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Friday, January 25, 2013

Five Questions and Four Answers

In previous posts I shared about some of the research about bystanders’ motivation to intervene or not intervene when confronting bullying situations.  Just to clarify I include reporting bullying to an adult as intervening although it is not a direct and confrontational intervention.  There are five key themes that emerge from this research that I put into the form of a question to represent what a bystander could be thinking in a bullying situation.

Question One:
Is something wrong here?  Is someone being harmed in some way?
This question is basic to intervening for not intervening.  If bullying is commonplace in an environment, a bystander might not even notice it as bullying-it is just the way things are.  Just as adults incorrectly think that it is kids being kids, students can also see bullying as normal or no big deal.  This theme is also relevant because as students get older they are less likely to demonstrate that the bullying is hurting or bothering them.  Bystanders can incorrectly misinterpret low emotional reactions as an indication that the target is okay about it.  Since ignoring bullying sometimes a coping strategy offered to kids who are targets, this can contribute to bystanders inferring that nothing wrong or harmful is occurring.  If other bystanders don’t seem bothered by what is happening it is hard for any bystander to act as if something wrong or harmful is happening.

Questions Two:
How do I feel about the person being bullied?
These questions are interrelated because if someone is not demonstrating being hurt, it can be hard for bystanders to have empathy.  The other factor that influences how a bystander feels is their relationship with the student being bullied.  If that student is considered different or not a part of the bystanders circle of friends or group, they are less likely to feel bad for what is happening.  If a bystander feels that a student is getting what he/she deserves, that bystander is less likely to feel bad for that student.  If a bystander feels that a teacher doesn’t like the student who is bullied, the bystander is also less likely to feel empathy.

Question Three:
What will happen to me if I do something to help the student who is bullied?
A bystander may feel bad about what is happening to another student and also feel like he/she should do something but there are risks involved for intervening.  Most of us recognize the fear of ending up being a victim as the essential fear, but there are also other risks involved.  There is the fear of losing friends or social ranking.  There could also be the fear of getting in trouble for getting too involved and doing the teacher’s job.  There is the fear of getting in trouble for not doing something on the spot.  There is also the fear of breaking a school rule that might conflict with the unwritten moral rule of helping. 

Question Four:
Will intervening do any good or will it even make things worse?
A bystander might want to help but thinks that it will do little to stop the problem and could even make it worse.  Very often heavy handed adult imposed discipline will deter bystanders from helping.  Bystanders might often just want the bullying to stop but if telling gets the student who bullies in serious trouble, the bystander might think that the punishment for bullying is too severe.  Ironically they could think that the student who bullies shouldn’t bully but also shouldn’t be severely punished for doing so.  The bystander also risks alienating the friends of the student who bullies if telling gets that student in serious trouble.  The bystander might also think that telling will do little good because the student who bullies can easily deny the bullying and that other bystanders will not speak up and support his/her reporting.

Question Five:
Do I know specifically what to say or do when confronted with a bullying situation?
We have all experienced unexpected, unpredictable social situations that have caught us off guard.  After many of these situations upon reflection we say to ourselves, “Why didn’t I __?”  When bullying is the norm, bystanders don’t act because they don’t see the situation as wrong or an aberration. Conversely, when bullying is unexpected, unpredictable and or ambiguous, we shift into a more emotional way of responding and this often results in inaction- freezing in the moment.  The  irony of this question is that if a bystander has to ask it, then the bystander will probably not do anything.  Memorable phrases or simple actions should be as automatic as possible-they need to be in front of the bystander’s mind, not buried somewhere.  The more bystanders are prepared, rehearsed to expect the unexpected and have some simple and easily accessed responses, the more likely they are to intervene.  They also have to be coached to be strategic. Is it better to approach the student who bullied or the student bullied in the moment of bullying or afterwards? Maybe a bystander doesn’t do something in the moment but “files” the situation in his/her mind and then does something to prevent the bullying from reoccurring, i.e. sit next the vulnerable student or re-direct the student who bullies before the next round of bullying starts. 

Four Key Strategies/Answers for Educators

There are four basic strategies for educators to use that will help bystanders answer those questions in way to increase the likelihood of them intervening.

Talk about the social world
Sounds simple but if you spend some time in school it is remarkable how little time is spent talking about what is actually happening in the students’ lives.  When educators don’t talk about the social world they are sending the wrong message to students.  Not talking conveys the message that the social world is not important or worse yet doesn’t exist in the minds of the adults.   A key part of talking about the social world is discussing what is right and wrong beyond what the rules say.  The complexity and subtlety of doing what is right should not be reduced to the simple notion of following the rules.  Responsibility is not just making sure each student does his/her own work.  Regular conversations about responsibility and doing what is right will do more to develop character and conscience than stand alone programs. This learning needs to be embedded into the life of school. 

Clarify what each person’s responsibility is
Don’t leave this to chance. Students need to know that each person is responsible for making sure that everyone can feel safe and supported regardless of the person’s social status, degree of difference or whether or not the person is liked or not.  If we don’t make this clear it is too easy for students to give themselves excuses for not acting.  It is also very important to make it clear that students are needed for this-it is not the adults’ job alone.  Adults need to specifically state that they need the students to do this. This acknowledges that fact that students see what adults don’t see.  It also acknowledges the fact that students have more influence than adults do when it comes to supporting their peers by preventing and stopping bullying.

Invest time to give students the skills, strategies and attitudes they need to intervene and prepare them to use them

We can’t expect students to just follow our adult directions to help others unless we also give them the knowledge, skills and attitudes to help effectively.  This does take time but it is time well invested.  When students feel confident about their ability to deal with the demands of the social world –that is so important to them-this confidence can carry over to meeting the demands of any challenge.  Confidence in one domain builds confidence in any domain.

Make each student valuable in the eyes of their peers
Since how bystanders view other students is so central to the issue of intervening or not intervening, adults need to actively assert in word and deed the value of each individual student.  A competitive atmosphere of winners and losers, those who are favored or liked or those out of favor, will only feed into the notion that some students are worthy of being protective and some are not.  This is a very hard cultural “nut to crack” since individual achievement is rewarded and failure is frowned upon in schools.  A good phrase to readjust this thinking can be students should “compete with themselves but cooperate with each other”.  The best teachers help students realize that individual success can only be enhanced when the community is strong and supportive of all of its members.

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