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De-escalating Bullying in the Moment

Photo of two gils in the playground

Possible scenarios:

Angie is teasing Sophia in the school yard about her clothing. Sophia is not saying anything. You can tell by Sophia’s facial expressions and body language that she is upset. As a teacher, what do you do?

Paul takes Jack’s school books and throws them down the school hallway. Jack puts his head down and proceeds to collect all of his books that are now scattered down the hall. As a teacher, what do you do?

If we do not respond in any manner, the bullying will continue and situations that children are experiencing will become worse. Adult intervention and support is required when dealing with bullying. Expecting children to simply learn to cope with these situations or to independently find a solution is not an option. We will help you to learn how and when to approach children in these situations and what you can do to support them. The support that you provide to children in these situations will give children confidence, assist them in developing feelings of empathy and ultimately, and help to eliminate bullying.

If you observe bullying while it is occurring:

  • place yourself physically between the bully and the victim, preferably blocking the eye contact between the two children.
  • do not send bystanders away from the situation.
  • do not immediately ask the bully for reasons why the incident occurred.
  • refer to your classroom’s anti-bullying rules as specific to the situation as possible. For example, “Bullying is unacceptable. Teasing is not allowed.”
  • never require children to independently resolve an issue involving bullying due to the nature of bullying which always has a power imbalance.

Empower the child who is being bullied by acknowledging and affirming what happened. For example: “Angie hurt your feelings. I’m sorry it happened. It’s not your fault. You have a right to feel safe here.” Later, in private, give the victim strategies and specific words to use if it happens again. For example, she can say “Stop it. Bullying is not cool.” Encourage her to stay calm and be confident. Competing and arguing back will make the bullying worse. If Sophia finds it too hard to stand up for herself, you could also give her the option to ignore the bully and walk away. She could then talk to someone who can help, such as a teacher, friend, parent or any other adult she trusts. If a child approaches you about being bullied, be sure to acknowledge that it took courage to discuss the incident.

Teach the bystander by commenting on their inaction or lack of an attempt to help. You can teach the inactive bystander how to deal with bullying in the future by saying something similar to: “You saw Paul throwing Jack’s books, but you didn’t say anything. I guess you weren’t sure what to do. Next time tell Paul to stop and then go get an adult.” If a bystander has attempted to intervene, s/he should be praised for trying to help. For instance, you could suggest that the bystander to invite Jack to play with her/him somewhere else and comfort him so that he knows that what happened was not fair or deserved. Children need to hear this from their friends in order to regain their self-esteem.

Address and intervene immediately when you observe bullying. Tell the child that what they are doing is bullying and that bullying is not okay. Use the word “bullying” so that the child understands the fact that they are bullying. Provide an immediate consequence to the bully. If possible, it should be related to the incident. For example, Paul would need to pick up all of Jack’s books. The consequence should always involve the bully making amends to the victim. Intervention could take the form of teaching empathy and accepting differences by using games, activities, stories, discussions, or role playing. You could specifically use reverse role-play to teach empathy by having a child who has bullied act as the victim in a scenario. Helping a child to develop feelings of empathy will influence their way of behaving and interacting with others.

Plan ahead for when bullying is observed in your classroom. You can plan ahead by educating children in your classroom about bullying. You may refer to your classroom’s anti-bullying rules on a regular basis such as during daily circle times. Classroom policies may describe what bullying is and how to deal with it, including how to report it and the consequences of bullying. There are many preventative strategies to address bullying. For other ideas, please refer to the document entitled Educating Children About Bullying.

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