Bullying Prevention and the Responsive Classroom Approach

Your latest book is called How to Bullyproof Your Classroom. What got you interested in the topic of bullying and bullying prevention?

Bullying is in the news. As I read accounts of bullying events in schools, I reflected on the bullying prevention work I did in my classroom teaching. I thought about my successes, my frustrations, and what I might have done differently. In addition, when I work with teachers, they often ask me about how to prevent bullying in their schools.

I wanted to know more about the scope of the problem and about effective prevention strategies, so I began to immerse myself in the literature of bullying and bullying prevention. I read a variety of books and academic studies and participated in conferences and webinars.

I also began to look at schools through the lens of bullying prevention. Some educators explained to me that they used the Responsive Classroom approach as a bullying prevention program. Others said that they were using both Responsive Classroom and a separate bullying prevention program and that they felt stretched by implementing two approaches. These stressed teachers asked, “Isn’t there a way we can unify the practices used in the Responsive Classroom approach and those used in the bullying prevention program?”

The more I learned, the more I realized that Responsive Classroom practices can be applied very well to bullying prevention. With this new understanding, I wanted to write a book to share this information with teachers.

In your research into the topic, what surprised you?

I was shocked to discover how prevalent bullying is in elementary schools. When 524,000 U.S. elementary, middle, and high school students responded, anonymously, to the Olweus Bullying Questionnaire between 2007 and 2010, close to 20% of the elementary school students who responded reported that they had been targets of bullying behavior at least two or three times during the past month. In that same study, between 5% and 10% of the elementary school students who responded admitted to bullying others at least two to three times in the past month.

I was also concerned by what I learned about how persistent bullying behaviors are. Many children are bullied over the course of years. Nearly half of the children in the study I mentioned above who reported being the target of bullying said the bullying behavior had been going on for more than a year.

It surprised me to find out how little we teachers know about the bullying that goes on among the students we teach. In a classic Canadian study, researchers observed behavior on the playground and in classrooms. They recorded an incident of bullying behavior on average of every seven minutes. Adults intervened in only 4% of these incidents. Even more amazing is the fact that when they observed classrooms, researchers noted that adults intervened in only 14% of the incidents that happened when they were present. 71% of these same adults reported that they “nearly always” intervened in bullying incidents. Bullying goes on that we don’t see and thus don’t respond to.

What do you wish you had known about bullying prevention when you were in the classroom?

I wish I had understood more clearly what to look for. Bullying behavior is not just physical aggression such as a kick or a surreptitious pinch. It’s also mean behavior such as purposeful exclusion and saying mean words to others. It’s not just direct meanness, but also indirect meanness, such as when a child or group of children tells everyone not to play with one child.
I wish I had understood that small, mean behaviors can grow quickly to out-and-out bullying. I wish I had known more of the clues to look for in order to figure out that bullying is going on: for example, a child who is always alone or a child who is reluctant to go to recess. With that knowledge, I might have stopped the small, mean behaviors that went on under my radar.

I wish I’d known that a strategy such as student-to-student conflict resolution, which I wrote about in Solving Thorny Behavior Problems, isn’t appropriate or even safe for situations that involve bullying, which by definition includes an imbalance of power. I wish I’d been better able to tell the difference between conflict between equals (when I’d encourage children to use student-to-student conflict resolution) and bullying events (when I’d intervene to protect the child who is targeted).

Who will benefit the most from reading this book and why?

This book is for anyone who works in elementary schools. Like my other books, it’s written for elementary classroom teachers, but many of the strategies that I suggest will also help specialist teachers, para-educators, and administrators.

I intend this book to be equally useful to teachers with and without previous knowledge of the Responsive Classroom approach. I hope that teachers already familiar with the Responsive Classroom approach will gain a new appreciation of how consistent use of Responsive Classroom strategies can be an effective tool in bullying prevention efforts. And I hope that teachers who are not already implementing the Responsive Classroom approach will find ways to adapt these strategies to their own classroom structures.

Why is the focus of the book on the classroom and the classroom teacher rather than on schools?

Schoolwide bullying prevention efforts are important, but I focus on what individual teachers can do for a couple of reasons. First of all, I am a classroom teacher. I’ve taught elementary school students for many years at many grade levels and in many settings. I’ve visited many classrooms and have observed wonderful teachers at work. I know the classroom.

Secondly, as I learned about the latest research on bullying prevention, I came to realize that building a positive and inclusive climate in the classroom is one of the most important things that we can do to prevent bullying. Researchers have found that rates of bullying vary widely from classroom to classroom, even within the same school. Low rates of bullying are correlated with strong teacher-student relationships, classrooms where all children work together equitably, and quick teacher response to small mean incidents. There’s a lot that we teachers can do to create a climate where children gain recognition for kindness rather than for meanness.

Classroom teachers can also have an impact on outside-the-classroom areas. A large percentage of bullying behavior takes place in “hot spots” such as the playground, the cafeteria, the halls, and the school bus. In the book I discuss things that classroom teachers can do, both individually and in collaboration with colleagues, to help keep students safe in these “hot spots” of the school.

What makes this book unique?

This book is about bullying prevention in elementary schools, grades K–5. Although bullying starts in preschool, most of the books published about bullying focus primarily on middle school. I’m hoping to fill that gap.

It’s a handbook, with lots of classroom-based strategies for teachers to use. Some of the strategies will be familiar to Responsive Classroom educators, for example, how to use rules, Interactive Modeling, and positive teacher language to prevent bullying. Others will be new to Responsive Classroom educators, such as how to identify and respond to “gateway” behaviors that can escalate into bullying if we don’t stop them.

The book also includes lesson plans to help teachers talk with children about bullying and a bibliography of children’s books to share with children.

Is there anything else you want to say?

All children have a right to be safe in school, a right to be included, to be treated kindly. Throughout the process of researching bullying prevention, I have become passionate about protecting this right. It’s not the job of the child who is targeted to protect himself. It’s our job to create a climate where children treat each other kindly. It’s our job to model kind behavior for children. It’s our job to create a climate of openness where children will tell us when they see mean behavior. It’s our job to stop those small mean behaviors when we see them. And these are jobs within our power to do—we can do these things. We can create safe and joyful classrooms where all children will be able to do their best learning.
Caltha Crowe has nearly forty years of experience teaching elementary school children and twenty years of experience mentoring new teachers. She is a Responsive Classroom consultant and the author of several books.

Tags: Bullying