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Dealing with Classroom Bullies

How To Identify and Deal with classroom bullies and their aggression

Reading, writing, arithmetic, name-calling, teasing and pushing. They all have something in common: You might be surprised to know they all are taught in school.

Perhaps only three are actually part of the curriculum, but the rest are just as prevalent. Even if a child is not the victim of harassment, chances are he has witnessed students under attack.

For some parents, the topic of bullying seems irrelevant. After all, the sweetly dressed 6-year-old at the bus stop can't possibly be a threat. But, according to Lori Linden, an elementary school guidance counselor in Erie, Pa., bullying can start at any age. "As early as kindergarten, [there is] pushing in line and making demands to other children," Linden says.

How Bullying Starts

Teachers and parents need to identify children who bully. Classroom and household sanity depends on it. While most parents concentrate on whether their child is being bullied, they should not ignore the possibility that the bully might belong to them.

"The bully usually exhibits disrespectful behavior, in general, to peers, teachers and others," says Brien O'Callaghan, a clinical psychologist and marriage and family counselor in Bethel, Conn. "The disrespect may be obvious or subtle. There is usually an arrogant, know-it-all, sarcastic attitude. There are also usually other signs like academic underachievement, other misbehaviors like stealing and a pattern of making excuses for misbehavior and blaming others."

While these signs indicate an underlying character issue, O'Callaghan adds that nothing is certain. "It is important to note that it is also possible that the bully will keep a low profile and not be easily identified," he says.

How to Tell

Most parents do not witness their child being bullied. They believe, in good faith, that a teacher or adult who cares for their child will notify them of any harassment. Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen.

How then can parents know when their child is being bullied? O'Callaghan warns that uncovering the victim is not always easy. He points out the child may be embarrassed, threatened or may simply believe that her claims will fall on deaf ears. As a result, parents should be willing to listen and as O'Callaghan says, "investigate" any hint of bullying.

Shellie Hurle of Beaverton, Ore., knows how valuable this advice is. "My son grew more withdrawn when I asked him about his day," she says. "I pried and prodded him into telling me. I eventually learned to just let him know I was available, and he was much more likely to open up."

Making It Stop

The big question is how to handle bullies. Parents worry that stepping in may deprive their children of opportunities to work things out on their own, but staying out may cause their child more pain.

"There are many solutions to this problem which can actually strengthen and empower children without contributing to further abuse," says Kate Cohen-Posey, family therapist. "It is an opportunity for parents to help children think out the many choices they have."

For many parents, the first response is to reprimand the bully. Others confront the offender's parents. Still others head straight for the principal's office. All of these are correct approaches, just not necessarily in that order.

The first step seems obvious. "You talk to your child to see what he or she wants to do about the bullying situation," O'Callaghan says. "Your child may have already handled it, or in response to what I call 'parenting by questions,' he or she may come up with his (or her) own ideas."

When a child does ask to handle the situation on his or her own, O'Callaghan says it is important to give that space. He suggests telling the child, "I'll give you time to figure this out if you choose, but if it happens again, I'm going to get involved."

If a parent does get involved, O'Callaghan suggests the next step be contacting the school and applying pressure until an adequate solution is in place. "The school may have to bring in an expert on bullying and school safety and may have to be pressured to do so," he says.

In the unfortunate event that help from the school does not rectify the situation, the third step would be a non-blaming conversation with the aggressor's parents. If all else fails, O'Callaghan suggests reporting the incident to the police.

In the end, parents should keep in mind that professional intervention may not always be the best answer. "The bully will have little interest in listening to a lecture from a professional," O'Callaghan says. "The victim primarily needs the bullying to stop. Neither child needs a professional therapist. They need a professional bully-stopper."

How does a parent become a "professional bully-stopper?" O'Callaghan offers these tips:

  • Pay close attention to the interactions of children in your care.
  • Develop a close relationship with all children in your care so that they will be honest with you.
  • Ask direct questions of children regarding their experience of safety in all settings.
  • Intervene forcefully in incidents of child-child conflict either observed or reported. This intervention involves a brief or extended investigation, an adult judgment of guilt or innocence and an assignment of punishment to the offender.
  • Most important, every incident of bullying should be mediated principally through the parents of the children involved, not other authorities like teachers, social service agencies, therapists or police. The parents are those most responsible for the child's behavior and it is of primary importance that they accept responsibility for their children and be capable of parenting with a balanced measure of both love and discipline.

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