Why does bullying have such a powerful link to the middle grades? How do we begin to unravel this one?
I think understanding bullying and why it has such a powerful link to the middle grades starts by reflecting on your own story with it. It's difficult to pin down when bullying and I got to know each other, but I think it started full force in the fifth grade and continued through early high school. When I was 10, I was at a new school because I had just moved. I was out of shape. I was socially maladjusted. I stood out. So certain kids sought me out with their verbal arsenal, and their weaponry was cruel. One kid called me "Elephant Boy" in front of the class every day. Another one told me to "skip a meal" when he saw me. One girl was dared to go out with me for half a day, and then, of course, she broke up with me at 3pm. I found vile things written about me on walls—all because I didn't fit in. It was pervasive. I felt powerless to do anything about it. I didn't want to tell anyone at home—because how do you tell your dad, a U.S. Marine, that you can't take care of yourself? I didn't want to tell anyone at school—because how do you tell a teacher or a principal about all that stuff and it will only make it worse? I didn't want to go to school anymore—because how can you concentrate in class when you think/know that everyone is secretly laughing at you? But I did want to do something about it. In my mind, I had massive revenge on them all, and I imagined scenarios that made me the victor and destroyer. Clearly, I didn't act on any of my imaginings; instead, I kept it in my brain, found solace in music, discovered peace in writing, and learned from it all. Even now, I remember the names and faces of my tormentors, and oddly enough, there are many days when I thank them. They made me thick-skinned. They made me develop grit and resilience that I would need later as an adult. They helped me prepare for social interactions with certain people. They even supported me when my own son came home from school after enduring the same kind of cruelty. I didn't have the perfect answer for him, but I could listen and respond from a place of care.
So that's my story with bullying. What's yours? How does it affect how you support all students?
Here's how my story has shaped what I think about bullying.
1. Maybe we should stop calling it bullying and focus on the learning—because everyone has the capacity for cruelty as well as kindness. There's a person doing that vile stuff, and there's a reason why they are doing it. By reducing the person and the actions to a "bullying" caricature, are we really addressing the issue? Are we really helping bring about behavioral change that helps every student? As an assistant principal in charge of eighth grade for more than six years, I dealt with my share of bullying issues. I handled and signed more triplicate forms, called more families, and talked to more angry, frustrated, sad, and tired teachers and students about disruptive conduct and bullying than I can even count. I interrupted classes and heard the classic, "Ooooh" sound from students as I took one of their peers to my office, so we could talk about bullying and behavioral "infractions" It was never easy. Each time, I wondered how I would feel if I was the student. Each time, I remembered kids who picked on me. And each time, I wondered about the learning—because that's what middle grades behavioral conversations should be about. The learning. In This We Believe, the authors talk about how the "school environment" should be "safe, inclusive, inviting, and supportive for all" (p. 14). So this means making the school supportive for students who behave and for those who misbehave. Supportive for students we conveniently call "bullies" and for those who have been victimized by them. Instead of labeling a kid, turning them into ink and paper, inputting them into a computer system, and giving them a consequence, perhaps there's something else we should do to support their behavioral learning. In my office, we did reflection sheets together; created drawings about their feelings before, during, and after the incident; wrote raps about what happened; and even recreated and role-played. For many students, being in my office for a disciplinary issue was undeniably uncomfortable, but for others, it was the only time when they felt safe and comfortable enough to talk through some of this stuff. These extra, different actions take extra time, but they are worth it. If we don't do them, students who "bully" may simply become adults who do the same thing later on.
2. Remember that we are more than bullying in the middle grades. As a principal, one of the first questions I heard from new sixth grade families (and their kids) was "How do you handle bullying at your school?" It was always a fair question to ask, and I always told them how much I appreciated it. I didn't deny that students often made interesting behavioral decisions as they were trying to figure out their place in the school and in the world at large. And, yes, some of those choices could be labeled as "bullying," and we handled it through very systemic channels from a place of safety, care, and learning. And then I switched the script. I discussed all of the wonderful student leaders we had. I mentioned all of the great service-learning students we had. I explained all of the ways that our students were achieving and giving back to their communities. Because we are more than bullying in the middle grades. Thus, the next time someone asks you about bullying at your school or in your classroom, acknowledge their concern, but then tell them the rest of the story: the positive, limitless, awesome story of our young adolescents.
3. We need to understand why kids act out because of bullying—especially the kids that don't "fit in"—and respond to them before they act out.
Unfortunately, I can write from experience. There is nothing worse than knowing that you have to go somewhere filled with pain. It looms in front of you, and you are filled with dread. When school is that place, you either want to stay home, shrink away, or strike back. You can't skip school because you'll get in trouble at home and you'll also miss class. You can't shrink away at school because everyone is on you, laughing at you, making fun of you. You can't strike back because you'll get in trouble at school, at home, and maybe worse. But then, who cares anyways? If no one cares about me, then I'll make a bigger statement so they'll care. If no one really knows me, then I'll do something so they'll never forget. So when I hear about students who have taken matters into their own hands at school, I'm desperately saddened. And desperately filled with powerless understanding. And there's another connection to This We Believe, that reminds me that in an effective middle grades school, "Health and wellness are supported by curricula, school-wide programs, and related policies" (p. 14). This not only means the physical health of our young adolescents but their mental and emotional well-being, too. Fortunately, the conversation about SEL has increased over the years, so students are learning how to interact positively with others and how to negotiate cruelty when they see and hear it—and when they feel the urge to be cruel themselves. Those programs should continue to grow and shape the way we learn about "bullying"—and act to remove it from our schools.
4. Finally, a bit of plain news for the adults in the room. If we want to change school behavior and bullying, we need to start by reflecting on us—the adults who misbehave and who bully in our schools—because students pick up on what we do and say. For example, how can we expect our kids to follow a Positive Behavior Support plan if there are adults in the building who aren't positive, behaved, or supportive? There is a discipline reward system for students to follow, but there are staff members who don't adhere to those systems themselves. They tell their students to be on time to class and how to behave in the hallways, but they are often late to or unprepared for faculty meetings—with no consequence. They ask their kids to use civil discourse with each other, but they often ignore kind, positive verbal and nonverbal language with other staff members—with no consequence. And there are families that want our schools to be positive, safe places for their children, but they often speak negatively and combatively with our teachers and staff—with no consequence. If we hear fellow teachers and staff members use harmful, "bullying" language with students and each other, we shouldn't turn our ears away. We should have the kind of positive, responsive school cultures that allow us to help them understand that what they're doing is hurtful, and that they can change. In other words, if we want to work on student behavior in our schools, let's be honest and work on adult behavior, too.