The Bus Bully Project

Adapted excerpts from Northeast Foundation for Children’s new book, Kids Taking Action: Community Service Learning Projects, K-8

Over the years, third grade teacher Karen Lefave had become increasingly concerned about how the morning bus ride affected her students at Brayton Elementary School in North Adams, Massachusetts. “Bullying on the bus set the tone for the whole day and often left my third graders in tears,” she said. She also saw her students dawdling at the end of the day, trying to avoid riding the bus back home. When Lefave took a course on using community service learning (CSL) in the classroom, she realized that CSL could help her address the bus bully problem. CSL combines students’ service to the community with academic learning. In Lefave’s case, the community served would be the school.

Lefave approached school adjustment counselor Nancy Gallagher, who also was frustrated with trying to address the school bus problem. They realized that eradicating bus misbehavior was beyond the scope of one CSL project. But they also knew they didn’t need to fix everything at once.

A project is born

Lefave and Gallagher began talking about general bus concerns with the students in Lefave’s classroom. The children discussed their bus worries and drew pictures and wrote stories about them. For a week, the students recorded examples of bullying behavior such as name-calling, pushing, teasing, and yelling. They then brainstormed: What can be done to make things better?

Involving fifth graders

As the third graders investigated the problem, it became apparent that older students were the ones who were doing much of the bullying. What if, the third graders wondered, we got some of the big children on our side? Lefave and Gallagher identified five fifth graders who would be beneficial to the project. Twice a week, during language arts period, the third and fifth graders discussed what bullying felt like and why some people might bully other people.

Breaking up into groups of six or seven, each group having a fifth grader in it, children role-played bullying behavior, its outcomes, and possible ways to prevent it. Some children learned that they had the power to say “stop” to bullying behavior; others learned they could walk away or get help from an adult.

As a result, bullying behavior on the bus decreased and children felt safer. In fact, student responses to a pre- and post-project survey showed a significant drop in the number of third graders who said they worry on the bus.

Involving the bus drivers

The bus drivers, however, felt blamed and unsupported and wanted their side to be heard. Realizing the importance of addressing the drivers’ concerns, Lefave and Gallagher planned a follow-up CSL project in which bus drivers would have a role.

One thing the two had learned from the first project was that the problems on the bus weren’t necessarily created by the expected “troublemakers.” “It was everybody,” said Gallagher.

So in the second year’s project, which involved a new class of third graders and a whole classroom of fifth graders, teachers brainstormed with the children about why so many children “go bananas” on the bus. Students reasoned that it had to do with students’ anonymity—they didn’t have a relationship with the bus driver. “Kids realized that they don’t act this way in class because they know their teacher. What if they know their bus driver?” said Lefave.

The children decided to interview the drivers. They came up with a list of questions, practiced interviewing, then made appointments with the eight bus drivers for interviews and picture taking. With the information from their interviews and the photos, the children made posters and hung them all over the school. “Meet the driver of the Flower Bus,” said a typical poster. “His name is Mr. Wilson. He has a dog. He likes to travel.”

Creating kid-friendly bus rules

Also during this second year, students focused on another important reason why children behave better in the classroom than on the bus—because the classroom has rules. Did the bus have rules?

Yes. But because of the way the rules were written, the students couldn’t understand them. Sentences such as “Do not behave in a boisterous manner” and “If seats are not available, proceed toward the rear of the bus, remain standing in the middle aisle, and grasp a seat bar firmly,” while crucial, didn’t mean much to the children. So the students took on the project of rewriting the bus rules in kid-friendly language. With some funding from a $300 mini-grant from the school district, and with the help of a parent who did the graphics, the class made copies of the kid-friendly rules and distributed them to all the students in the school.

A day to celebrate

The culmination of this second year’s project was “Bus Driver Appreciation Day,” to which the children invited the drivers, the whole school, and the press. The children also asked the rest of the school to make appreciation posters.

At the end of the celebration, the whole school met outside on the grass. The children who had interviewed the drivers greeted them, introduced them to the school community, said one thing they had learned about the drivers, and presented them with flowers. Then everyone gave the drivers three cheers of “Hip, hip, hooray.” “The bus drivers were beaming,” said Lefave.

Looking back at the two years

Noting that the projects empowered both her students and herself, Lefave said that her students became young social activists ready to tackle a long list of projects. “They wanted to take on the world after this,” she said.

In addition to learning they could make a difference, students used a range of academic skills. In the course of the project, they wrote in their journals, shared entries, wrote letters, composed short skits for role-playing activities, created a brochure of bus rules, and spoke in front of an audience—all of which called on language arts skills. In identifying and recording bullying behavior, they learned the process of scientific inquiry and observation. Throughout the project, they practiced the important social skills of active listening, empathy, and assertion.

And the projects had positive results: Behavior incidents reported by bus drivers were cut in half. An important element in the projects’ success was the pairing of younger and older students. Working with fifth graders gave the third graders something to aspire to. Conversely, the pairing allowed the fifth graders to take care of the third graders by being role models. As one fifth grader wrote: “I am learning that . . . I should set a better example on the bus, since I am a fifth grader and students look up to me.”

Writer and artist Pamela Roberts lives in western Massachusetts. She became interested in community service learning when her two children participated in CSL projects at Greenfield Center School, Greenfield, Massachusetts. Pam has a BA in Asian studies from Cornell University. She has written articles for Responsive Classroom and for this website.

Tags: Bullying, Bus

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