The flu, sore throats and head colds can run rampant throughout a school. But there’s a far more menacing malady that’s reached epidemic proportions in schools – bullying. It can be as subtle as the popular girls refusing to let someone less popular sit with them at lunch, to the big kid who smacks around the little kid who wouldn’t provide him with the answers to a test. With the prevalence of violence in schools, a bully may even do the unthinkable – he may threaten others with a knife or gun.
The effects of bullying can be severe, and sometimes permanent. According to the National Education Association, 160,000 children miss school daily because they fear bullying. Even bullies don’t escape unscathed: they often do poorly in school, smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, use drugs and commit crimes. It’s not enough that teachers talk to the parents of the victims – they must address the parents of bullies. And teachers must broach the subject delicately, since parents often don’t witness any of this abusive conduct, and may believe that their child is well-behaved.
When you speak with the parents of a bully, know that it can be difficult for them to hear that their child is saying or doing unacceptable things. Be sure to approach them in an objective, non-confrontational manner – refrain from getting emotional. Let the parents know that you’re certain they’re not cognizant of the problem, and that it’s unfortunate that you have to meet under these circumstances, but their child is having some behavioral challenges.
Be aware that you may encounter parents who get angry or defensive. They may also minimize the situation and insist that their kid “is just being a kid.” If a parent isn’t taking the problem seriously, you can say that you know it doesn’t seem like a major issue, but you’re very concerned about the circumstances, and about the wellbeing of the other children.
If a parent gets confrontational, let them know that their bullying is just as unacceptable as their child’s bullying by ending the conversation, leaving or asking them to leave. You could be in a risky situation, and may need to bring in a third party, such as another teacher, a guidance counselor or even the principal. The main goal is to get the parents to curb their child’s bullying behavior. And that may mean being the bad guy or putting up a united front.
Don’t wait for the bullying problem to go away, because chances are it could escalate. And don’t worry about rocking the boat with the bully’s parents – talk with them as soon as you can. Let them know what you’ve witnessed and heard, and nip the problem in the bud. Be firm and assertive enough that they understand the severity of the situation, and that you want a speedy resolution.
Try to refrain from judging the parents – saying they’re irresponsible or that they probably let their child watch violent TV shows. If you go into the meeting with a negative opinion of them, your attitude will instantly shut down any chance of having a productive conversation. The reality is you don’t know anything about their parenting style or what kind of rapport they may share with you, so don’t make any advance assumptions.
Forge an alliance with the parents by letting them know you’re all on the same side. Saying something like, “I’ve got a problem that I need your help with,” will make them feel like allies whose input you respect. You could also say, “I’m a bit uncomfortable talking with you about this, but I believe it’s important.” Admitting you’re nervous humanizes you and makes you easier to relate to.
When you discuss the circumstances, refrain from using judgmental words like “bullying” and “mean,” which will only provoke the parents and put them on the defensive. Instead, impartially summarize the facts by saying something such as, “Two weeks ago, Joe told me that Don punches him on the arm if he doesn’t hand over his lunch money. Joe asked Don to stop, but he hasn’t. Something’s going on, and I’d like to talk with you about it.”
In the best case scenario, the parents may promise to talk to their child and make sure the abusive behavior stops. Thank them for their time, and tell them you look forward to hearing from them. If they haven’t called after a few days, and their child is still misbehaving, call them back and follow up. After all, you’re the voice for dozens of children who are being treated as though they’re not worth anyone’s help.