"Just Joking"—Helping Students Understand When Teasing Hurts

By: Rosalind Wiseman

No matter what you teach, if you are a middle school teacher you want to set up some norms and guidelines for your classroom. Even better, you want to be on the same page with the other teachers. But this is middle school and things can get a squirrely, especially about how students "joke" around with each other. It's a hallmark of middle school that "just joking" is used to really hurt and humiliate another student. And the targeted student doesn't want to admit how upset he or she is for fear of being teased even more. The social norm that is set in those moments makes it much harder, if not impossible, to create a safe learning environment. Students don't want to do anything that may invite the ridicule of others.

But if we define the different types of teasing and then debrief with our students about how teasing impacts them, we can effectively create a positive and supportive social norm. What follows is an excerpt from the new Owning Up: Empowering Adolescents to Confront Social Cruelty, Bullying, and Injustice that explains the different types of teasing and a then gives a debrief activity you can do with your students.

Activity: Think About It: Is This Funny?

Time: 10 minutes
Purpose: To break down misconceptions about why people laugh

The common assumption is that people laugh when they think something is funny. But are there other reasons why people laugh?


  • They're nervous.
  • They're uncomfortable.
  • They don't know what to say.

In addition, people have different ideas of what they think is funny. No one has the right to make someone feel stupid, sensitive, or weird if they don't think something is funny that you do. Let's make a list of general ideas of what is funny and what is not.

Not Funny
Tickling Tickling
Fart jokes Fart jokes
Talking about other people Talking about other people
Cat videos Cat videos
  Girls/periods (not ever funny)
  Things people can't control, like acne (not ever funny)


Everyone has their own definition of what's funny, and all are valid, as long as they don't hurt someone else.


The problem is, it can be awkward to tell people when you don't think something is funny because it could make things uncomfortable between you, or you could come across as taking things too seriously.

Activity: Think About It: Breaking Down Different Types of Teasing

Time: 15 minute
Purpose: To define different types of teasing for students

Humor, teasing each other, and joking around can be a sign that people are close friends. Humor can be a powerful tool to defend yourself against people who want to make fun of you. But teasing and humor can also be used to make someone feel bad, especially when people know specific things someone is sensitive about. Teasing can be really confusing for people. Sometimes you can't tell if people are really joking/teasing or if they are just pretending to be joking/teasing but really want to hurt your feelings. Even more confusing is when people say they're "just kidding," so they can be hurtful but get out of taking responsibility for their behavior and blame the person they're teasing for being too sensitive.

Let's break down the different kinds of teasing so it's easier to figure out what's going on.

Good teasing—people enjoy the teasing . . .
You feel liked by the teaser—both people enjoy the teasing
You don't feel the teaser's motivation is to put you down
If you decide you don't like it, you can say something and it will stop
Democracy of teasing—everyone in the group is able to tease and be teased

Let's brainstorm examples of good teasing . . .

  • Annoying teasing—the teaser finds it more enjoyable than the person getting teased
  • You don't like it, and you feel the teaser should know you don't like it but somehow they don't
  • It makes you feel too sensitive or uptight (you can't take a joke) It makes you feel frustrated
  • You are teased about the same thing over and over
  • You can say you don't like it, but the teaser laughs or ignores you

Let's brainstorm examples of annoying teasing . . .

  • Malicious (bad) teasing—the teaser intentionally attempts to hurt the other person
  • You feel like the teasing is being done to put you down
  • You are being teased about something other people know makes you uncomfortable
  • If you defend yourself, you are blamed for not being able to take a joke; the teasing gets much worse and the teaser brings other people into it
  • The teasing is relentless (it doesn't stop)
  • It's in front of other people
Let's brainstorm examples of malicious teasing . . .



Usually there are three types of teasing: good teasing, annoying teasing, and malicious (bad) teasing.


People have their own concepts of what good teasing is. Some people are more sensitive than others, and it's really important to respect people's feelings. And everyone has the right to say when they think someone has gone over the line when teasing them or someone else.

Wrap It Up

Time: 10 minutes

  • Everyone has the right to have their feelings and opinions respected.
  • But it can be really hard to say what they feel.
  • Don't take advantage of other people feeling so embarrassed that they don't say what they feel.

Rosalind Wiseman is an internationally recognized expert on children, teens, parenting, bullying, social justice, and ethical leadership. She is most famously the author of Queen Bees and Wannabes the best-selling book that was the basis for the movie Mean Girls. Her latest book is Owning Up: Empowering Adolescents to Confront Social Cruelty, Bullying, and Injustice by AMLE and Corwin Press.

See Rosalind Wiseman at her Thought Leader sessions at the AMLE conference in Philadelphia this November.

Published August 2016.

More on these topics
Bullying/School SafetySchool Culture/Climate
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3 comments on article ""Just Joking"—Helping Students Understand When Teasing Hurts"

I am glad that this article was written because this is one of the biggest grey areas for me as a student teacher learning how to discipline my students. I can never tell when a student is actually being hurt by a comment or if they are just messing around. So much of youth friendship these days revolves around "roasting" each other and teasing. It's important we draw those lines in the classroom and make them clear.

3/29/2017 8:00 PM

I think this article sums up the idea that everybody has a different sense of humor. joking and laughing is all fun and games until it becomes focused on 1 or 2 students in particular, that's not joking anymore, that's targeting and bullying. I also like how it breaks it down, tickiling can be funny to some, but not to others, I think if you are ever on the edge about something, the answer is not to do it. another thing to do is if you see a student being "joked" at to ask the student in private and see what you can possibly to to make it not happen again.

11/14/2017 9:35 PM

I liked this article, and I think this article can be used to teach students how teasing someone is not funny. It explains how everyone has a different sense of humor, and people think teasing is not bullying. But if this teasing is still hurting the person it is considered bullying. teasing is seen all the time in the classroom, and the students truly don't understand what they are doing. Teasing has no place in a classroom, and a teacher should not allow teasing among students, or participate it in it.

4/29/2018 11:45 AM

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