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Bullying prevention: Telling the right story

7 min read


October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Jim Dillon, an educator for over 35 years including 20 as a school administrator and the current director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention, helps us jump start the conversation with a call to reexamine the story we tell about bullying.

“Our tendency to see and explain the world in common narratives is so deeply engrained that we often don’t notice it — even when we have written the words ourselves.” Dan Pink

I once sat between two teachers and heard them comment on a student that they both taught. The first teacher said, “How can I be expected to get him to pass the course when he is absent once or twice a week every week?” The second teacher replied, “Knowing what he has to overcome in his life outside of school, it is amazing that he comes to school three to four times a week.” Both teachers cared about this student. Both wanted him to succeed. Both devoted much time and attention to helping him succeed. Yet, despite these commonly held best intentions, the teacher, who viewed him more as a hero and less as a deadbeat, is more likely to help him succeed.

Social psychological research has confirmed that very fact: The frame through which we view a problem determines how we approach it and ultimately whether the resulting story is one of success or repeated failure. People accept and embrace positive change when they are affirmed, are engaged in the change process and are given aspirational goals.

These two ways of framing the chronically-absent student can be applied to the issue of bullying in our schools. Our current approach to bullying prevention is like the first teacher’s way of framing the student and his problem: It’s more about stopping a negative and fixing a problem, than it is about affirming strengths and achieving positive goals.

By examining the current frame/story guiding our efforts to address bullying in schools, we can begin to answer the following question: Why is it that despite laws in every state, readily available resources, ubiquitous PSA’s, motivational assemblies and a multitude of programs, bullying still persists as a problem affecting between 20% to 30% of students?

The answer could be that we are using the wrong frame for viewing the problem. This explains why our best efforts do not lead to positive results. We often fail to see and understand how the frame/story undermines our response to the problem of bullying and whether we succeed or fail in addressing it.

To change our approach to the problem, we must first recognize and articulate the current frame/story we have been telling ourselves about bullying. The frame/story goes like this:

Bully is wrong and it needs to stop. It is against the rules and the law. It is an individual act of defiance against authority. Too many students have been doing it and schools haven’t been doing a good enough job in stopping them. Stricter laws and tighter enforcement of them are necessary along with clear and, if necessary, severe consequences to deter potential lawbreakers.

Although this frame/story of the problem of bullying has an initial appeal to people’s pre-existing attitudes, here are some reasons why it is counterproductive in effectively addressing the issue:

  • It projects a negative identity onto students. Most students don’t bully and don’t approve of it. This fact is often overlooked. Therefore, most schools fail to acknowledge and empower these students.
  • It implies that students are the problem and not the solution. Adults who set these rules very often act in a way that students perceive as bullying, yet these adults appear immune from the same accountability as students. “Don’t bully” becomes just another adult rule imposed upon students.
  • It emphasizes compliance to authority rather than the moral imperative of treating others with respect. Bullying is not a discrete, discernible act like other rule violations. Students can learn to bully others under adult radar. Students must act in accord with their conscience to make the right moral decisions — even when no adult is watching.
  • It is out of sync of with the students’ experience of bullying. Many acts of bullying occur quickly and are interspersed among a variety of other social interactions. As opposed to the dramatic depictions of bullying in the media, students’ experience of it, even as bystanders, is full ambiguity and ambivalence.
  • It sets a low bar for how to treat others. Students want and need aspirational goals for how to make the world a better place. Students need to know that doing what is right requires them to go beyond just following the rules.
  • It accepts the status quo of schools. Bullying is not viewed as connected to the social environment where it exists. In the current approach to the problem, schools are okay as they are, as long as students follow the rules. When the real issue becomes how people treat each other, the social environment of the school itself has to change; the status quo can’t be maintained.
  • It asks students to change without investing time in giving them the knowledge, skills and attitudes they need to act the way they want. Even positive directives like “stand up” to bullying fail to acknowledge the inherent risks that student face in their social world. As long as schools emphasize academic success over social responsibility, students are left to fend for themselves in a confusing and constantly changing social world.

A different story

Bullying prevention should be transformed into the process of building community. It should start with a question not a rule: What is the difference between a group of people (who happen to be collected in one place and time) and a true community? As students, parents and school staff work together to answer that question, they can become a community.

Bullying prevention needs a different frame/story to change the hearts and minds of all members of a school community. One that will inspire people to respect each other regardless of how different they might be. Students, parents and staff share a responsibility and a commitment to create schools where each person is cared for and valued. That process of change becomes the story they write for themselves and a proud, compelling one they can tell to others.

Words matter

All our students (the ones who bully, the ones who are bullied and the ones who witness it) are like that one chronically-absent student commented on at lunchtime. Their success or failure is very dependent upon how we view them and treat them. We have a choice (whether we realize it or not): to view them as potential leaders and an essential part of the solution or as potential rule breakers who need to be tightly controlled and managed. We must, therefore, consider and choose our words wisely for they will guide and shape the school experience of our students and us.

The words used for our frame/story, therefore, do more than just matter. In the end, to quote Robert Frost, they make all the difference.

Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including 20 as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written three books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden), No Place for Bullying (Corwin) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin). He writes a blog at

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