Intervene With Mean – Part Two
Ben was a hefty fourth-grader who loved to play touch football, but he kept ending up in the principal’s office because he bullied other kids during recess games. His usual target was Julio, a boy half his size. Ben blocked Julio, pushing him down on the ground and aggressively tackling him. This happened several times before Julio finally reported it.
Ben promised he would be more careful the next time. When it happened again, he came up with his own solution. “Why don’t I go to help out in the preschool during lunch?” he said. “That will keep me out of trouble.” At the preschool, Ben was like a big teddy bear, and the little kids loved him. After a few weeks, Ben said he was ready to go out in the schoolyard again, but once again he “forgot” and knocked Julio down, this time kicking him too.
Ben represents the 15 percent of kids (Level Two in the PBIS model) who need help to learn not to bully. Restorative justice and social emotional learning offer valuable tools to help these students transform their behavior.
Restorative justice (RJ) is an approach in which discipline becomes a learning opportunity rather than a punishment. It is based on the belief that those who harm others can change their behavior. In addition, RJ can help mitigate the negative impact on those they have harmed. The RJ framework shifts interventions away from blame and toward creating a safe and caring environment for all.
In the case of bullying, the RJ process involves the target and the perpetrator separately because the target often feels vulnerable and fears retaliation. One approach is to craft a set of agreements with the perpetrator and convey the agreements to the target. The following questions, adapted from The Little Book of Restorative Discipline for Schools, can guide your conversation with the student exhibiting bullying behavior:
1. What were you thinking at the time of the incident? What did you do? What did you want to happen when you did that?
2. Put yourself in the shoes of the person who was harmed. How do you think that person felt?
3. Think back to a time when someone hurt you. How did you feel?
4. Everyone makes mistakes and hurts others. Do you want to be someone who fixes your mistakes and makes things better? What do you think (the target) needs to make things better? What else might be good to do?
5. You’ve decided to address what happened by ______. How will you do that, and when will you do it? (Make some agreements and write them down.) What do you think you need to do to make things as right as possible? (Practice how things will be said.)
6. There may be a time in the future when you feel like bullying again. What will you do instead?
The agreements might include “I agree not to enter your personal space,” “I agree not to address you as anything but your real name,” or “I agree not to follow you when you walk away from me.” Once agreements are made, share them with the target.
This process encourages reflection and a thoughtful response from the perpetrators without putting them on the defensive. Assure them that they can learn from their mistakes and change. Doing so builds a positive relationship and lets students know they can trust you.
It is critical that you follow up all RJ interventions and conversations. Monitoring and regular support for both target and perpetrator are crucial. Check with the target to be sure the bullying has stopped. Meet often with the perpetrator to ensure the agreements are being followed.
Social Emotional Learning
Social emotional learning (SEL) is an approach that complements RJ and includes strategies to help students understand and transform their behavior.
It is important to consider what might be triggering the bullying behavior in the student. Some students need support with personal issues they are facing at home. Others need help learning empathy, social skills and impulse control.
Educators can work with individuals or small groups to strengthen SEL skills in the five areas described below and to help students transform themselves. The goal is to create a sense of identity safety so students—whatever their background—know they are valued and appreciated and that their identity is an asset. They need to feel that although they have made a mistake, they have agency to learn from it and to change.
Relationship skills: Having strong relationships with perpetrators is the most important factor in supporting the transformation of bullying behavior. The first step is listening to them and helping them feel compassion for themselves and others. Ben was learning how to relate to others when he started helping out in the preschool. He liked the way the younger students looked up to him, and he began to see himself differently. I visited him there and praised his gentleness with the younger students.
Self-awareness skills: Students can learn to identify their own triggers. Ask them to remember and identify how they felt at a given moment, and empower them to seek support instead of react. Once Ben learned to identify when he was getting upset, we could explore other ways to act when he was feeling angry or agitated.
Self-management skills: Ben, like many students who bully, lacked impulse control. He needed to learn to pause and think before he reacted. Along with tools to calm himself (breathing, counting, walking away, talking to an adult), he needed time to practice. He tried out the techniques during role-playing. Then he needed to go back out and learn how to use the skills in the schoolyard.
Decision-making skills: Students need to practice thinking a few steps ahead to make effective choices. Ben needed to talk through the impact of his decisions and behavior. He then practiced telling himself, “If I hurt this student, I may feel better for a moment, but then what?”
Social awareness skills: When Ben got involved in the preschool, he began to notice how other children treated one another. He chose to be part of our schoolwide anti-bullying efforts, and he proposed that he and his friends organize a special friendship fair for the kindergarteners—a big success for him!
Transforming a Pattern of Bullying
The process of changing behavior in the Level Two subset of the student population can and does work, but it requires strong relationships, empathy, social skill building and an expanded emotional tool kit. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Amstutz, Lorraine Stutzman, and Judy H. Mullet. The Little Book of Restorative Discipline for Schools: Teaching Responsibility, Creating Caring Environments. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2005.
Olweus, Dan, Sue Limber, and Sharon Mihalic. Bullying Prevention Program. Vol. 9 of Blueprints for Violence Prevention, ed. D. S. Elliott. Boulder, CO: Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, 1999.
Steele, Dorothy M., and Becki Cohn-Vargas. Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2013.
Cohn-Vargas is director of Not in Our School and coauthor of Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn.