Bullying We Ignore

Louis announces, “Paul’s feet smell, eww.” His classmates laugh, and his teacher goes on teaching. “Look at your ugly lunch,” “You have on boys’ socks,” “Your hair is nappy and you’ll never get a boyfriend.” These are all things I’ve heard children say to each other in school, in the presence of adults. No one intervened.

Before I understood the cycle of bullying, I, too, sometimes ignored mean comments I overheard about bodies, food, or gender non-conformity. Now I understand that when adults see children indulge in small, mean behaviors, it’s important that we stop them quickly, firmly, and respectfully. These are the sort of “gateway” behaviors that may escalate into full blown bullying. It’s a lot easier to redirect one nasty comment than to turn around a pattern of cruelty that grows over time.

Barbara Coloroso, the author of The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander, writes about this cycle of violence: A child “accidentally” brushes up against a schoolmate. Next the child tries out hurtful names. In classrooms, play yards, cafeterias, and hallways this happens every day. It seems innocuous, but when no one stops these aggressive behaviors, they may escalate rapidly into systematic exclusion or outright assaults. Nearly every expert on bullying describes this cycle. (To learn more about the ways that unkind words can lead to deeply hateful behaviors, I recommend Stephen Wessler’s book, The Respectful School, in which he describes his experiences working for the Maine Attorney General’s office, prosecuting hate crimes perpetrated in schools.)

Why do educators ever let mean behavior go? When I was a beginning teacher, a school psychologist told me, “If you ignore it, it will go away.” Maybe this is not just wishful thinking, but in my experience none of the behaviors I ignored actually went away. Other comments I’ve heard frequently are “Aren’t their friendships up to them?”, “Recess time is for children to relax and do what they want,” or “They’ve worked hard all morning; shouldn’t they be allowed to have free time at lunch?”

Bullying is about an imbalance of power. Socially powerful children sometimes assert their power with mean behaviors. Children who want to be more socially powerful try out mean behaviors to see if they can gain social traction. If we educators step back and ignore these behaviors, the battle for social power prevails. The “free time” so that children can “do what they want” will be taken over by exclusion, hurtful behaviors, and overall lack of safety.

By paying attention, we can nip small, mean behaviors in the bud. A firm and respectful statement, “That’s not kind,” is enough if we use it quickly. We can create classrooms and schools that are safe, joyful, and engaging. It’s up to us.

Caltha Crowe is a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher with nearly forty years of experience teaching elementary school students and twenty years of experience mentoring new teachers. She is the author of three books: Sammy and His Behavior Problems, Solving Thorny Behavior Problems, and How to Bullyproof Your Classroom.

How to Bullyproof Your Classroom, offers a practical, proactive approach to bullying prevention. Learn how to create a positive classroom environment and how to respond to mean behavior before it escalates into bullying.

How to Bullyproof Your Classroom

“Teacher-friendly from start to finish!”  —Martha Hanley, Grafton, MA

Tags: Bullying

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One Reply to “Bullying We Ignore”

  • My 2 grandchildren, ages, ten and seven, are non natives to the island in which the school they attend is located. My granddaughter, age ten is repeating fourth grade and is also bullied almost daily. My grandson, age seven, is currently failing math in the second grade. He is also being bullied by higher grade students. For example, fifth grade students have offered him money to get a behavior report, one incident was they told him to flush a hall pass down the toilet and they would give him 20 $. He did it, the boys gave him a copy of a twenty dollar bill. While he got into trouble, the fifth grade boys’ entertainment was at the seven year Olds expense. There were many experiences of that nature in the past. My granddaughter was cornered in the bathroom and was being intimidated by a girl who is older but in the same grade, she kicked the bully to get away, only to her own demise, was suspended for kicking the bully. Now, this school is from kindergarten through twelvth grade with a total of 163 students and both my grandchildren have come home with interim reports stating they are failing. This is at the end of the second nine week period.. The teachers and the principal are aware of the bullying. I am disturbed by the fact that nothing is being done about it and mostly that they are failing. I believe the bullying is the stem of the failing because it diminishes their concentration
    What do we do to fix this situation?

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