With as many as half of all children experiencing bullying, families will have to confront the consequences of this increasingly not-so-benign rite of passage at some point during their child's school-age years. Educational psychology professor Dorothy Espelage, a renowned expert on bullying and aggression, shared her views on what parents can do to recognize and respond to bullies and bullying in an interview with News Bureau education editor Phil Ciciora.
What is bullying, and how should educators and parents define it?
Bullying is a form of aggression between a victim and a bully, or a group of kids with a bully as a ringleader, where the victim cannot defend him or herself. The aggression is intentional and occurs repetitively.
This imbalance of power means that the bully is stronger in some way - more popular, physically bigger, smarter, higher social status - than the victim.
Is bullying only an isolated physical action (e.g., punching) or are there different types of bullying?
Bullying includes the physical, such as fighting and shoving; the verbal, such as name-calling; and the social, such as rumor spreading and excluding. Cyber-bullying also can be perpetrated over computers and cell phones.
Is bullying a "normal" part of growing up? How does bullying differ from push-and-pull courtship or adolescent aggressiveness one might readily see on the playground?
Bullying differs from normal conflicts among kids in that bullying doesn't usually involve any type of "conflict" that can be resolved. It's proactive aggression in which the perpetrator, whether it's an individual or a group of students, seeks to intentionally damage the victim psychologically, physically or socially.
What can schools do to prevent bullying?
Establish an anti-bullying evaluation team. The team should include administrators, teachers, staff members, parents and students. All stakeholders should have a voice. Conduct a schoolwide survey to identify the extent of the bullying problem and to determine where the bullying is happening. Then develop a multiyear plan to combat it.
At the classroom level, teachers also can do a tremendous amount to curb bullying, but they need to keep in mind three things. First, they have to recognize that bullying happens in the classroom at high rates. Sometimes, it's so subtle that they might not always see it. Second, teachers need to recognize that they are typically not good at determining who is involved in the bullying dynamic. Research has found that teachers do a poor job of accurately identifying victims, and they often misidentify
bully-victims. Third, teachers need to resist being defensive around these issues and recognize that bullying happens in most American classrooms and in most schools.
Despite these challenges, we have learned how teachers can minimize bullying in their classrooms and, by extension, their schools. Teachers should work collaboratively with students to establish classroom guidelines about respectful and disrespectful attitudes and behaviors.
What should parents do if their child is the victim of a bully?
Parents should recognize that there are serious short- and long-term consequences of being bullied. They should talk to their children openly about bullying and communicate with school officials about what their child is experiencing. Parents shouldn't assume that school administrators would correct the situation.
Also, parents should enroll their child in extracurricular activities to build their self-confidence outside of school. If they notice drastic changes in a child's mood or activity level, then they need to get them help as soon as possible.
Do parents unknowingly encourage bullying?
Research consistently demonstrates a relation between observing violence in the home and involvement of students in bullying others, so parents need to examine what messages they are sending their kids about violence, aggression and respectful behavior. Are they modeling aggression or disrespectful behavior? Do they engage in exclusionary behaviors? What type of video games do parents allow their kids to play? What type of television shows are allowed at home?
We can no longer ignore that many students who bully others reside in families where violence and aggression are accepted ways of solving problems, either among parents or among siblings.
The new frontier in bullying is cyberbullying. Short of becoming Luddites, what can parents do to prevent their children from becoming victims?
Parents, teachers and administrators need to talk with their kids about the responsible and respectable use of technology. Parents should not purchase cell phones for their children until they understand the consequences of engaging in online aggression.
Also, adults need to educate themselves about what's happening online. We recommend that parents, teachers and administrators spend time learning about the Web sites that kids are visiting. Parents should "friend" their children in their online social networks, and have access to their Facebook and MySpace accounts. They also should have access to their e-mail accounts. Home computers should be located outside of the child's bedroom.
Certainly, kids will need some quiet time if they are working on school papers, but this can be done in an office that can be monitored by parents.