Teaching Practice: Bullying and the Bystander
There has been much written about bullying and how to deal with it. A 2018 article from the Division on Autism and Development Disabilities (DADD) considers what it means to be a bystander to bullying and suggests that “Given the relational nature of bullying (Rodkin et al., 2015), prevention researchers found utilizing interventions targeting the bystander are more successful in decreasing bullying instances. More specifically, the term ‘upstander’ is used in these interventions to recognize participants in the bullying dynamic who take action to stop bullying. In fact, researchers found targeting bystanders and giving them tools and support to be-come upstanders should be an integral component of bullying interventions.”
It is true that we are highly sensitive to our environments. Jerome Kagan in his longitudinal studies of inhibition noted the impact of our genetically influenced temperaments that move with us from childhood into adulthood. The impact of the amygdala on our behavior is insistent and consistent and the frontal cortex can only damp it down, not eliminate it. But we are not all equally sensitive to our environments, or at least, not in the same ways. Matthew Lieberman, quoted in Quiet by Susan Cain p. 236) found that introverts could read social cues as well as extroverts so long as they weren’t involved in the situation. But if they had to deal with the situation as well as read the cues, they became less acute in their understanding. How then can we help students identify and intervene successfully in bullying situations, situations that represent an imbalance and improper use of power?
The authors of the article ask us to work with children as bystanders – the research shows how complex that is as we think about intervening in social interactions. And bullying is a social interaction. It seems that bullying happens with others present 80% of the time. Clearly, if we can help the bystanders appreciate what is going on and take action, we could have an enormous impact on bullying behavior. This would not only stop the immediate issue but also have positive affect long-term – “the impact of childhood bullying includes lowered self-esteem, heightened anxiety, depression, fear, school refusal, isolation, and suicide”. Types of bullying include “repeated harmful actions toward an individual or group, usually reflects a power imbalance in social relationships, and occurs through physical (e.g., punching, kicking, scratching), verbal (e.g., name-calling, taunting, and negative and threatening comments, phone calls, or e-mails), and relational (e.g., spreading false rumors, excluding from a group, or sharing personal information) means”.
This leads to the first strategy. Knowing the definition, give the behavior its name. It is not just taunting or digital slander, it is bullying. For the bystander to have a collective noun to give to an action provides a context within which to act. If it is merely an isolated event, it has little importance. “I was just teasing” is the classic excuse!
That leads to the second strategy. Identify bullying as an immediate emergency. Whether minor or major, and defining degree is too difficult considering the impact of repetitive small bullying acts, it is a now event that should be of concern to the bystander. It is important therefore not to misuse the word “bullying” and casually throw it around. It is not appropriate when two friends are having a disagreement. The identification has to be directly connected to the definition / name.
That leads to the third strategy. The bystander must respond and take action and thus be proactive in the situation. Having named the action in their minds, seen it as an emergency, must result in action or inaction. And inaction must be seen as being complicit in the bullying. But responding has its own risks involved. Responding requires some kind of empathy for the person being bullied as well as for the bully and at least trying to understand what is happening. One great (free) resource is the game Empathy Builders partly funded by the Institute of Play. All the elements of this game are provided on the website.
That leads to the fourth strategy. Know what to do and how to do it. Wanting and being willing to take action has little merit if the action taken makes the situation worse or backfires. This is complex and the individual child has to feel that the social context is supportive of action. The authors suggest that “teachers can help up-standers understand appropriate interventions including helping the victim escape the situation, telling a teacher about the incident, using humor to diffuse the situation and/or distract the bully, or informing the bully that he or she should stop treating the victim in an unfair way. For example, teachers can train upstanders with specific language to diffuse bullying situations. Teachers and schools can also create a school climate where bullying is not tolerated, and inclusion and disability are part of school diversity policies. Finally, teachers can help students visualize social networks in the school, consider which students are embedded in groups and which are not, and identify students who are isolated and at risk for bullying. Teachers can support up-standers as they work to create a community of friends around students being bullied, reducing their potential for isolation and ensuring connection to others, thereby increasing their safety.”
Interventions do not have 100% success. But interventions empower both bystander and victim and can lead to significant success. And bullying, while it can never be eliminated, can be placed within a social environment where it is unacceptable.