Preventing Bullying Using Empathy

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While it may be easy to cast those who bully as villains, it is far too simplistic to consider bullying behavior in terms of good versus bad. Research suggests that children who bully often have legitimate deficiencies in their social and emotional development that hinder their ability to effectively navigate social interactions and solve problems without using aggression (Warden & Mackinnon, 2003). Efforts to bullyproof classrooms may require a more nuanced approach that considers the needs of both the child who bullies and the one who is being bullied.

Most children will bully another child at one time or another, and most won’t do it repeatedly (Milsom & Gallo, 2006). Children will bully others for a variety of reasons. Some children may suffer from a lack of self-confidence or self-control, and the aggressive behaviors they display may be attempts to seek help or attention. Some of the students who bully may have undiagnosed mental and emotional health issues that present themselves as antisocial behaviors (Kumpulainen & Rasanen, 2000).

Students who display bullying behavior may be experiencing abuse at home or elsewhere, and they have learned to use aggressive behavior as a way to control their environment. Children who grow up without stable parental influences or in homes experiencing domestic strife or violence are particularly vulnerable to toxic stress. In such an environment, standards of conduct can be difficult for a child to discern (Pepler, Craig, & O’Connell, 1999).

What Are the Implications of Bullying Among Students?

A study of nearly 1,000 sixth-graders found significant incidences of poor adjustment among those who bullied and those who were bullied in the classroom when compared with those who did not have experiences with bullying (Melander, Sittner Hartshorn, & Whitbeck, 2013).

Children who bully and those being bullied can become trapped in a cycle of aggression and powerlessness that is difficult to escape, leading to feelings of helplessness and despair (Pepler, Craig, & O’Connell, 1999). Both are also at higher risk for future negative outcomes such as delinquency, substance abuse, and failure to graduate (Kaiser & Rasminsky, 2003). And both are more likely to be depressed than students who are not impacted by bullying, often leading to self-destructive behaviors as well as poor academic and interpersonal performance (Seals & Young, 2003).

The goal of educators is to help all students succeed academically and to support their social and emotional development, so attention must be paid to the needs of those doing the bullying and those who are bullied (Milsom & Gallo, 2006). Utilizing empathy can be a proactive way for educators to address bullying. Here are some strategies for creating a bullyproof environment.

Schools must develop, articulate, and consistently follow anti-bullying policies. Set clear expectations for behavior in the classroom and hold students accountable consistently and equitably (Crowe, 2012). A student sometimes engages in acts of bullying due to a lack of healthy socialization. They may lack structure and discipline at home, which can lead to antisocial behaviors and a decreased ability to conform to social norms.

Establish communication with parents. Teachers cannot effectively meet the needs of students unless they get to know them as individuals. The relationship between caregivers (teachers, parents, or other adults) and children serves as a model for how those children relate to the world around them (Duncan, 2006). Looking at factors that may be contributing to a student’s antisocial behavior can help gain an understanding of why the student is bullying another.

Provide support and connect to services as needed. Some bullying behaviors begin at home. Communication with parents and other influential adults can help teachers discern when the student and/or family could benefit from additional support. School- and community-based programs are available to assist when counseling, mediation, or other types of support may be needed (Jacobsen & Bauman, 2007). An attentive, empathetic teacher can help bridge those gaps.

Build an inclusive classroom. Establishing a classroom culture that encourages communication, celebrates differences, and fosters teamwork can prevent bullying before it begins. Teachers can give children the tools to handle conflict with peers, the insight to solve problems, and the emotional vocabulary to speak up for themselves and others.

Cultivate trust between teacher and student in the classroom. If children who are being bullied do not see that adults are willing or able to help them, they will not seek help when they need it (Jacobsen & Bauman, 2007). Allowing bullying to continue unabated can lead to further harm, and teachers need to establish trust with each student so they feel comfortable speaking with the teacher and know that the teacher will take their concerns seriously.

Pay attention to the small stuff. Teachers should increase their attention and observation of peer-to-peer interactions in the classroom to catch bullying behaviors early. Empathy will help the teacher understand the potential impacts of seemingly minor, gateway behaviors that may lead to more serious acts of bullying (Crowe, 2012).

Empathy is a powerful tool for diagnosing and confronting bullying behavior. Efforts to reduce bullying in schools must pivot away from disciplinary measures and focus on identifying and meeting the social, emotional, and cognitive needs of all students. Teachers can help students learn how to make friends, handle conflict, speak up for others, and maintain healthy personal relationships (Macklem, 2003), and open communication with parents will help support this effort. A learning environment focused on developing healthy values and prosocial behaviors, using assertive communication, and showing respect for others can help to stop bullying before it begins.

Download this ready-to-use lesson for teaching your students to be aware of the impact their actions have on others.

Fly Five Empathy Download Grades K-3


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