There is perhaps no problem within school culture more persistent and more misunderstood than bullying. Bullying is repeated, unwanted, aggressive behavior involving an imbalance of power.
The power imbalance is crucial. For example, an eighth grader picking on a fourth grader or a group of eight girls harassing a boy the same age both constitute bullying; two students in the same grade who argue and fight repeatedly does not. Current estimates are that bullying affects between twenty and thirty percent of middle and high school students.
Like most behavior management issues in the school, prevention of bullying should be the primary objective. Jim Fay and Fred Jones have helped many teachers develop positive, smoothly run classrooms. Handling bullying after it has occurred is more difficult and requires suppressing bullying behavior through the use of punishment. Punishment, however, only represents half of the solution; the other half is to strengthen non-bullying behaviors through positive reinforcement. This article will focus primarily on suppressing bullying behavior.
When it comes to suppressing any behavior, the cost of the punishment must exceed the benefit of continuing the behavior. Bullying is no different. Since the benefits of acting as a bully depend greatly upon the individual, the punishments that will effectively deter future bullying are also highly individual.
The best approach is to have a systematic hierarchy of sanctions. Once bullying is observed, teachers should intervene with the simplest and least disruptive sanction. If the bullying stops, teachers can move on to reinforcing non-bullying behavior; if the bullying continues, the teacher, with help of administrators, works up the ladder of negative sanctions.
There are no hard and fast rules with regard to how often to try a technique before moving on; that judgment is the responsibility of the involved stakeholders. It is also the stakeholders’ decision as to whether bullies should be required to make restitution – a letter of apology, for example – to their victims.
Timeout is one of the most common punishments, but is often misapplied. Timeout should occur in a visually isolated section of the room and should exclude students from positive interaction with classmates and teachers. When used to punish bullying, it is most effective if used immediately. Timeouts are generally issued for one minute per year of age; for example, a 7 year old would recieve a 7 minute time out while a 15 year old would receive a 15-minute time out.
Second Stage Timeout
Assuming the bullying continues after time out in the classroom, the next step up the ladder of sanctions is a stage two timeout. Second stage timeout follows the same guidelines as typical time out but must occur in a different classroom. This option works best if the student is sent to time out in a classroom far removed from his own age group. A sixth grader, for example, should go to a kindergarten classroom, not another sixth grade classroom. The stage two timeout should last twice the length of a regular time out. Parents should be informed of each stage two timeout.
If stage two timeouts fail to produce, the punishments become increasingly costly in terms of manpower and utilization of resources. The next step is to involve the bully’s parents and write a behavior contract. Many schools will suspend students after repeated bullying behavior until a contract is signed by parents. Behavior contracts spell out in great detail consequences for continued bullying and may include incentives for ceasing the behavior. The contract should also consider the unique circumstances of the bullying; if the bullying student is picking on other students in the restroom, a fitting addendum to the contract would stipulate that the bullying student could not go the restroom unsupervised. If the problems are limited to recess, the student should not be allowed on the playground.
Conditional suspension is the last resort before considering expulsion. Conditional suspension allows the bullying student to attend school as long as specific criteria are met. These criteria are variable and tailored to each situation. In come cases, conditional suspensions are written to allow a bullying student into the school only if accompanied by a parent; it then becomes the parent’s responsibility to manage the behavior of the student. Other instances of conditional suspension are designed to protect the other students. Some stipulate that the student will be suspended for the remainder of the school day after any aggressive behavior. The student may then return the next day and start anew.
Expulsion, the permanent removal of a student from a school or school district, is the final step up the ladder. It represents failure on the part of all involved stakeholders.
The preceding list of interventions should work to deter most bullying behavior. Unfortunately, it is not a prescription. Teachers, parents, and administrators must create a school culture that discourages bullying. Ultimately, the success of these sanctions is highly dependent upon the competencies of the people using them. A comprehensive investment in classroom and school management will prevent a good deal of bullying and reduce the need for the more severe negative sanctions.
Also, by focusing only on negative sanctions, educators are not utilizing all tools available at their disposal to eliminate bullying. Positive reinforcement is far more successful at changing behavior than punishment and should be viewed as a necessary complement before moving up the ladder of negative sanctions.