The word “bullying” has taken an interesting turn. For the past 15 years, I have been working with staff, students, and parents all over Michigan and the Midwest to reduce student cruelty and to help students develop tolerance and empathy. When I first started this work many years ago, I had to convince school personnel and parents that bullying was a problem. The response I so often received was “This is a normal rite of passage. It is kids being kids. If we don’t let them fight their own battles, we will surely raise a generation of wimps.”
Today, with the increasing media attention to violence in schools nation-wide, the responses to my question “what is bullying” have strikingly shifted. I often hear from parents and students that a single push in the hall or getting called a name is “bullying.” However, we would all be much better served if we stopped branding every aggressive behavior as bullying. There are three groups of students who engage in hurtful behavior. Only the last group truly meets the definition of bullying.
The first and largest of these three groups are students who are typically caring and have a conscience. They engage in sporadic cruel behavior towards peers for a variety of reasons which usually involve getting a laugh, showing-off, attention-seeking, or attempting to fit into a group. Students in this category aren’t even thinking about how their bad choices are impacting the targets. The behavior of these students is relatively easy to modify with consistent consequences and serious discussions about the negative impacts of their behavior.
The second group of students who engage in aggressive behavior are also good kids with a conscience, but struggle with impulse control, frustration tolerance, and anger management. They are frequently “hot-headed” and will lash out at peers when they are mad, frustrated, or are not getting their needs met. These students need a combination of consistent consequences for acts of aggression, and social skills training. They respond well to positive behavior support practices, including positive precision feedback, positive notes and calls to parents for behavioral improvement, and mentoring. Included in this second group are friends or classmates who have a disagreement or misunderstanding that occasionally escalates into cruel words or actions. Teaching all students problem-solving skills and conflict resolution skills would go a long way toward reducing this type of aggression.
The third group of students who engage in aggressive behavior are those who not only lack a conscience or empathy, but seem to enjoy inflicting pain on others. Their hurtful behavior gives them an adrenaline rush. By many estimates, this is about 2 percent of the population of any school. These kids engage in repetitive, intentional patterns of cruelty aimed at students with less power than them (physical, social, emotional). These students engage in chronic, habitual bullying. Modifying their behavior takes strenuous and sustained effort, but is critical in mitigating a potential life path as a narcissistic or sociopathic adult who may negatively impact hundreds of people during their lifespan.
All three groups of students will be served by developing a consequence rubric for aggression that is fair, consistent and predictable. At the same time, it is important to weave social skills training, conflict-resolution skills, empathy development, and tolerance for differences into the K-12 curriculum. Adults must also build positive relationships with aggressive youth. Students who have caring relationships with staff are much less likely to be cruel. Instead of labeling every aggressive behavior as bullying, we need to recognize that there are various types of mean behavior. We can then create broad-based solutions to prevent cruelty of all kinds, whether it is simply an escalating disagreement among friends, an impulsive act, or true bullying.
Marcia McEvoy, Ph.D.
Thanks for reading this post by Dr. Marcia McEvoy. I do believe that together we can make a difference.