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12 Dos and Don'ts for Stopping Bullying

Sep 12, 2013

Tomorrow, I will put my daughters on the bus for their respective first days of school. Today, I am letting them sleep late, just one more time, as a last hurrah of summer. While they rest, I am reading news online and can't help but notice dozens -- literally dozens -- of articles about bullying. Yes, indeed, it is back-to-school time.

A large part of me is gratified that intentional, relentless cruel behavior amongst young people receives media coverage these days. Bullying is a phenomena that has existed in the shadows for too long; its exposure to the light of day is the critical first step in stopping it. But another part of me sees the abundance of headlines and I understand why one teacher recently told me, "You know, we get all of these trainings about legal obligations, paperwork protocols, what to say to parents, and how to spot a bully, but what we really need is specific instruction on what to do in the moment."

I hear him. I really do. As an author and national educator on bullying, I know that people like me tend to dispense a lot of information. We tell the who, what, when, where, and why of bullying long before we get around to the how of changing it. While I do believe the old saying that "without theory, there is no practice," I also know that what dedicated champions of children -- who are pressed for time and overloaded with information -- want is sometimes as simple as a list of Dos and Don'ts.

So, at the risk of oversimplifying a very complicated issue among young people, but at the hope of creating a go-to roadmap for educators, counselors, youth workers, and parents, here are a dozen Dos and Don't of stopping bullying in schools:


  1.  Know Bullying: Understand the difference between behavior that is spontaneously rude, mean, or inconsiderate and actions that are relentlessly and intentionally cruel. While none of the above are desirable and all should be stopped by caring adults, the latter are hallmarks of bullying and require focused interventions. Lumping all bad behaviors into the bullying basket breeds cynicism and diverts time and resources away from vulnerable kids who need them most.
  2. Connect with Kids: Too often, adults are unaware of incidents of bullying because socially-savvy aggressors operate under their radar and socially-vulnerable kids are too disconnected to talk about them. When a young person believes that an adult genuinely cares about his well-being, he is more willing to risk sharing painful peer experiences.
  3. Make Time: The number one protest I hear from adults when I suggest "connecting with kids" is that they don't have enough time in their day to do so. Paperwork, deadlines, standardized tests, and never-ending task lists take up so much time that personal connections with kids become a luxury adults believe they cannot afford. Refuse to believe it! To Dos will always be there but young people rarely stick around after an adult has ignored or dismissed them.
  4. Smile: Seriously. Little things are big things in the world of young people. If you are still worried that you don't have enough time to connect with kids, try something as simple and quick as smiling at each and every young person that you encounter in a day whether at home or at work. While you are at it, make eye contact and say hello to them, preferably using their first name. Please know that I am not de-valuing the pervasive and life-altering issue of bullying when I give this advice; rather I am suggesting that something as momentary and uncomplicated as a warm, daily greeting from an adult can help a young person feel acknowledged, valued, and worthy -- and that is a foundation for protecting a child from the impact of bullying.
  5. Be Present: Adults cannot be everywhere in the lives of kids, but we can strategically and purposefully place ourselves in the locations where bullying most often occurs. Even though the majority of bullying occurs in school, up to 75 percent of it occurs outside of the classroom. Effective adults plan to walk the halls between classes, mingle with students in the cafeteria, keep a watchful eye during recess, sit amongst kids on the school bus, and yes, develop programs to monitor student behavior online. Any/all of these actions listed above are effective both because they facilitate connections between adult and kids and because they reduce a bully's opportunity to act.
  6. Intervene on the Spot: That same adult who confided in me that in-service trainings never taught him enough about what to do in the moment also said that he never could come up with the right words to say on the spot. He is not alone. Many adults struggle with crafting a helpful message when they witness an incident of bullying. The good news is that often the most effective approach in stopping bullying is the least wordy one. Consider any of the following brief statements:
    • "It's not okay to use those words to put someone down. Are we good?"
    • "Posting that online about a classmate is unacceptable. That cannot happen again."
    •  "Excluding her from the group is not going to work. Let's fix this and move on." Brief statements are effective because while they don't humiliate or alienate an aggressor, they do let everyone present know that the adult is observant, aware of peer dynamics, and not afraid to step in. On-the-spot interventions send a strong message to all young people that bullying behavior will not be tolerated.
  7. Teach Skills: If there is one thing most adults appreciate in kids, it is a young person's ability to handle conflict independently and with dignity. It is important to note, however, that no child is born knowing how to do so. Kids develop long-term social and emotional competence through daily repetition and practice of skills. Adults play a critical role in teaching kids to assert themselves, stand up for others, reach out to adults, empathize with peers, control their emotions, and solve problems.


  1. Don't Dismiss: Bullying is not a rite of passage for young people nor is it a normal part of growing up. Conflict is one thing -- and as noted above, kids do need skills to manage it effectively -- but being on the receiving end of relentless cruelty is another. Kids need adults who are willing and prepared to step in to stop bullying whenever they become aware of it. Kids who are bullied should never, ever be asked to go it alone.
  2.  Don't Make it Worse: Sadly, there are some instinctual responses from adults that can actually worsen bullying situations. For example, some adults are tempted to step in to stop a situation by asking a child who is obviously being taunted, "Are you okay? Is s/he bothering you?" While intended to give the vulnerable child a voice, this type of on-the-spot intervention leaves the bullied child with virtually no choice but to say, "No, I'm okay." Very early on in life, kids learn that public confrontations of a tormentor will only bring them further trouble down the road. Kids learn to cover for their aggressor. In the process, aggressors net even more power. Adults can avoid this mistake by separating kids involved in a bullying incident and talking with each young person individually.
  3. Don't Use Peer Mediation: I am all for peer mediation programs. Just not for kids who bully. While school-based peer mediation programs can teach valuable skills for conflict resolution and respectful problem-solving, in bullying dynamics, it can become a platform for peer domination. When kids who bully gain the opportunity to out talk and outwit their less articulate targets in front of trained peer mediators, school counselors, and teachers, they are empowered. Vulnerable kids are further diminished. Need I point out, this is not the outcome peer mediation is designed for?
  4. Don't Label: Bullies come in all genders and ages, shapes and sizes. They come from troubled families and nurturing ones, wealthy backgrounds and low socio-economic statuses. In truth, almost any child can bully another child. When adults understand that by their very nature, kids are works in progress, we stop placing them in harmful, self-fulfilling categories such as "problem-child," or "bully" and begin to view them as young people who deserve to be taught better ways to behave.
  5. Don't Deny Last: September, a friend and former colleague confided in me that she was all set to begin using my Friendship & Other Weapons curriculum in her parochial elementary school when word came down from school administrators that "the school doesn't want to talk to the kids about 'bullying.' It implies that there is a problem." Too often, adults like the ones at her school make a conscious choice to turn a blind eye to the problem of bullying because they want to save face in their communities, even at the expense of doing right by the young people. We must get beyond local politics, school policies, and personal insecurities in order to truly be there for young people. When there is denial of the problem, kids cannot be safe. They cannot learn and they cannot develop skills for managing the conflict that is an inevitable part of being human.

Signe Whitson

Author; Child and adolescent therapist

Signe Whitson, LSW is an author and national educator on bullying. For more information, workshop inquiries or resources, please visit www.signewhitson.com



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reply 41 minutes
Unrung posted in Debating:
I’d like to commend my opponent for his formidable response. I will begin by defending the arguments I made in favor of a global flood, and will then respond to the arguments my opponent made that deny such a flood ever occurring. My friend was not persuaded by my first piece of evidence, being the separate accounts of a similar flood story from different cultures around the world. He claims that this evidence no more proves the flood to be true than any other myth. He says by my reasoning, the abundance of myths that involve multiple deities should therefore be proof of polytheism, or multiple accounts of dangerous man-killing creatures should suggest that such monsters really exist (or existed.) However, this argument is faulty. My friend is confusing general similarities with specific similarities. To say the stories of the Greek gods are similar to the stories of the Egyptian gods, would only be true in the sense that both collections of stories are polytheistic. When you get down to the finer details of the stories, there is little resemblance to be found. Now consider the condensed story of the flood from East Africa: “Tumbainot, a righteous man, had a wife named Naipande and three sons. [...] When his brother Lengerni died, Tumbainot, according to custom, married the widow Nahaba-logunja, who bore him three more sons. […] The world was heavily populated in those days, but the people were sinful and not mindful of God. […] At this, God resolved to destroy mankind, except Tumbainot found grace in His eyes. God commanded Tumbainot to build an ark of wood and enter it with his two wives, six sons and their wives, and some of animals of every sort. When they were all aboard and provisioned, God caused a great long rain which caused a flood, and all other men and beasts drowned. The ark drifted for a long time, and provisions began to run low. The rain finally stopped, and Tumbainot let loose a dove to ascertain the state of the flood. The dove returned tired, so Tumbainot knew it had found no place to rest. Several days later, he loosed a vulture, but first he attached an arrow to one of its tail feathers so that, if the bird landed, the arrow would hook on something and be lost. The vulture returned that evening without the arrow, so Tumbainot reasoned that it must have landed on carrion, and that the flood was receding. When the water ran away, the ark grounded on the steppe, and its occupants disembarked. Tumbainot saw four rainbows, one in each quarter of the sky, signifying that God's wrath was over.” This account has more in common with the story of Noah’s flood than simply a boat and some water. The figure Tumbainot was deemed a righteous man, as Noah was. The people of the day were sinful and not mindful of God, as in the days of Noah. God then resolved to destroy all of life, as in accord with the biblical account. Tumbainot and his family were spared on an ark, with animals of every kind, as Noah and his family were spared on an ark with animals of every kind. All other men and animals drown in both accounts. Tumbainot released a dove to check on the status of the flood, as Noah did. Finally, in both accounts, the rainbow is seen after the disaster, signifying the end of God’s wrath. And this is not the only story like this! It would be ludicrous to say all these stories have in common is a boat and a guy and a flood. My friend stated that the argument from mythical abundance doesn’t prove a myth. I agree; but the fact is, the myth of the flood is not only abundant, but we find accounts across the world that are immensely similar in detail. Let’s move on! AlphaT dedicated several paragraphs to refuting the point I made on the Little Grand Canyon. He made three arguments on this point. Number one, he says that the canyon carved into loose volcanic ash and sediment is not the same as the canyon carved into limestone. Secondly, he argues that the amount of energy it took to carve a relatively small canyon is massive, and the amount of energy it would have taken for the flood to carve the Grand Canyon would have had to have been even greater. Finally he claims that this energy would have raised the flood waters to unbelievable temperatures, effectively boiling Noah and the animals to death. These three arguments can be refuted quite easily, by a better piece of evidence that proves my point. In Eastern Washington State, there is a canyon that was eroded through solid basalt by Lake Missoula floods in 1-2 days. This canyon is 300 to 500 feet deep. This refutes his argument that it would take “an inconceivable amount of energy” to create all the canyons in the world in such a short time as I have proposed. Since that energy is not needed, there is no reason to believe the flood waters would have reached deadly temperatures. It also does away with the notion that it takes millions of years for canyons to form, even if it doesn’t prove that they were formed by the flood. I will return to this point with evidence that the canyon was formed by flood waters later. We move on to the point I made on radiometric dating. As my friend pointed out, this isn’t evidence for a global flood. It does however have bearing on the argument, for if the rock layers can be accurately dated to be millions of years old… well then they can’t be only 4,600 years old can they? However, this is somewhat beside the point. I will make note, that Salt Lake Crater in Oahu was determined to be 92 to 147 million years old, 140 to 680 million years old, 930 to 1,580 million years old, and 1,230 to 1,960 million years old, using several different radiometric dating methods. Point number four, the fossil record being out of order. My opponent says, “A global flood is no more likely given that the proposed fossilization map we would expect in evolutionary theory is false.” True, but this piece of evidence certainly carries weight. Supposing rock layers were laid down one after another over millions of years, (which, I take it, you believe they were,) we shouldn’t expect to find huge areas where (according to the evolutionary model of life) the deposited fossils are entirely out of order; upside down, in fact. I proposed a theory as to why we find the fossil layers in the order we do here, while my friend has not. I’m going to have to stop at transcontinental rock layers, (aww, just as we were getting to the meat of it,) as I’m out of time for now. I must apologize for stopping short of a full rebuttal here. Writing all this takes time, and I’m dealing with some other things in life right now that require my immediate attention, so I must ask for your patience as I finish the other half. I thought rather than make my opponent wait for the whole thing I’d present what I have done so he can begin working on that. I simply don’t have the time right now to finish. Hopefully the rest should be done within a few days. Again, sorry for the wait.
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