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What Works: Preventing Bullying in the Classroom

By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on February 21, 2015

What do you say to “That’s so gay”? If you are a classroom teacher like me, you are probably all too familiar with this refrain. But how do we respond when we hear a phrase like this thrown about casually? How do we help children understand why such comments are hurtful?

After 13 years in education, I really appreciate quality professional development - every teacher needs frequent opportunities to fill up her bag of tricks. Over the past two years, the best professional development I have received came from Welcoming Schools, a project of the Human Rights Campaign.  Their mission is to embrace family diversity, avoid gender stereotyping, and end bullying and name calling.

One of the most useful resources for me was a document called “What Do You Say to ‘That’s So Gay’?” The document outlines exactly how to respond to a phrase we increasingly hear children use in a casual manner.  It gives specific responses that both stop the behavior and educate the child.  In my classroom, it sounded something like this:

Teacher: I heard you said something was really “gay”. Do you know what it means to be gay?

Student: Yes.

Teacher: What do you think it means?

Student: It means when a man loves another man or a woman loves another woman.

Teacher: Is that what you meant when you said it?

Student: No.

Teacher: Sometimes people use the word “gay” to say something is stupid, but in this classroom and in this school, we don’t use someone’s identity as an insult.

As with any strategy, a teacher must find what works best for his personal teaching style. For me, the most effective approach is to explain to students why such comments are hurtful. I teach third grade, and I know that 8 and 9 year-olds are loathe to hurt anyone’s feelings.  Helping them make the connection between their comments and others’ feelings is a great first step toward preventing the behavior.  What I love about this strategy is that it is applicable to many situations, including stereotyping and name calling based on any type of difference.  For example, when I heard my students mocking the way the Chinese language sounds, I explained to them that it hurt my feelings as an Asian person. The behavior immediately stopped.

As teachers, it is important that we not be paralyzed by fear when it comes to addressing hot button topics like race and sexual orientation.  Living in a relatively conservative community, I understand the fear of push-back from community members, parents, and even other staff members.  The best response I have heard, and one that is difficult to argue with, is that our schools are a place where all children and all families are welcome. As stated in the document, ignoring the situation sends the message to students that such remarks are acceptable.  In the Welcoming Schools film What Do You Know? Six to Twelve Year-Olds Talk About Gays and Lesbians, a young man states, “If I get bullied, [teachers] will help me but not in the sense that they’re teaching the other kid not to do it.” Even our students recognize that simply stopping the behavior is not enough; we must educate our children in order to prevent bullying behavior.

A great way to become more comfortable handling difficult situations is simply to practice.  Use staff meetings or training times to role-play.  We teachers can be a facetious bunch, and if you ask us to play our students, we will likely give you our worst. The benefit of practicing the worst case scenario is that it will make most classroom situations seem much easier to handle. Additionally, our colleagues are excellent resources and can come up with alternative responses that may work even better than what is suggested by the experts.

When addressing classroom-wide situations of stereotyping, name-calling, and bullying, I find that read-alouds are an especially effective strategy.  For example, I noticed that when doing partner work, several of my students were repeatedly left out.  I pulled my students to the reading corner and read aloud the book The Invisible Boy, by Trudy Ludwig. In this beautifully illustrated book, a young boy with a talent for drawing is ignored by his classmates and even his teacher. His feelings are made clear to the reader because he appears in the pictures as merely an outline. When a new student recognizes his special abilities and befriends him, the boy becomes full of life (and color!). After a class discussion about the power of our words and actions, my students now know that when asked to be someone’s partner, the answer is not only “Yes” but “Yes, I would be delighted to.” For a list of books to engage children, visit here. Remember that your school librarian is also an outstanding resource.

Teachers have an incredibly important job to do.  We are under increasing pressure to get all our students to meet rigorous standards. While this is a worthwhile goal, we also know that a student who feels harassed and unwelcome will not be able to achieve at high levels.  We can use educational interactions with individuals as well as classroom lessons about tolerance and respect to make our classrooms safe places. When we take advantage of the natural empathy students feel for one another, we go a long way toward our ultimate goal of eliminating bullying and raising caring individuals.

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