Bullying in Schools:
Seven Solutions for Parents from Kidpower
Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
Learn how to protect your child from bullying! This article is from Bullying – What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, our bullying solutions book used by many families, schools, and youth organizations to create positive social climates for their children and teens.
Is your child is being bullied? You are not alone! Kidpower hears countless stories from upset parents whose children from toddlers to teenagers have been victimized by harassment and bullying at school. School is a big part of our kids’ lives. As parents, we are ultimately the ones who make the decisions about how our children get an education. Because our kids usually have no choice about where they go to school, they need our support when things go wrong.
As parents, we expect schools to provide an environment that is emotionally and physically safe for their students. We are likely to feel outraged and anxious about any kind of threat to our children’s well being, especially in a place that is responsible for their care.
When parents notify school officials that their child is being bullied, they expect that teachers and principals will listen with compassion and do something right away to fix the problem. If this doesn’t happen, it is normal for parents to become very frustrated – and to feel angry at anyone who is caused our child to be sad, frightened, or embarrassed.
Most schools are doing a valiant job of trying to meet an overwhelming array of conflicting demands with very limited resources. There is an increased awareness of the harm caused by bullying, and most schools have policies stating that hurtful, disrespectful behaviors are unacceptable. However, many teachers, playground supervisors, and administrators lack training, support, and resources for taking effective action when problems arise.
Protective parents often need to take leadership if their own child is being bullied or if they see a child making others miserable at school.
Prevention Starts With Awareness
When possible, try to find out about problems when they are still small. Tell children clearly, cheerfully, and often, “You have the right to feel safe and respected at school and the responsibility to act safely and respectfully towards others. If someone is bothering you at school, if you see someone picking on another kid, if kids are leaving another kid out – or if you are having trouble acting safely and respectfully yourself – your job is to tell me so that we can figure out what to do to make things better.”
Pay attention to changes in your child’s behavior. Make it rewarding for children to develop the habit of telling you about what happens at school each day by being interested, by staying calm, and by not lecturing.
Ask specific questions in a cheerful way that goes beyond: “How was school today?” Kids often don’t want to revisit what happened at school because they are busy with what they are doing now, especially if anything happened that was stressful. Ask a couple of specific questions each day with curiosity rather than anxiety, such as “What games did you play at recess? Did the class guinea pig do anything silly? Did you have art today? Do you have any interesting stories to tell me about what people said or did?”
Stay respectful, loving, and peaceful when you listen to their answers. Remember that if their adults act anxious or start lecturing, children are less likely to share upsetting information.
Notice what is happening when you are at the school when you pick up or drop off your child. If possible, try to volunteer even a couple of hours a week in the classroom or school yard so that you can both help out and stay aware of potential problems.
Seven Practical People Safety Solutions for Parents
1. Stop Yourself from Knee-Jerk Reactions
If your child tells you about being bullied at school, or if you witness bullying behavior yourself, this is an important opportunity for you to model for your child how to be powerful and respectful in solving problems.
As hard as it is likely to be, your first job is to calm down. Take a big breath and say, in a quiet and matter-of fact voice, “I’m so glad you’re telling me this. I’m sorry this happened to you – please tell me more about exactly what happened so we can figure out what to do. You deserve to feel safe and comfortable at school.”
If your child didn’t tell you but you found out some other way, say calmly, “I saw this happen/heard about this happening. It looked/sounded like it might be unpleasant for you. Can you tell me more about it?”
Again, stay calm. If their parents upset, children likely to get upset too or to shut down. They might want to protect you and themselves from your reaction by not telling you about problems in the future or by denying that anything is wrong. The older a child is, the more important it is that they are able to feel some control about any follow-up actions you might take with the school.
In addition, if you act upset when you’re approaching teachers, school officials or the parents of children who are bothering your child, they’re likely to become defensive. Nowadays, teachers and school administrators are often fearful of lawsuits, both from the parents of the child who was victimized and from the parents of the child who was accused of causing the problem. This is a real fear because a lawsuit can seriously drain a school’s already limited resources.
At the same time, most teachers and school administrators are deeply dedicated to the well being of their students and want to them to feel safe and happy at school. They’re far more likely to respond positively to parents who are approaching them in a calm and respectful way. However, no matter how good a job you do, some people will react negatively when they are first told about a problem. Don’t let that stop you – stay calm and be persistent about explaining what the issue is and what you want to see happen.
2. Get Your Facts Right
Instead of jumping to conclusions or making assumptions, take time to get the whole story. Ask questions of your child in a calm, reassuring way and listen to the answers.
Ask questions of other people who might be involved, making it clear that your goal is to understand and figure out how to address the problem rather than to get even with anybody.
Once you understand the situation, it works best to look for solutions, not for blame. Try to assume that overwhelmed teachers and school administrators deserve support and acknowledgment for what they’re doing right as well as to be told what’s wrong.
Try to assume that children behave in hurtful ways do so because they don’t have a better way of meeting their needs or because they have problems in their own lives. Focus on the behavior that needs to change rather than sticking destructive labels on kids like “the bullies” or “mean girls”.
Be your child’s advocate, but accept the possibility that your child might have partially provoked or escalated the bullying. You might say, “It’s not your fault when someone hurts or makes fun of you, but I am wondering if you can think of another way you might have handled this problem?”
3. Pinpoint the Cause
Is the problem caused because the school needs more resources in order to supervise children properly during recess and lunch, or before and after school?
Does your child need to learn skills for self-protection and boundary-setting by making and practicing a plan with you or by taking a class such as Kidpower?
Does the school need help formulating a clear policy that makes behavior that threatens, hurts, scares, or embarrasses others against the rules with appropriate, balanced, and consistent consequences?
Do the children who harmed your child need to learn about empathy and to develop skills for using their power in positive ways instead of negative ones? Does a child involved in bullying have emotional problems?
4. Protect Your Child
Your highest priority is, of course, to protect your child as best you can. Try to step back for perspective and keep the big picture in mind as well as the immediate problem. What protecting your child means will vary depending on the ability of the school to resolve the problem, the nature of the problem, and on the specific needs of your child.
Through a programs such as Kidpower, make sure your child has the chance to practice skills in order to walk away from people who being rude or threatening, to protect himself or herself emotionally and physically, and to ask for help sooner rather than later.
In some cases, protecting your child might mean that her teacher and school principal, the parents of the other child, and you all work on a plan together to stop the problem. In other cases, the best solution for your child might be to change schools.
In extreme cases, you might want to explore legal action. Different countries and states have different laws about children’s rights. If need be, explore the resources available in your community.
5. Prevent Future Problems
You also want to prevent future problems. All children deserve to be in an environment that is emotionally and physically safe. Dealing with ongoing harassment is like living with pollution – eventually, coping with the constant assault can undermine your child’s health.
Concerned parents can help schools find and implement age-appropriate programs that create a culture of respect, caring, and safety between young people rather than of competition, harassment, and disregard.
6. Get Help for Your Child
Being subjected to cruel behavior can be deeply upsetting, so get help for your child and for yourself to deal with these feelings. Sometimes bullying can remind you about bad experiences in your own past. Parents often have to deal with guilt for not preventing the problem, and sometimes struggle with rage.
Getting help might mean talking issues over with other supportive adults who can listen to you and your child with perspective and compassion. Getting help might mean going to a therapist or talking with counselors provided by the school or by other agencies.
7. Make this into a Learning Experience
As parents, it’s normal to want to protect our children from all harm. If we monitor their lives so closely that they never fall, never fail, and never get hurt or sad, then we’d be depriving our children of having the room to grow.
Upsetting experiences don’t have to lead to long-term damage if children are listened to respectfully, if the problem is resolved, and if their feelings are supported. Young people can learn how to take charge of their safety by developing skills for preventing and stopping harassment themselves, by setting boundaries, avoiding people whose behavior is problematic, and being very persistent in getting help when they need it.
Additional resources include: Face Bullying With Confidence: 8 Skills Kids Can Use Right Away and Kidpower’s Bullying Prevention Resource page.
About the Author
Kidpower Founder Irene van der Zande has been featured as a child safety expert by USA Today, CNN, and The Wall Street Journal. She is the author of The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, and the Kidpower Safety Comics series. Kidpower is a non-profit organization established in 1989 that has protected over 3 million people of all ages and abilities from bullying, abuse, kidnapping, and other violence locally and around the world. Services include in-person workshops in California and other locations, an extensive free on-line Library, affordable publications, and consulting. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.