Close the Gateway to Bullying

An adapted excerpt from Chapter One of the award-winning book, How to Bullyproof Your Classroom

Bullying typically does not emerge from thin air. It starts with small, mean social behaviors, such as Missy’s whisper to Laticia as the children trickle into their third grade classroom: “Your hair’s nappy. You’ll never get a boyfriend.” Or Max’s competition with Jason to see if their parents will let them stay up late to watch the adult movie, Terminator. When Jason, a little abashed, reports that his mom made him miss the movie and go to bed on time, Max smirks.

These “gateway behaviors,” as they’re called by Elizabeth Englander of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center (MARC), may seem like just a part of normal childhood. But bullying experts Barbara Coloroso, Stephen Wessler, and others have found that when such small acts of social aggression go unchecked, they can become the accepted mode of interaction.

Once that happens, children may quickly move from poking fun or smirking to openly calling classmates mean names and then to pinching, shoving, and excluding the targeted classmate from recess games or classroom conversations.

What should you do when gateway behaviors emerge in your classroom? Chapter One of How to Bullyproof Your Classroom addresses this question in detail, but in short, it’s important to notice small, mean acts, nip them in the bud, and actively teach kindness before gateway behaviors blossom into out-and-out bullying. Here are some strategies that I and other teachers have found useful for doing just that.

Take Time to Notice

My own experience, as well as a great deal of research, shows that we teachers often don’t notice gateway behaviors, even those happening when we’re present. To change that, we need to deliberately make time for noticing. This might seem daunting in a day already packed with responsibilities. Nonetheless, it can be done with small adjustments to our daily routines. Here are some ideas.

  • Arrival time: Stand at your classroom door, where you can observe hallway interactions and greet students as they come in.
  • Lunch time: Arrive a few minutes before it’s time to pick students up
  • Informal moments: Do some watching during choice time, indoor recess, or independent work time

Assess What You’re Seeing

Are interactions between students good-natured joshing between social equals or true gateway behaviors? Some things to look for:

  • Tone: Is teasing mean and hurtful or a bonding experience between close friends? Body language provides clues. Does shared laughter follow the joking, or is only the person who made the joke laughing? Do the children lean together or does the person joked about pull away?
  • Exclusion: Rather than mean words and casual insults, children may use conversational code to indicate who’s “in” and who’s “out.” One year the boys in my class started calling each other “Bubba.” But some boys were not called “Bubba” and were left out of the “Bubba” inner circle.Also observe children working in small groups. Who gets a turn? Who’s left out? Who takes charge and who sits back? If someone is chronically left out, what are the other children saying to or about that child? If someone is consistently in charge, listen to the words that child uses to maintain control.
  • Isolation: Are one or more students always alone? Are they always chosen last for games or teams? Be sure to investigate before drawing conclusions, though. When I’ve asked children why they were alone at recess, for example, students have told me it was because a classmate had told other children not to play with them. But I’ve also had students tell me they’re choosing to walk the edge of the playground by themselves because they just need some quiet time.

Respond Quickly

Once you’ve done some observing so that you understand students’ social interactions, the next step is to stop behaviors that might be gateways to bullying—quickly. A rule of thumb suggested by Elizabeth Englander of MARC is to spend the first two seconds noticing what’s going on and the next seven seconds briefly and firmly responding.

Although you may need more than two seconds to figure out what’s going on when one student rolls his eyes or makes a mean joke, Ms. Englander’s guideline fits my experience working with children. A quick response shows the child behaving meanly, the child targeted, and those nearby that mean behavior is unacceptable.

When adults don’t respond quickly, conditions are set for mean behaviors to flourish. Bystanders may think the behavior is acceptable. Children who behave meanly miss the opportunity to learn about the impact of their behavior and how to behave differently. Targeted children may begin to believe that they somehow deserve the treatment they’re getting.

Be Assertive but Respectful

It’s important to model respectful behavior toward all students, including children who are being unkind. Disrespect, a harsh tone, or sarcastic words can escalate the mean behaviors you’re trying to stop. When, instead, you use calm and matter-of-fact tone, words, and body language, you model behaviors that promote a climate of respect. Here are two strategies to try:

Remind and redirect: Short, simple, matter-of-fact statements about what behavior you expect are most effective in stopping gateway behaviors: “Our rules say to be kind; that statement was not kind. Try again.” Although it’s tempting to go on and on, telling children all the ramifications of their actions, they’re likely to tune out if you do.

Notice, in the above example, that the teacher referred to the classroom rules. Having a set of rules that children are invested in is crucial to preventing mean behaviors. When children understand that rules can help keep everyone safe, referring to those rules can provide a solid framework for stopping small cruelties. It can also avoid a power struggle with the student: It’s the rules, not the teacher, saying to stop the mean behavior. (For more about creating classroom rules that children connect to and believe in, see Chapter Three of How to Bullyproof Your Classroom, the book Rules in School, or browse free resources on this topic.)

Consider logical consequences: Logical consequences are ways of handling misbehavior that help children see the effect of their actions on others and take responsibility for changing their behavior.

As with any other strategy for stopping gateway behaviors, logical consequences work best when used in a matter-of-fact, nonpunitive way. The goal is to teach children a better way to behave, not to shame them. Here are some important guidelines.

  1. Relate the consequence to the misbehavior. Because gateway behaviors are, by their nature, social, many consequences will involve temporarily removing the child who has misbehaved from the social situation. For instance, if Marion sits down next to a younger child on the bus and then proceeds to bother that child, she might be told to sit near the bus driver for a few days rather than choosing her own seat. Importantly, her teacher Mrs. Young will check in with Marion about the misbehavior, discussing and practicing more pro-social ways to behave before Marion regains the social privilege she temporarily lost.Gateway behaviors are also, by their nature, unkind, so logical consequences might involve practicing acts of kindness. If an older child bothers the kindergartners on the playground, the consequence might be to go to the kindergarten room and (under the kindergarten teacher’s supervision) kindly help the children put on their snowsuits before dismissal.
  2. Deliver consequences respectfully. Mrs. Young, for example, calmly and matter-of-factly told Marion, “Your behavior didn’t fit our class rule of being kind to everyone. You won’t be able to choose your own seat on the bus for a few days.” This way of speaking models for all children a respectful way of relating to others. It also shows the child who’s acting meanly a better way to behave. If you humiliate the child, you might provoke her to focus on getting revenge instead of behaving more positively.
  3. Fit the consequences to the misbehavior. When Marion bothered a younger child on the bus, Mrs. Young didn’t simply remind her of the class rule for being kind to everyone, because her behavior was hurtful enough to require a stronger response. Nor did Mrs. Young tell Marion that she’d have to sit near the bus driver for the rest of the year, which would have been disproportionately punitive.
If You Suspect Bullying, Do Not Use Conflict Resolution

Conflict resolution meetings help equal participants learn to listen to one another. Bullying, by definition, is behavior intended to cause pain or humiliation to someone over whom a person or group maintains social power—that is, the social relationship is not equal. When there’s behavior that could be bullying, it’s unfair—and possibly dangerous—to the child who is targeted to expect her or him to take part in a conflict resolution meeting with the child doing the bullying.

Safe and Joyful Places for Learning

Bullying usually starts with small, mean, gateway behaviors that gradually escalate when adults fail to respond, or respond inappropriately. It’s absolutely critical that we learn to see and respond immediately to gateway behaviors. Doing so will help transform our classrooms into places of safe and joyful learning for all children.
Caltha Crowe has nearly forty years of teaching experience and twenty years of experience mentoring new teachers. In addition to How to Bullyproof Your Classroom, she is the author of Solving Thorny Behavior Problems and Sammy and His Behavior Problems: Stories and Strategies from a Teacher’s Year.

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.

Read all of Chapter One, “Gateway Behaviors.” (PDF)

Learn more about how you can use the Responsive Classroom approach to prevent bullying in your classroom or school.

Tags: Bullying, Challenging Behaviors