Bullying & Learning

Wood N Barnes is very excited to have the new edition of a true classic by Laurie Frank: Journey Toward the Caring Classroom, 2nd Edition! Here is the first of several Experiential Education blogs from that book.

Bullying & Learning

Dear Teacher,
I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.
So, I am suspicious of education.
My request is: Help your students become human.
Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.

~ Author Unknown (cited in Haim Ginott’s Teacher and Child)

As brain research reveals, creating a safe environment, free from threat, is central to learning. It is also the ethical thing to do. Harassment, humiliation, verbal or physical violence, and shame have no place in schools. Youth and adults alike deserve to be treated with respect and compassion. Although this is obvious to educators, there is also much research on teacher attitudes and school climate in regard to bullying.

Defining what is meant by “bullying” is important. This term has become a label that can pigeonhole people and obscure the actual dynamic or relationship between people. Simply calling one party “bully” and the other party “victim” does not change a situation, nor does it necessarily identify what is truly going on; therefore, keying into a definition and reasons for bullying behavior can be helpful. A commonly used definition of bullying is from Dan Olweus: “A student is being bullied or victimized when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more students.”

People are affected by their relationships and environments, and the quality of those relationships and environments matters. As educators, it is important to view bullying behavior in the context of a social-ecological framework where it is “encouraged and/or inhibited as a result of the complex relationships between the individual, family, peer group, school, community, and culture.” There are many factors that engender negative, unsafe, and even violent actions between students including pain, fear, teacher attitudes, and school climate.

Some students may experience pain in their lives that fosters a fight, flight, or freeze response and causes them to protect themselves by harming others. Brendtro and Larsen in their book The Resilience Revolution cite a Native American proverb that “Hurt people hurt people.” Trauma, poverty, abuse, and rejection cause pain, and people protect themselves from feeling pain. There is even research that shows how social exclusion registers in similar areas of the brain as physical pain.32 Teasing, sarcastic humor, and activities where people are excluded are emotionally hurtful—and maybe even physically so.
There is also a connection between fear and violence. Fear is instinctual and arises from both real and imagined threats. When we feel fear we naturally take a stance toward fight, flight, or freeze. If the fear is caused by severe or constant threat, a person can stay at a heightened state of alertness, which can grow into anxiety and stress disorders including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Prolonged victimization can cause chronic anxiety. Students who already come to school with severe anxiety from other parts of their lives may be a trigger point away from a panic situation, and many times school personnel are unaware of individual circumstances.33 Students in such a state, then, can either be ready targets of harassment or perpetrate violence in response to something that sparks a panic reaction.

An additional connection to fear and violence is the concept of the “other.” Family and cultural beliefs about people who are different teach children to fear others, which can give rise to hate. Robert F. Kennedy famously described this phenomenon in his speech to the Cleveland City Club after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies—to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.
Hatred causes a person to objectify others, seeing them as less-than-human. It is then easier to treat “the other” inhumanely.

Another factor to consider is how teacher attitudes affect the prevalence of bullying behavior in schools. Teachers regularly underestimate the number of bullying incidents in school. Many hurtful interactions take place away from adult supervision (e.g., in the halls, on a bus). A teacher may not define many interactions as hurtful but dismiss them as “kids being kids,” or have a narrow definition of bullying behavior as physical attacks while discounting exclusion or verbal attacks. Still others may hesitate to report ongoing victimization for fear that it reflects upon their behavior management skills in their classrooms.

Finally, a related reason students may become involved in bullying behavior is that the school climate and culture support it. Many times, the norms of the classroom or school contain an atmosphere of “pre-bullying,” defined as
1. Behavior that, if escalated, could become bullying. 2. Norms that set the stage for bullying if the behavior becomes intentional, consistent, and abusive (e.g., sarcastic humor, put downs, unconscious use of derogatory terms—many times found in popular culture).

How people are treated is central to school climate and is largely influenced by adult attitudes and actions. Students who are seen as “different” because they have special needs or stand out because they look or act differently are more likely to be victimized by their peers. Adult attitudes and behavior toward these students influences how other students treat them as well. If ignored or left unattended, pre-bullying behavior and norms can easily escalate into a pattern of harassment and abuse.

The year 1999 was pivotal for raising awareness about bullying behavior because of the Columbine school shooting tragedy. Subsequent studies “found that 71% of the school shooters in the U.S. (from 1974 to 2000) reported being chronically bullied.” Taking into account the social-ecological framework of students involved in harassment and victimization is not a license to excuse the behavior. When encountering a situation where students are being harassed or victimized, we must, of course, intervene to make it stop. The only thing better is to create the conditions where it doesn’t occur in the first place.

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