Intervene with Mean- Reposted from Teaching Tolerance


Intervene With Mean – Part One

Submitted by Dr. Becki Cohn-Vargas on December 20, 2013

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This post is part one of a three-part blog series that explores how to help students transform bullying behavior. The series mirrors the three levels of intervention outlined in the Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports(PBIS). Level One (the focus of this blog) applies to the 80 percent of students who are responsive when explicitly taught about acceptable behavior. The second blog will address Level Two, the 15 percent of students who need social skills training and tools to help them stop bullying. The third blog will address Level Three, interventions for the 5 percent of students with persistent bullying problems who need intensive supports.

When he was in third grade, California high school student Melvin Mendez was beaten up in the bathroom and threatened with more violence if he told anyone. In middle school, says Melvin, “anger built up inside of me and I wanted vengeance against those who made me suffer. I decided it was time for payback, so I started to bully others. … After seeing those kids who I bullied run into [the] bathroom to cry, I figured out that I was making a mistake because I saw myself in those that I harmed.” Melvin wrote these words in a blog sharing his path to becoming a student leader and an anti-bullying activist.

At various points in his story, Melvin could have been called a victim, a bully or a hero. The transitory nature of behavior and childhood identity illustrated by Melvin’s experiences led Teaching Tolerance to name the cover story of the Fall 2013 magazine issue, “There Are No Bullies.” The story explains that bullying is a behavior and not a label.

According to researchers Robert Faris and Diane Felmlee, bullying behavior is often triggered by youth—like Melvin—seeking to climb the social ladder. Faris explains, “Kids are caught up in patterns of cruelty and aggression that have to do with jockeying for status. It’s really not the kids that are psychologically troubled, who are on the margins or the fringes of the school’s social life. It’s the kids right in the middle, at the heart of things … often, typically highly, well-liked popular kids who are engaging in these behaviors.” These findings contrast with a popularly held notion that only socially marginalized youth bully. It also boosts the rationale for designing bullying interventions that target all students.

The study ultimately identified that both positive and negative behaviors are “contagious.” Faris notes, “…positive behaviors can also spread through social networks and … kids may be more likely to intervene in bullying situations if they see their friends … discouraging that kind of behavior.” Faris proposes teaching students that bullying has negative consequences for victims and perpetrators, and using this research to demonstrate that—in the long run—bullying will not afford youth the popularity they are seeking.

The strategies below are designed for the 80 percent of students who are not involved in chronic bullying but who need a clear understanding of bullying and its consequences. The list includes strategies for handling individuals who are engaged in a bullying incident and whole-school strategies for building awareness: 

  • Ensure the entire school community knows the definition and serious consequences of bullying and ways to report and take action. Consider showing or sharing Michele Borba’s Essential 6 R’s of Bullying Prevention.
  • Use a bullying prevention curriculum (e.g., OlweusSteps to Respect) that helps students learn the harm of bullying, build empathy, teach social skills and help students who bully learn other behaviors.
  • Give students a voice; taking the lead in identifying problems and solutions empowers students who may not otherwise have positive identity outlets at school. Create leadership groups that (carefully, strategically) include those who have been involved in bullying. They will rise to the occasion. Lancaster, CA: A City Unites to End School Bullying provides a model for how to build student leadership.
  • If the bullying incident involved targeting someone for being different, make it a learning opportunity about the difference (whether it is gender expression or identity, race, sexual orientation, religion, appearance, ability, etc.). 

Luckily—when practiced over time and every time—these types of strategies are effective with the majority of students and help support school environments where kindness is practiced as a value. Kids like Melvin show us that these positive changes are possible and can even multiply.

“I could have continued that cycle of violence, but I didn’t. I chose a different path,” he reflects at the end of his blog post. “As members of this community we all need to persist and strive for success. … We have the ability to make our community thrive as a supportive, unified and compassionate place and make … our world a better and safer place to live in.”

Cohn-Vargas is director of Not In Our School and coauthor of Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn.


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