Bullying.org -A Learning Journey

By Bill Belsey

On April 29th, 1999, in the normally peaceful farming community of Taber, Alberta, not far from where I live, that a young man named Jason Lang lost his life to a fellow student with a gun at W.R. Meyers High School.

This event changed my life forever. Like so many around the world, I was completely shocked and mortified by the school shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado eight days prior.  Yet, it was what happened at Taber that really change me. I realized that what happened at Columbine was not some “American problem`, it was not my problem too, as a father, teacher and as a Canadian citizen.

I wondered how could young people become so damaged in their own lives that they would choose to harm others? It was suggested at the time, that bullying played a role in these events.

I thought that I understood what bullying was all about, after all, hadn’t I made it through the many challenges of growing up and going to school like everyone else? Hadn’t I gone to university to learn to become a teacher? Wasn’t I trying to be a decent father in raising my own kids with the challenges that they faced? I soon realized that I really didn’t know much about bullying at all and that what I did know was based upon so many myths and false perceptions.

I decided that this was a personal call to action. I realized that I needed to learn what bullying was really all about. I began to research and read everything I could. I asked so many questions to anyone who would take the time to listen and respond. I was so very fortunate to have been helped and mentored by some of the world’s best academic researchers on the topic of bullying, such as Debra Pepler and Wendy Craig in Canada, Ken Rigby in Australia and many more.

On February 16, 2000, I launched the Website www.bullying.org as a safe, moderated, online community where people could find help, support and information as they went on their own learning journeys about bullying.

So what have I learned? A lot! Some of which will surprise, but I hope what follows will inform.

First, let me be clear. I am NOT a psychologist or professor. I don’t have a PhD. I am a father and teacher. So with this understanding up front, let’s begin with what bullying is.

While academics debate the actual wording of a formal definition of bullying, most agree that there are at least three key aspects of bullying behaviour; that there is an imbalance of power in relationships where bullying occurs, that bullying behaviours are repeated and that they are intentional. Bullying can be done by individuals or groups. Bullying is about power and control. Bullying takes many forms, and can include many different behaviours, such as: Physical violence and attacks ,verbal taunts, name-calling and put-downs, threats and intimidation, extortion or stealing of money and possessions, exclusion from the peer group or shunning, using information technologies and the Internet to bully others, A term I coined as cyberbullying, please see www.cyberbullying.ca for more information. Perhaps cyberbullying will be a topic of a future article.

Let’s debunk some of the myths about bullying.

Myth: “Bullying is a school issue, let the teachers handle it.”

Fact: Bullying is a community health and wellness issue. Bullying happens in families, the workplace, at shopping centres, the hockey arena and to seniors. While educators play a very important role in addressing bullying, schools effectiveness in addressing bullying improves substantially when parents and the community is involved.

Myth: “Bullying is a stage and is a normal part of growing up.”

Fact: Bullying is not “normal” or socially acceptable behaviour. We give bullies power by our acceptance of this behaviour. Being scared to go so school, or being an adult who does not want to go to work because they’re being harassed is NOT normal. Being a teenage girl who cuts herself and then hides it so others won’t see, is NOT normal. Thinking about or acting on suicidal thoughts is NOT normal. Thinking about or acting on taking a weapon to go to school is NOT normal. We should never accept bullying behaviours as “normal”.

Myth: “Bullies come from poor homes”

Fact: Bullies can come from affluent families too. Bullies often come from homes that are neglectful and hostile and use harsh punishment. Bullying may be learned by observing high levels of conflict between parents. Care needs to be given so that they do not model bullying for their children. -(Olweus. 1993) Victims often keep their problems a secret: They feel they should handle bullying themselves; they worry about the bully’s revenge or other’s disapproval: and/or they think that others can do little to help them. -(Garfalo et al., 1987) , (Olweus, 1991) Bullying is reduced in an organization if leadership is committed to reducing bullying.  -(Charach et al., 1995)

Myth: “If I tell someone, it will just make it worse.”

Fact: Research shows that bullying will stop when adults in authority and peers get involved. In fact, the research of Pepler and Craig has shown that most bullying will stop in less than ten seconds when peers intervene, not to confront or fight the bully, but by befriend their peers who need help and support.

Myth:  “People are born bullies”

Fact: There is no “B” chromosome. Bullying is a learned behaviour and behaviours can be changed for the better through formative consequences that encourage, support and reward healthy relationship choices.

Myth:  “Just hit them back, that will solve everything”

Fact: While there indeed may be times when people have to defend themselves, in most cases violence begets more violence.

So what is really going on when bullying happens?

First of all it happens a lot. Bullying occurs in school playgrounds every 7 minutes and once every 25 minutes in class (Pepler et al., 1997)

A power differential exists between the bully and the victim. Bullies tend to be confident, aggressive, lack empathy and can even have contempt for their victims. Bullies come from homes where there is poor supervision and modeling of and tolerance for aggressive behaviour. Victims tend to be quiet, passive children with few friends. Victims do not respond effectively to aggressive actions. Bullying is often done so that adults are not aware of it. Victims are ashamed, and often don’t tell an adult.

Bullying is not about conflict resolution. There is no conflict to be resolved. In situations that can benefit from conflict resolution strategies, the parties involved have relatively equal power. With bullying, most the power resides with the aggressor.

What are some signs that your child may be bullied?
• trouble sleeping, wetting the bed, stomach and headaches
• lack of appetite, throwing up
• fear of going to school
• crying before/after school
• missing or incomplete school work, decreased success in class
• lack of interest at social events that include other students
• often complains of illness before school events
• frequent visits to the school nurse or office complaining of feeling sick
• wants to call mom or dad to come & get them
• lowered self-esteem, makes negative comments about others
• a marked change in attitude, dress or habits
• unexplained broken personal possessions, loss of money, loss of personal items
• unexplained bruises & injuries or stories that don’t make sense
• acting out aggression at home

So what’s to be done? Focus on prevention through education and awareness. Most schools these days have policies about bullying, but this is not enough. Most policies tend to be reactive and punitive. It’s like putting a bandage on a cut that is bleeding profusely. It’s too little, too late.

Bullying is often the number one non-academic issue that most classroom teachers like myself and school administrators face. Yet, there are many educators who never received a research-based, professional course during their teacher-training at university or during their time as educators in schools. How can this be? This situation is like having nurses and doctors who don’t know how to help the public with the flu. This must change!

One in four children report that teachers intervene in bullying situations, while seven in ten teachers believe they always intervene.

To address situation, I created www.bullyingcourse.com which offers research-based online courses and Webinars (online presentations) about bullying and cyberbullying for educators and parents.

The good news is that bullying is reduced in a school if the principal is committed to reducing bullying. (Charach et al., 1995). Use this report card when you talk to your school’s principal to assess how well they are addressing bullying, http://bullyingcourse.com/mod/resource/view.php?id=367

In addition to having policies, schools need to have positive, pro-active plans to help change the culture and climate of the school. As a parent, you it is most reasonable to ask your child’s school is they have such a plan.

Beware if your child’s principal says that they have a “Zero-Tolerance Policy” re. bullying. The term “Zero-Tolerance” actually came from the “Anti-drug Wars’ in the United States. In far too many cases a “Zero-Tolerance Policy” policy means, “You bully and you’re out”. Out where? This response changes little. The aggressor is still in the community and has learned nothing about how to adopt appropriate behaviours. Those who bully need consequences to be sure, but the students and the community is better served by formative consequences, that is consequences that encourage and support positive, healthy relationship choices.

Bullying is about power, control and unhealthy relationships. Simplistic solutions to addressing relationship issues are not real solutions at all. Healthy relationship building takes time and thought. We need thoughtful, sophisticated plans to address complex relationship issues such as bullying.

In the short term, the safety, security and well-being of the person being bullied should be a school’s primary concern. Children who are bullied should not be the ones who have to change classroom or even changes schools, which is often not possible in smaller communities, yet this is what happens far too often. If this happens, this means that the victim is victimized twice over, all because the school may not really know what to do. As a parent of a child being bullied, do not accept the bullying behavior as a problem your child has to live with. The bullying behavior is the responsibility of those who bully, not the child being bullied.

Beware of labeling someone as a “bully”. Focus on the inappropriate behaviour.

www.bullying.org has become the world’s most visited and referenced Website about bullying. During the last decade, the Website has hosted millions of visitors and contributors from across Canada and around the world. The questions that are most often asked are, “What did I do to deserve this? And what is wrong with me?” Let your kids know that they are NOT alone and that you are there to listen and to support them. Being bullied is NOT their fault and there is a lot can be done about it.

Schools need to encourage and support students’ ideas and leadership. Why? Remember the research about most bullying happening in the context of a peer group, with no adults around? That’s why. Rather than teachers being totally responsible for preventing bullying, teachers can become “social architects” to facilitate students themselves finding solutions to bullying.

If most bullying happens in the context of a peer group when adults aren’t around, we need to give our kids strategies they can employ if they are being bullied or if they see bullying happening around them. The vast majority of students indicate that watching bullying makes them feel uncomfortable (Pepler et al., 1997). There is also some recent research that indicates that the psychological effects of observing bullying can be just as harmful as those who are being victimized.

Research also tells us that 15% of a given population may be involved with bullying directly as victims or aggressors, that means that 85% of a school’s population may not be directly involved, but they actually ARE all affected, indirectly. We know that it is the silence of others that gives bullies their power. Young people must acquire feelings of individual responsibility, but also reflect on their own behaviour when bullying occurs, whether they initiate, receive or observe bullying. As parents, we can encourage and support this. That means that teachers and parents need to work together to have our kids understand that they have the power to stand up to bullying. However, that’s easy for an adult to say to a child, it’s often really hard for kids to do in the context of the schoolyard, school bus or gym change room.  This is why Bullying.org has established the “Canada’s Caring Kids Awards”. To nominate a positive young person who shows this kind of leadership, please visit http://www.bullyingawarenessweek.org/pdf/Caring_Kids_Award.pdf

So what can you do as a parent? Ask your child directly if they are being bullied. Often children do not wish to tell their parents due to shame and embarrassment, or fear that bullies will retaliate if they tell. Look for signs such as: fear of going to school, lack of friends, missing belongings and torn clothing, and increased fearfulness and anxiety. Work with the school immediately to make sure your child is safe; that effective consequences are applied toward the bully, and that monitoring at school is adequate. Advocate for involvement of the bully’s parents. If the bullying is happening on the way to and from school, arrange for the child to get to school with older, supportive children, or take him or her until other interventions can take place. If your child is timid, and lacks friends, try to arrange for your child to participate in positive social groups which meet his or her interests. Developing your child’s special skills and confidence in the context of a positive social group can be very helpful. Suggest that the school implement a comprehensive, research-based, anti-bullying program. A home and school association meeting to discuss and support such an initiative can be helpful.

What else can be done? Prepare our kids with support and strategies. I am ashamed to admit that when my son was much younger, he told me that he was being bullied and I actually said to him, “Well son, what are you doing to bring this on?” As if it was HIS fault! I was living proof that the old myths and attitudes about bullying die hard. It takes a lot of courage for kids to tell you that bullying is going on because they are worried that adults will make it worse. I get this because I use to be one of those parents and teachers who did make it worse. So if your child tells you that they are being bullied, believe them. Become your child’s champion and advocate. Research informs us that kids often have to tell a number of adults before they finally get one to help them.

What else should parents do to support their child when approaching the school? Although as parents we may feel quite emotional about this, try and keep cool. Don’t try and bully your child’s teacher and principal into dealing with the situation. If you do, you will be modelling the very behaviour you want to stop. Document everything that happens. Keep a diary. Take photos if you observe physical or material damage. If action is not being taken write an e-mail or letter to our child’s teacher and copy it to the school administration outlining the problem. Be specific as to dates, events, physical evidence that you have noted etc. Arrange a meeting to find out what the school is doing about the situation. Agree to a timetable and/or a schedule of actions that the school will take. If this schedule is not adhered to as promised, write to the school and send a copy to the School Board outlining your concerns and share the schedule and timetable that the school had agreed to adhere to, which was not followed.

If it’s hard for your child to stand up for him / herself, tell them to ignore the bullying and walk away, then tell an adult who can help. If they’re scared to talk to an adult, encourage them to ask a friend to go with them. Practice with your child as to what to say and do the next time they are bullied. Kids who are bullied often freeze in such situations. Creating and rehearsing simple scripts with pre-planned responses can help a lot. Encourage them to go to areas where they feel safe.  Encourage them to stay close to students who will stick up for them.  Encourage them to look brave and tell the child who bullies to back off. Encourage them to stay calm, try not to show that they are getting sad or mad, this is what bullies want to see. Encourage them to be safe, although there are some times when they may have to defend themselves, but fighting back can make things worse. Encourage them not to blame themselves, being bullied is NOT their fault.

As parents we will often say to our kids, “Stop telling on your sister/brother!” And then when something really bad happens we will ask, “Why didn’t you tell us?” Help your children understand the difference between tattling, telling on others just to get them in trouble, versus reporting, which is telling others about a bad or an unsafe situation.

As parents, we need to be much more aware of our own behaviours. Kids will learn more from what we do and how we act, much more than from what we tell them. We also need to model a tolerant attitude toward others. There are far too many instances of kids taunting using slurs about race, cultures or sexuality. How many suicides do their have to be before we as parents realize that such attitudes and behaviours are learned, often from home.

If you suspect your child may be a bully, here are some possible symptoms to watch for.

• Abuses family or neighbourhood pets
• Torments children – always the instigator
• Lacks compassion or empathy towards others
• Gets enjoyment or acts like it is “cool” when someone gets injured
• Is a bully at home with adults and siblings
•Is manipulative with adults, very agreeable, but then does whatever they want
• Is aggressive towards others
• Lacks social skills, has few friends or friends who go along with whatever your child suggests they do
• Little concern for others’ feelings
• Does not recognize impact of his/her behaviour on others
• Aggressive with siblings, parents, teachers, friends, and animals
• Bossy and manipulative to get own way
• Possessing unexplained objects and/or extra money
• Secretive about possessions, activities, and whereabouts
• Holds a positive attitude towards aggression
• Easily frustrated and quick to anger
•Parents may model use of power and aggression by yelling, hitting, rejecting child
• Parents may model use of power and aggression with each other
• Siblings may bully child at home
• Child has friends who bully and are aggressive
• Teachers or coaches may model use of power and aggression by yelling, excluding, rejecting

Here are some things you can do to turn the situation around:

• Talk to your child, talk to his or her teachers, and administrators. Keep in mind that a bully will try to deny or minimize his or her wrong-doing.
• Take the problem seriously. Children and youth who bully others often get into serious trouble in later life, and may receive criminal convictions. They may have continuing trouble in their relationships with others.
• Make it clear to your child that you will not tolerate this kind of behaviour, and discuss with your child the negative impact bullying has on the victims.
• Do not accept explanations that “it was all fun”.
• Arrange for an effective, non-violent consequence, which is in proportion with the severity of your child’s actions, and his or her age and stage of development. Corporal punishment carries the message that “might is right”. 
• Increase your supervision of your child’s activities and whereabouts, and who they are associating with. Spend time with your child, and set reasonable rules for their activities and curfews.
• Co-operate with the school in modifying your child’s aggressive behaviour. Frequent communication with teachers and/or administrators is important to find out how your child is doing in changing his or her behaviour.

• Praise the efforts your child makes toward non-violent and responsible behaviour, as well as for following home and school rules. Keep praising any efforts the child makes.
• If your child is viewing violent television shows, including cartoons, and is playing violent video games, this will increase violent and aggressive behaviour. Change family and child’s viewing and play patterns to non-violent ones.
• Make sure that your child is not seeing violence between members of his or her family. Modelling of aggressive behaviour at home can lead to violence by the child against others at school and in later life.
•Seek help from a school psychologist, social worker, or children’s mental health centre in the community if you would like support in working with your child

As teachers, we need to remember that we are expected to live up to a Professional Code of Conduct. We need to watch our own language and behaviours in the classroom as well. We may think that using sarcasm may appear “cool” in a middle or high school class, but it may be quite embarrassing or hurtful to many students. I also know that some teachers can be bullies themselves. This can’t be tolerated.

Despite being an increasingly complex and demanding profession, I believe that as a teacher, I have one primary mission, to create the optimal environment for my students to achieve their potential as learners. Students who are scared to come to school can never achieve their full potential. Many thousands of students miss school every day because of bullying we can and need to do better for them.

The reality is that the best and most effective solutions regarding bullying are ones wherein educators, parents and the community work together. Playing the blame game only isolates the various stakeholders who should be working together in the best interests of our children.

The bad news about bullying is also the good news, in that is that bullying is about developing healthy relationships, something good parents and teachers have always been good at doing. Bullying is about behaviour. When you think about it, behaviours such as smoking, drinking and driving, even recycling have all slowly, but surely changed for the better in Canada. I believe that while we may never completely eliminate bullying from society, if we can work together, we can make great strides in making a better Canada for our children and our children’s’ children to grow up in.

I would like to encourage you, your family, your school, business and community to participate in the upcoming ninth annual National Bullying Awareness Week, which will take place from November 13th to the 19th, 2011. See http://www.bullyingawarenessweek.org for more information.

As my father use to tell me, “What the mind conceive and the heart can believe, we CAN achieve!”

*Bullying.org is an educational organization that is dedicated to the prevention of bullying through education and awareness. We created and are responsible for maintaining:

“Where You Are NOT Alone!”
The world’s most-visited Website about bullying (no longer online)

“Always On? Always Aware!”
The world’s first Website about cyberbullyin

“Prevention through education and awareness”
The official Website for the annual National Bullying Awareness Week

Please follow us on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/Bullying_org