When a child comes to you complaining that they have been bullied, how should you respond? First of all, remember that the way we respond to the incident and similar incidents in our lives will influence the way our child responds. If we act like the event was a great tragedy, they will feel justified in being upset, and we will promote their vulnerability, rather than resilience. If they get upset when kids make fun of them, it will happen more often. Therefore, we must remain calm and kind, treating everyone involved with respect and friendliness. Responding to reports of bullying can be quick and easy.

The first thing you need to determine is whether or not a crime has been committed. By a crime, we mean an act that causes objective harm. This means that damage was done to their bodies or possessions, such as assault and battery, theft or vandalism, or lying about them to get them punished by the school or fired from their job. Threats of violence should be treated as violence, because they force a person to restrict his/her freedom of action in order to avoid being physically hurt. These acts should not be thought of as bullying but as crimes. Students who commit them should be punished and they should make compensation to the people they hurt.

Bullying, though, is not necessarily criminal behavior. Bullying takes place when someone repeatedly uses their strength or influence to intimidate someone, frequently only causing subjective harm, which means someone’s feelingsget hurt. The way the targeted student thinks about the incident (their interpretation of what happened and the effects upon them) determines how much pain they feel. Bullying includes acts like insults, rumors, social exclusion, and pushing that doesn’t cause injury or substantial pain. These are the ordinary kinds of behaviors that children do to each other. Kids deserve to be taught how to handle these behaviors on their own, just as they deserve to be taught to read, write and do math.

Our goal is to promote resilience. The advice is not the same you may get from “anti-bullying” programs whose goal is to protect children from each other.

Teachers need to thoughtfully deal with bullying complaints. Responses do not always produce desired results from students; it’s easy to get responses that are the opposite of what’s desired. If you find yourself repeatedly intervening among the same students bringing the same complaints, you can be reasonably certain that your efforts to make the incidents stop are actually encouraging them. You just can’t see how it’s happening.

The most common way adults unwittingly increase social aggression between kids is by playing judge between them. Teachers have increasingly taken on this role in recent years in an attempt to comply with policies that require them to identify aggressive students and punish them.

When we play judge between students, they each want us to take their side. So, they become prosecuting attorneys against each other to try to get each other in trouble. When we pass judgment, the two of them are still mad at each other because one won and the other lost. They didn’t work anything out between them. Now the allegedly guilty student is even angrier with the student they targeted because they’re in trouble, and wants revenge. They may subsequently do something even worse. The aggressor in the situation also becomes angry with us for judging against him. They are likely to stop learning from us and even to try to disturb our classroom instruction. We have inadvertently taught both kids that bullying behavior should cause them great harm; otherwise, why are we punishing them for doing it? Finally, we have taught them they should come to us for help with their social problems, rather than deal with interpersonal conflict themselves. Thinking we’re working to protect our students and promote conflict resolution, we unwittingly promote vulnerability and dependence.

A better outcome is to teach kids not to get more upset than appropriate and to deal with problems on their own. Whenever possible, we should guide them through steps that teach them to talk to each other directly about what happened, without anger, as though they are dealing with friends – not enemies.

Your purpose as a teacher is to spend your time and energy educating your students, not playing judge to endless, repetitive complaints about problems they should be taught to handle on their own.

If you’ve been spending a substantial amount of class time judging students’ bullying complaints, I have good news for you. There are two “magic responses” that will make your role as a teacher much easier. They will dramatically reduce the number of bullying incidents in your classroom, so you will be able to spend more time teaching academics. They will simultaneously teach your students to become more resilient and independent. Follow the steps consistently, and you should see a dramatic improvement in student behavior.

The first “magic response” is “Do you believe it?” Use this question when a student complains of being insulted.

Let’s say a student says, “Johnny called me an idiot!” Say, “Do you believe it?” The child responds, “No!” Then you say, “Good. I don’t either.” The student will probably stand confused for a few seconds, and then return to their seat. They will realize the insult is nonsense, nothing to get upset about. They can handle it on their own. Your response will not increase your students’ anger towards each other. No one will need to get revenge and you will not turn either student against you.

It is also fine to explain that if they get upset, the aggressor has fun and will continue picking on them. If they stop getting upset, the aggression will stop in a short while.

The other “magic response” should be used for physical complaints. Ask the question, “Are you hurt?”

Most of the hitting and pushing among kids doesn’t cause them physical pain. Their feelings may get hurt, but not their bodies.

When we judge and punish for physical acts that don’t hurt, we produce unwanted negative results. Students learn to get very upset by actions that don’t even hurt. The punished student wants revenge, and gets mad at us, too. Students continue hitting each other, and we continue judging and punishing instead of teaching academics.

When we ask children, “Are you hurt?” they tend to answer honestly. This means they usually say, “No.” So we answer, “Good, I’m glad,” and the matter is over. They go back to their seats. They realize that nothing terrible happened to them. We didn’t increase their anger, there is no need for revenge, and we didn’t turn either student against us.

If the student says they are hurt, then we need to send them for first aid, if necessary, and to punish the aggressor. We should punish with regret, not anger, and the punishment should fit the crime.

Use these two “magic responses” consistently and you will be amazed by the results.

For bullying situations that demand a more comprehensive intervention, we suggest you refer to your school’s counseling and administration department.

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