The Decisive Element in the Classroom: What Successful Classroom Teachers Do to Stop Bullying

Classroom teachers have everything to do with stopping bullying. There. I said it. The teachers who are making a difference in the movement to stop bullying are engaged role models of kindness and expert masters of diplomacy.
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three of her fellow students...
three of her fellow students...

"I've come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It's my personal approach that creates the climate." --Haim G. Ginnot, Between Parent and Child

Classroom teachers have everything to do with stopping bullying. There. I said it. I often hesitate to make this assertion so plainly when speaking to educators, fearing my next move will have to be fending off rotten tomatoes lobbed at my head by teachers who won't stand for having yet another responsibility heaped onto their already-overflowing plates.

If the spoiled fruit ever were to be thrown my way, I would understand the sentiment, but the fact that they never are is a true testament to the tremendous job that most classroom teachers willingly take on every day of the school year. The teachers who are making a difference in the movement to stop bullying are engaged role models of kindness and expert masters of diplomacy. They are true champions of the underdog and astute shapers of peer culture. They are not afraid to be direct and to confront bullying behavior whenever they see it. These teachers are improving the lives of young people each and every day and demonstrating that time spent on bullying prevention is time saved on conflict, alienation, academic struggles, and victimization. What follows are four strategies for stopping bullying that effective teachers share in common:

1.Own the Opportunity
Children who are bullied in school have difficulty succeeding academically. For this reason alone (notwithstanding a teacher's legal and moral obligation), bullying is a problem educators are duty-bound to address. That said, teachers who are the most effective in stopping bullying in their classrooms do so not because they see it as obligatory, but rather because they value the opportunity to champion the dignity and safety of young people. Successful educators understand the power of their leadership role in the classroom and honor Haim Ginnot's assertion that, "In all situations, it is [the teacher's] response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized."

2.Create a Culture in which Kindness is the Norm
While there is no single profile to identify a child who will bully others, we do know that the "he has low self-esteem; that's why he bullies" explanation is an old stereotype that has been largely de-bunked. Current research shows that much of bullying today has to do with social status and perceived coolness. Kids who bully tend to enjoy the sense of power and rank they get from pushing their peers down a peg (or two) on the social ladder.

Teachers who are most effective in stopping bullying are the ones who work to create classroom cultures in which kindness is valued over coolness and popularity is based not on the power to dominate social interactions but rather on the willingness to reach out to others compassionately. How do teachers foster such an environment? Classroom meetings, activities, and discussions are used to shape a student's beliefs about what it means to be "cool" and popularity is defined more by being well-liked than by being socially-feared. Group rules and classroom norms dictate that cruel behaviors have a social cost. Social-emotional learning (SEL) is incorporated into everyday lessons so that students have regular opportunities to practice bully-banning behaviors such as compassion and empathy. Cooperative group work trumps competitive interactions.

The list goes on (see below) but the key is that effective teachers are incorporating bullying-prevention strategies seamlessly into the culture of their classroom. There is no "time out" or once-and done assembly to focus on anti-bullying efforts, but rather every action, every day is shaped by norms of kindness.

3.Reach Out to At-Risk Kids
Teachers who are most effective at stopping bullying make it a habit to reach out to students who are vulnerable to peer-rejection and exclusion. Case in point: last year, the mother of a socially awkward but eager-to-please student came to me concerned that her daughter's teacher was actually contributing to the exclusion her daughter was experiencing at school. She described an incident in which the students were permitted to divide themselves into small groups to work on a project. Her daughter, Kate, was not invited to join any of the groups. When Kate asked to be included, her classmates unanimously informed her that their groups were already full. When Kate asked her teacher to help her find a group, the teacher walked Kate over to a group of popular girls and announced apologetically, "I'm sorry, girls. Kate will have to be in your group." When one of the group members rolled her eyes, the teacher put her hand reassuringly on the angry girl's shoulder and said, "You'll be OK. It's only for this week."

The mother was outraged. Her daughter was humiliated. I could have cried. And yet, it's nowhere near the first time I have heard this kind of story of an educator over-identifying with kids who bully and allowing acts of exclusion to go on unchecked.

Effective teachers do not cater to the social hierarchies established by popular students nor do they sympathize with the inconvenience students feel at having to work with an awkward peer. Rather, teachers who are successful in stopping bullying are those who encourage classmates to rally around the vulnerable peer in distinctive, meaningful ways. Organizing a group cheer so that the classmate with autism smiles for his school photo, establishing a "buddy system" that pairs a socially successful student with a socially vulnerable one, and staying involved in the seating arrangements at lunch so that each child has at least one, guaranteed friendly peer with whom to sit are among the least time-consuming, yet most impactful things effective teachers do to reach out and meet the needs of at-risk students.

4.Confront Bullying Whenever You See It
This is the place where the professionals I speak with tend to feel the most helpless. "I know it when I see it," said one teacher. "Our in-services have been good about teaching us to recognize bullying. But I still don't really know how to make it stop" she confessed.

This teacher is not alone. Many adults struggle with crafting just the right message to deliver to kids when they witness an incident of bullying. The good news is that often the most effective approach is the least wordy one. In fact, in most cases I say the briefer the better. Each of these statements below would take less than 15 seconds to deliver:

•"It's not okay to say that to someone in my classroom. Are we clear?"
•"Sending that kind of text about a classmate is unacceptable. That cannot happen again."
•"Leaving one kid out of the group is not going to work. Let's fix this and move on."

The benefits of these brief statements?

•They don't humiliate anyone but they do let everyone know that the teacher is astute, aware of classroom dynamics, and not afraid to step in.
•They send a strong signal to all students that bullying behavior will not be tolerated.
•They assure the kid who is bullied that he has a safe place and a trustworthy adult in the school.

Oh, and did I mention that these uncomplicated statements allow a teacher to get right back to the lesson while simultaneously heading off all kinds of future issues from occurring on her watch?

Most educators I know chose the profession because of the paycheck. Right. We came to this type of work because we have a passion for making a positive difference in the lives of young people. Stopping bullying is one of the most important things adults can do to safeguard the physical, emotional, and mental health of young people. Doing so has everything to do with embracing the opportunity to be the decisive element in the classroom, the standard bearer of kindness, the champion of the underdog, the confronter of aggression, and the adult that a child will always remember.

They will not remember what we said. They will not even remember what we did. But they will never forget how we made them feel.
--Maya Angelou

Signe Whitson, LSW is a national educator on bullying and author of Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Young Girls Cope with Bullying. For more information or workshop inquiries, please visit

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