Elementary teachers in one suburban school were successful in reducing bullying incidents. Their increased attention to students’ needs led to a better learning environment. Researchers report that while educators hold the key to preventing bullying in their schools, they often ignore or overlook incidents that occur daily.
Following a district-wide workshop alerting teachers to the problem of bullying, a small group of teachers at W. F. Boardman Elementary School in Oceanside, New York, volunteered to participate in a research project led by their principal, Karen Siris. Each teacher identified one student in her class who was bullied by other students. The goal for the 10-week experiment was to develop and implement a plan designed to reduce incidents of bullying.
Differences in appearance
Analysis of the problem revealed that the victims of bullying were equally likely to be boys or girls, but these students differed from their peers in noticeable ways. Teachers found that differences in clothing, ethnic origin, appearance or behavior make some students stand out and become vulnerable to bullying. These students are often lonely and insecure.
The elementary students in this study represented the full spectrum of academic performance but shared many of the characteristics listed above. The study examined whether changes in the classroom environment could change students’ behavior. Children, like adults, have three basic psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and a sense of belonging. When these needs are met in the classroom, students are more likely to be engaged socially and academically and have positive and supportive relationships with others, and they enjoy school.
Long-term effects of rejection
Feeling rejected has important social and academic consequences. Students who feel like outcasts become more detached from adults and peers. When they have poor attitudes about themselves and others, their relationships suffer and they reject classroom rules. Teachers in this study attempted to change their classrooms to better meet the needs of the victims of bullying, in an effort to improve the quality of students’ experiences and reduce the incidence of bullying.
Before changes were made, teachers spent three weeks observing their classes. They tried to identify situations in which students who were victims of bullying experienced competence, autonomy or a sense of belonging. Teachers were surprised by what they found. Every teacher was able to identify situations in their classes in which the victims of bullying experienced some success, but these students experienced fewer such occasions than their peers.
Victims have fewer experiences of success in class
Teachers had believed that they were providing ample opportunity for students to have choices and occasions for self-expression. However, when they examined their practice carefully, they found few instances in which children could act autonomously other than in learning centers. They worked to create more opportunities for their students to be self-directed.
Teachers knew how important positive personal relationships were to the students who were bullied in their classes. But they were surprised how few opportunities students had within the classroom to develop positive relationships with one another. They also realized that they, personally, had few interactions with the students identified as victims in the study.
Increasing sense of belonging for victims
By observing their classrooms, teachers gained more appreciation of the importance of creating an environment that supported all students’ needs. They were particularly concerned about students who were bullied. To increase these students’ sense of belonging, teachers began spending more time with them and created more time for them to get to know other students better. They listened to students talk about their lives and took time to ask personal questions.
Through these conversations, teachers learned more about their students, began to understand them, and developed a genuine fondness for them in the process. It took a while to get to know some students because they were so withdrawn. Teachers came to realize how important it was for students to feel safe in the classroom.
Teachers planned more shared learning activities and encouraged students to get to know one another. They developed rules such as “anyone is welcome in a group and no one can be turned away.” There were consequences for students who were not welcoming. In addition, they used mediation strategies to help students resolve conflicts. The teacher would ask students to explain their understanding of a situation. Talking through problems helped the students on both sides of a conflict to understand the consequences of their behavior and to consider alternatives.
Teachers displayed the work of the students who had been victims of bullying and identified ways for these students to show their strengths. They provided them with recognition and encouraged them to act independently.
More positive attitudes towards victims
The changes teachers made in their classrooms improved the quality of their relationships with victimized students and directly affected the students’ emotional well-being and behavior. Teachers also observed that their support and recognition of the victims of bullying affected the overall climate in their classrooms. They saw how their feelings and attitudes affected the whole room: the more positive the teachers were, the more supportive and accepting were the students. In this more supportive environment, teachers observed changes in the social, academic and emotional behavior of the victimized students. They showed more confidence and were more engaged academically. They listened, paid attention and took a more active part in the class.
By examining and modifying their classroom practice, these elementary teachers made a significant difference in the behavior of their students and the climate of their classrooms. As they changed the way they worked with students, they reexamined and reaffirmed some of their basic beliefs about teaching and learning. In the final session of the project, teachers stressed the importance of caring for students. Getting to know a student better, listening to his or her feelings, and taking a personal interest helps create understanding and trust and leads to important positive changes in the classroom.
Influence on peer relationships
Even small changes that recognize students’ competencies and allow them some self-direction can have a powerful influence on their confidence and behavior. Teachers can influence peer relationships by modeling positive and supportive interaction, giving students opportunities to work together, and developing class rules that value kindness and preclude exclusion. These teachers found that academic success and social success go hand in hand. This study emphasized how important it is for students to feel successful, to exercise choice, and to feel cared for. Having proved to themselves that students’ emotional well-being can be the basis for effective learning, these teachers expressed confidence in their ability to reduce bullying.
“Interrupting the Cycle of Bullying and Victimization in the Elementary Classroom”, Phi Delta Kappan, Volume 86, Number 4, December 2004, pp. 288-291.
Published in ERN January 2005 Volume 18 Number 1