Cyberbullying: A Resource for Educators

Do elementary educators need to proactively protect their students against cyberbullying? Elizabeth Englander, in her engaging and readable new book Bullying and Cyberbullying: What Every Educator Needs to Know, makes a persuasive argument that we do. Dr. Englander, the director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center (MARC), is a professor of psychology, researcher, parent and an expert on the impact of technology on humans and their communications. With this range of experiences, she is uniquely suited to inform us about how to protect our students from cyberbullying.

Even the youngest children have an active digital life. Daily observation shows us that even toddlers play with iPads, their parents’ cell phones, and other digital objects. Wikipedia says that Club Penguin, a social site for 6–14 year olds, has more than 200 million members. In MARC’s 2011 study of Massachusetts students, grades 3–12, Dr. Englander found that 90% of 8 year olds were already interacting with peers online. In 2012, Englander found that 52% of 10 and 11 year olds owned cell phones. Online games and texting are both fertile ground for what Dr. Englander refers to as “casual cruelty.”

Is it our job to teach children how to navigate a world that they engage with mostly outside of school? Dr. Englander argues that although most elementary school bullying takes place in school, as children get older, their digital life more and more supports and potentiates in-school bullying. By high school, in-person and digital social cruelty can be so intertwined as to be virtually identical. Unless we teach children to use the skills of kindness in the cyber world, social cruelties that take place online will infect our school environments. We need to teach these skills early, while children are forming habits of communication.

Dr. Englander argues that we communicate differently in the digital realm, and for that reason we need to teach our students, explicitly, how to take care of themselves and each other there. For instance:

  • Digital communication is fast and easy. We write something down and, without a lot of reflection, push “send.” Young children often don’t have a lot of impulse control to begin with. We need to teach them explicitly to stop and think.
  • Digital communication can feel deceptively private. As we sit at home in a private environment, it can feel safe to reveal thoughts and feelings that we might not want shouted from the rooftops. A mean comment is not private and can soon have a huge audience. We need to teach children that they’re communicating publicly.
  • When we interact in a digital environment, we see none of the body language or facial cues that communicate more powerfully than mere words. Without seeing the non-verbal cues that say, “This hurts my feelings,” we can easily ramp up mean behavior, engaging in unintentional cruelty. We need to teach children that some things are better said face-to-face.
  • When we have strong feelings, it’s better to stop texting and talk. When we are upset, it can be helpful to write down our thoughts or share them face-to-face with a trusted friend. Both of these processes can help us calm down and gain a new perspective. In contrast, Dr. Englander argues that as we bounce texts back and forth about an upsetting event, repetitive exposure to upsetting feelings can “prime the pump” of our emotions, causing upset feelings to ramp up and overwhelm us.

How might we teach these skills in the context of our classrooms? In my book How to Bullyproof Your Classroom, I describe some of the ways that Tracy Mercier worked with 3rd grade students to become more sophisticated about their communications in the digital world, for instance, by creating rules (their “Twittiquette”) and using Interactive Modeling to teach digital social skills. In my next post, I’ll share some more specifics about how Tracy, who’s now a full-time Responsive Classroom consultant, has taught the skills of digital citizenship to elementary students. What questions do you have for her? And how have you taught your students proactively about how to keep themselves and others safe in the digital world? I’d love to hear about it.

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 (NEFC 2010), Solving Thorny Behavior Problems (NEFC 2009), and How to Bullyproof Your Classroom.

Tags: Building Schoolwide Community, Bullying, Challenging Behaviors

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