How to Help Your Students Deal with Bullies

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Dear Kid Whisperer,

I teach fifth grade in Los Angeles, CA. I have a really rough group of kids. I read your blog religiously and I have had a lot of success using the skills that you describe. I am able to be more strict and more relaxed than at any other time in my 20 year career. I wanted to know if anything you teach can be used to get my students to stop bullying each other. They won’t mess with me anymore, so I feel like they have turned on each other! Any thoughts?

D’anicka, Los Angeles

Dear D’anicka,

Oh, boy, are you in for a treat, and boy, are the bullies in your classroom in trouble! I am going to show you how to stop bullying without lectures, warnings, threats, trying to control things that you can’t control, or taking any class time to “teach” kids why bullying is wrong.

After 14 years of dealing every day with very difficult kids as a principal, teacher, and discipline specialist, I have become very frustrated with all of the useless, utterly adorable nonsense splattered all over the internet by so-called experts that is supposed to combat bullying. Perhaps you have been using these methods in order to stop your kids from bullying. Perhaps this is why you have a problem.

It is so incredibly unfair to us educators when this junk is pushed on us. It makes us think two pretty difficult things that usually aren’t true.

We are the problem.

Our students are incorrigible, awful people.

In actuality, our students bully because it works for them. It gets them what they want. It gets then attention and it makes them feel better about themselves to see others feel worse. Creating an anti- bullying bulletin board, hiring a charismatic speaker to shame bullies, or lecturing bullies about their behavior is not only ineffective, it makes bullying worse.

We teachers need to understand some truths about bullying in order to understand why 99% of anti-bullying measures actually encourage bullying. Prepare yourself, these go against conventional wisdom.

The worst action you can take when one student bullies another is to point out the behavior to the class and lecture the bully while pointing out the identity of the bully-ee. This gives attention to a behavior that is usually attention-seeking, advertises the fact that the teacher really has little or no control over bullying, and puts a huge bulls-eye on the forehead of the bully-ee. Furthermore, defending the bully-ee gives the implicit message that the victim is weak and cannot defend herself without the help of an adult. What do you think will happen to the bully-ee when there is no adult within earshot? That’s right, it’s open season on weak kids! Doing this is worse than ignoring the behavior altogether.

Long lectures about the evils of bullying meant to prevent said behavior are counterproductive because they give obnoxious kids a road map and instruction manual on how to effectively bully someone and they give semi-obnoxious kids some great ideas on how to become fully obnoxious.

The more attention we give to bullying in any public capacity, the more fame and glory we give to bullies, which, of course, encourages the bullying.

Ack. I hate to write this much without demonstrating a solution. So many other so-called experts will just give you an opinion about how teachers do something that is destroying the world, but then have no alternative actions. Why? BECAUSE THESE PEOPLE ARE NOT TEACHERS AND HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THEY ARE TALKING ABOUT! So here is the response that I had last month for a student who was being bullied. Notice that I never take any whole group instructional time, I let the bully-ee solve the problem herself, and that I never even deal with the bully!

Kid Whisperer is called by a Parent who is concerned that her daughter is being bullied by two other students at her table. Parent instructs Kid Whisperer to solve this problem. Kid Whisperer informs Parent that he only solves his own problems and that any attempt to solve the problem for the daughter will make the bullying worse. Kid Whisperer tells parent that he cares too much about Parent’s kid to let that happen.

The next day, Kid Whisperer calls the bully-ee (Kid) up to the reading table in between two reading groups. The classroom is silent as Kid Whisperer and Kid whisper to one another.

Kid Whisperer: I understand that Daquan and Tequilla are being mean to you.

Kid: Uh-huh.

Kid Whisperer: Oh, man. So what’s going on?

Kid: (with tears welling up in her eyes) Well, Tequilla calls me fat and ugly and Daquan just agrees with her. Tequilla is trying to get Janae to not be friends with me and Daquan said that I smell and he pinches his nose and pretends that I stink.

Kid Whisperer: Oh, man. What are you going to do?

Kid just shrugs.

Kid Whisperer: Hmmmm, would you like to know what some other kids have tried?

Kid: I guess.

Kid Whisperer: Some kids choose to scream and yell and jump up and down while picking their boogers. How would that work out for you?

Kid: (Laughing and wiping her tears away) No. Gross!

Kid Whisperer: No? How do you know? Have you tried it?

Kid: No. Gross, Mr. Ervin.

Kid Whisperer: Alright, some kids try ignoring kids who are messing with them. How would that work out for you?

Kid: I tried that… that’s what my mom told me to do. It worked for a little bit, but then it didn’t work.

Kid Whisperer: Yeah, ignoring usually doesn’t work very well. Hmmm. Let me ask you this, why do you think they are bothering you?

Kid: Because they are trying to make me sad.

Kid Whisperer: Bingo. What if you never showed them that it made you sad? What if you pretended that them being jerks actually made you happy? What might they do then?

Kid: (with the sly grin that I’ve been looking for) Stop?

Kid Whisperer: Hmmm. Do you think it might make them mad first?

Kid: (Now with a full smile) Yes.

Kid Whisperer: Might that be fun?

Kid: Yes!

Kid Whisperer: What do you think you could say to pretend that you are actually happy that they are making fun of you?

Kid: I don’t know.

Kid Whisperer: Would you like to know what someone in our class came up with earlier this year?

Kid: Yes.

Kid Whisperer: Anytime anyone would make fun of her, she would make the craziest looking smile she could make and say (Kid Whisperer makes the most deranged smile he can muster) “I’M HAPPY!” How would that work out for you?

Kid: Great!

Kid Whisperer: I can’t wait for them to try and make fun of you!

Kid: I can’t either!

Kid Whisperer: Can you do me a favor?

Kid: Yes.

Kid Whisperer: Can you let me know how it goes?

Kid: Okay.

Kid Whisperer: Remember, this is going to make them mad, so they are going to get even meaner before they stop. I know a bunch of good things to say to people who are being mean. Do you want me to share them with you later?

Kid: Yes!

Kid Whisperer: Okay, I can’t wait for them to try to make fun of you!

Kid: I can’t either!

Let me be clear: Going through this process has worked every single time I have done it. In fact, once the child is armed with lots of one liners for the bullies, the bully-ee will sometimes start to non-violently and passively terrorize the bully! It’s so wonderful to see because,

It’s hilarious.

It creates a permanent power shift in the class where the nice kids are in charge.

I must share with you something that happened weeks after I had begun to bully proof this student. Daquan approached me with a complaint about the now bully-proofed student.

Kid: Mr. Ervin, Sara just keeps looking crazy and saying “I’m happy, I’m happy, I’m happy.” It’s driving me crazy!

Kid Whisperer: Thanks for sharing that with me.

Kid: Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!

Until I see that this tactic is causing a significant problem for the bully, I won’t call off the dogs! And I have never seen this happen. Former bully-ees are very satisfied to do this just enough to keep their former tormenters in check.

D’anicka, I hope this helps. Please contact me with questions!

-The Kid Whisperer