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How to Prevent Bullying Online and in the Classroom

Reviewed by Jon Konen, District Superintendent

The statistics for bullying are still shockingly high, despite a decrease in recent years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a study indicated that in 2017, 20% of students aged 12-18 reported being bullied. The same study also found that 15% of students in high school reported being bullied electronically. This form of bullying, sometimes called cyberbullying, is a relatively new form of bullying that often happens outside of school hours or online where teachers don’t have access to view it, thus making it harder to witness or detect.

As a teacher, you are the first line of defense against this type of negative behavior, and it’s vitally important that you protect your students – including from each other, if necessary.

Bullying is described as unwanted aggressive behavior marked by a perceived or real power imbalance that is repeated or likely to be repeated.

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In this article, you will learn several strategies about preventing bullying behavior in your classroom, how to address bullying when it does occur, and how to recover after a bullying incident.

Strategies for Preventing Bullying

One of the most important things about maintaining an anti-bullying classroom is to try to prevent incidents before they occur. Here are some strategies to try.

    • Build a relationship with your students from the start. The foundation of effective bullying prevention is to create a classroom that has a positive climate. When your students feel safe and know that you will listen to their concerns, they are more likely to share their problems with bullying. Encourage them to talk to you by making yourself available and maintaining an open-door policy. For younger students, it’s a good idea to go even further to develop a relationship with them. For example, once a week you could invite one student to have “lunch with the teacher” in the classroom. Let them bring a friend along too. This give you the opportunity to form a relationship outside of the typical classroom setting and can provide insight into how the student is doing emotionally and socially.
    • Teach your students about bullying. Regardless of the age or grade level of your students, they can all benefit from knowing what bullying is, why it’s bad, the consequences of it, and that it won’t be tolerated. This can be coupled with an explanation of how students are expected to treat one another so that all students know how they should behave in the classroom. Also provide them with the knowledge about how they should respond to bullying if they are targeted, witness it, or are the perpetrator.
    • Be aware of the different types of bullying. StopBullying.gov offers information about the types of bullying – physical, verbal, relational, and damage to property – as well as the modes of bullying – direct and indirect. Specific bullying acts include ostracism, exclusion, name calling, and physical violence, to name a few. Cyberbullying occurs on electronic platforms such as when texting, messaging, or posting on social media accounts. Direct bullying is aggressive behavior that occurs face-to-face in the presence of the victim, whereas indirect bullying happens without the victim present, such as starting rumors about them.
    • Know your school’s bullying policy. Do you know what specific actions you need to take when an incident occurs? What about when you need to involve other school administrators? What constitutes suspension or expulsion? Make sure you know the answers to these questions so when bullying occurs, you are prepared to act. Additionally, make sure to provide this information to your students and their family.
    • Create or improve a schoolwide bullying policy. Advocate for a bullying prevention policy within your school by speaking to other teachers, principals, administrators, or board members. Having a policy for when bullying occurs can make your school more effective in preventing and responding to bullying incidents. Including information on how to report bullying, what will happen after a report is made, and the range of potential consequences for students who are found to have bullied can create clarity for students, families, and staff. Also keep in mind that preventing bullying in your classroom is a great starting point in creating an anti-bullying culture schoolwide.
    • Teach students to be upstanders instead of bystanders. Regardless of age or grade, you should teach your students to be effective bystanders by standing up to bullying if they see it happening or by reporting it to you or another adult. If several students stand up for students targeted by bullying, it shifts the power away from the student who is bullying. Make sure they know that telling a teacher is not tattling because they are helping other students.
    • Maintain open communication with their family. Your students’ parents or guardians could have an extremely positive effect in your students’ lives, in addition to your own. Encourage them to be involved in their children’s school life, and to come to school events. Parent-teacher conferences are a great place to ask them what they know helps their child be successful in the classroom academically and socially. It’s also good to build a relationship with your students’ family in case you have any future bullying concerns. Lastly, make sure they are aware of the school’s bullying prevention policy and who they should contact if they have concerns with bullying.
    • Look for warning signs that someone is being bullied. According to StopBullying.gov, only 20 to 30% of targeted students told their teacher or another adult. Therefore, don’t wait for them to come to you for help. Take a proactive approach and look for warning signs in your students. Children who may be being bullied might display decreased self-esteem, changes in eating habits such as skipping lunch, lost or destroyed belongings, unexplainable injuries, truancy, declining grades or loss of interest in school, or avoidance of social situations. For signs of cyberbullying, look for increases or decreases in device use, students hiding their screen when others are near, or social media accounts being deleted or new ones being created.
    • Look for warning signs that someone is bullying another. There are certain gateway behaviors that students who bully exhibit before they ultimately do bully someone. These behaviors include, name calling, laughing at or encouraging others to laugh at, and ignoring or excluding another student. Left unchecked, these behaviors can lead to more extreme acts. Warning signs that a child may be bullying another are increased aggression, having unexplained extra money or new belongings, blaming others, refusing to accept responsibility, or worrying about their popularity or status.
    • Walk the halls. While bullying can occur anywhere, it most often occurs in places that don’t have a consistent adult presence. Hallways are the most common place where bullying occurs in schools. An effective solution to help prevent bullying is to simply stand outside your classroom door during transition periods. If you see bullying, be sure to respond immediately so that students know that it will be addressed.
    • Take bullying personally. Have the mentality that each student is your own child. What would you do to make sure none of them experience the pain of bullying? If an incident did occur, how would you react to the instigator? What about the student being bullied? And finally, what steps would you take to make sure it didn’t happen again?

Strategies for Addressing Bullying

Despite your best efforts, a bullying incident occurred. Now what? Here are some ways to remedy the problem.

      • Respond to the incident immediately. It’s important to show your students that you will not tolerate any kind of bullying. Reacting as soon as you see it occurring is a good way to prevent the normalization of bullying. However, it’s natural for teachers to feel anxious or worried about how to respond to bullying. It can help if you come prepared with a plan for what to say if you do see bullying. For example, knowing that you will use the phrase, “Stop. We don’t do that at [school].” can be enough to overcome the initial hesitancy to respond. Regardless of the phrase you decide to use, it should be appropriate given the age of the students and short enough to not feel like a lecture.
      • Speak with the targeted student privately. Try to get the whole story from them and wait to speak without interrupting. Display empathy and compassion, and make it clear that they are not at fault for the incident and that you are there to help them stop the bullying
      • Speak with the student who bullied privately. Try to understand their side of things and why they targeted the other student. Often, students who bully do so for attention. For example, if they are able to make others laugh when they bully a student, it may make them feel valued or improve their social status. Make sure they own up to their actions and consider the perspective of the student who was targeted. Some might try to blame the target for causing the incident, but it’s your job to teach them why bullying is not the right way to handle the situation.
      • Talk to the family of the student who was targeted. While the incident might not be severe enough to require a meeting with the family, it is important to touch base with them and let them know what occurred. Reassure them of your plan to prevent future bullying. It is also important to be mindful of how much information to share with families. For example, students who are being targeted because they identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ) may not want their family to know about their sexual identity. You should check with your principal about school and district policy in this area when necessary.
      • Talk to thefamily of the student who bullied. As with the previous strategy, speaking to the family of the child involved can be beneficial in preventing a future incident. Have an honest conversation with the family about their child’s behavior and how you want to support their child. Partnering with the family of a student who bullies can help keep the family on your side and willing to work with you to improve their child’s behavior.
      • Evaluate the context of the incident and determine if punishment is appropriate. Depending on age, grade level, history of bullying incidents, and incident severity, possible punishments could include removing access to preferred activities (for example, recess), or in the most severe cases, suspension and expulsion. It’s important to remember not to punish for punishments’ sake. As a teacher, you should think about how a punishment will help the student learn from their behavior or support the target in some way. For example, if one student wrote derogatory words on another students’ desk, a punishment may involve cleaning the desk until the words are no longer visible.
      • Develop appropriate interventions for both students separately. Depending on how students respond to the bullying incident, you can consider some basic or more intensive interventions. For students who have been targeted, ask them what would make them feel safe. At the very least, you can keep a closer eye on the student who was targeted and the student who bullied. If more intensive supports are needed, you can reach out to your school’s counselor or school psychologist. With family permission, students may be able to join a social skills group or receive other supports depending on their needs.

Strategies for Recovery after a Bullying Incident

It may be difficult to go back to normal after a bullying incident, but here are some ways to help your students recover and improve.

        • Keep an eye on both parties. Just because the incident is over doesn’t mean that relations between the individuals will be perfect. Try to supervise them, in your classroom, of course, but also outside the room when possible – at lunch, on the playground, and in the hallways. Since you can’t always be around, be sure to let other teachers who have both students in the same class know about your concerns so that they are able to pay closer attention.
        • Create a safety plan. Students who still feel scared or unsafe may benefit from creating a safety plan with you. A safety plan can be as simple as helping the student figure out what they will say and do if the bullying happens again, the adult that they will report the bullying to, and what that adult will do after getting the report. Be sure to include families and inform your administration and other staff of the safety plan so that everyone is in the loop. Most importantly, make sure you follow through with anything you agree to do in the safety plan.
        • Check in often. Continuing maintaining your open-door policy, but also seek them out to ask how they’re doing. Allow them opportunities to bring up any concerns or questions.
        • Create a culture of kindness. Students are more likely to continue a behavior if they find it rewarding. Reward individuals when they behave in a positive or inclusive way. Even something as simple as sharing a pencil or holding the door open for a classmate can be rewarded with specific praise or a privilege such as being able to leave a few minutes early to lunch. They key is to catch your students being good. This is even more important for those students who have bullied. You don’t want students to identify as “the bully” for the rest of their lives. Use your actions to show them that you care about their success and improvement just as much as other students.

Additional Resources

Visit the resources below for more information about bullying prevention.