leadership from the teacher’s? Maybe they’ve set up peer pressure to not be mean? It does give me hope. I don’t think there’s any way to stop kids from being bullies because that is problem that starts in their families for some reason, but I’m glad that at least at my daughter’s school it isn’t “cool” to be a bully like it was when I was a kid.

  12. Grimalkin says:

    @Julia – I’m so glad to hear you say that!

    I was bullied a great deal as a child (and right up until I graduated from High School, actually) and it’s taken me years to get over the “victim complex” I had developed as a result. One of my greatest fears for my child is the bullying he might experience when he starts school.

    I’m so glad to hear that there’s hope!

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