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7 ways schools can stomp out bullying
Jeff Nalin
January 8, 2020

The approaches toward life that are developed during childhood and adolescence tend to stick. Thanks to mechanisms such as synaptic pruning and parallel distributed processing, what we learn during these formative years can provide the basis of how we perceive life as adults. This phenomenon is what makes the issue of bullying in schools so imperative to address. Both the bullies, and the victims, are developing habits and patterns that will produce a lasting effect on their quality of life.

Signs of Bullying

The signs of bullying are observable from both the victim and perpetrator angles. Victims of bullying may present with physical injuries, drastic mood shifts or changes in academic performance. The bullies themselves may show up with items that are not purchased, or be frequently engaged in altercations with their peers. Discerning the presence of either side of the problem requires that parents and educational staff pay close attention to the details of a child’s interactions and intervene as early as possible.

Bully Motivation

Bullying, particularly in early childhood, is best explained through the theory of operant conditioning. Under this model of explanation for human motivation, bullying behaviors are repeated due to their resulting in material or social reward. The bully may end up with free lunch money, or may enjoy the praise of peers over being tough or funny. Whatever it is that the bully is receiving as a direct, desired, response of the behavior serves to encourage a repeat performance.

As children become older, bullying behavior is most frequently related to strain theory. Adolescents who suffer from personal problems and excessive experiences of negative emotion are prone to seek relief by acting out against others. The bullying provides a temporary relief from self-focus, and substitutes for the lack of control that the bully is experiencing over personal matters.

The customized, intimate, nature of these types of reward systems for bullying behaviors is what makes outside intervention attempts largely ineffective. School assemblies, lectures, and poster campaigns do little to positively alter the behavior of the bullies and their classmates, who are operating daily within a microcosm of peer socialization. Studies have indicated that children who are obliged to attend to such lofty information view it as something outside of themselves, and will even transform the messages into opportunities for mockery and furthering of their bullying repertoire.

What Works

Parents and educational staff need different tactics to address -- and end -- bullying. Many of the suggestions that are provided here are what clinicians encourage clients toward during the course of therapy. While therapeutic intervention often only involves a single person, or a handful of individuals, the school environment provides the opportunity to affect positive change on a broad scale.

Model the desired behavior. One of the most effective ways to encourage positive behavior in our children is to model it, as adults. In both the home, and within the school system, utilize a top-down approach toward implementing prosocial methods of management.

Promote self awareness. The Disney movie, “Inside Out,” did a touching job of showing how important it is for children to learn to recognize and identify their thoughts and feelings. Self-awareness is the first step toward developing the ability to handle stress effectively.

Foster a culture of honest communication. Identification of the destructive thoughts and emotions surrounding the issues of bullying is only part of the solution. The other parts involve a bully – or a victim – feeling free to express these experiences to a trusted adult. Make your home and school environment a safe space for open communication.

Teach effective coping skills. Once thoughts and feelings are identified, the task will be learning how to manage them. Parents and teachers are in the important position of ensuring that our children are provided with the tools toward this end.

Provide healthy outlets. With negative thoughts and emotions being related to the acting out of bullying behavior, providing students with the opportunity to engage in pleasurably distracting behaviors can work toward reducing the negative effects of rumination.

Refrain from adding to the stress. We live in a culture which often promotes the idea of more as being better.  Continually adding to a child’s workload -- whether through classwork, homework, or extracurricular activity -- may be inadvertently resulting in an overload of stress which will be manifested as undesirable behavior. Ensure that your students have enough time to engage in healthy introspection and enjoyable activity.

Reward prosocial behaviors. Hearkening to the basics of how bullying behavior is established and fostered, institute a system which actively rewards those social behaviors which are desirable. Immediate reinforcement for prosocial actions works better than presentation of abstract concepts of future benefit.

Jeff Nalin, Psy.D, is a licensed clinical psychologist and the founder and chief clinical director at Paradigm Malibu Treatment Center. The center has locations in both Malibu and San Francisco.

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