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Great Teaching

Responding to Bullying

Ontario Certified Teachers use advice from the College to create positive learning environments.

By Stuart Foxman
PHOTOs: istock

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Teacher in classroom wearing a mask.

During class, Anthony Chuter, OCT, frequently looks for red flags. Does a student intentionally mispronounce a classmate's name? Are there frayed feelings between students during group work? Does a student's mood seem off? When collaborative projects are done online, what's the tone in chat rooms? Is a student's voice being shut out?

Some of this is classroom management. But Chuter is also on the alert for signs of bullying, or its precursors. Better to stamp out the problem before it occurs or escalates.

"We have to notice, be an advocate, and make sure our students feel safe," says Chuter, who teaches high school history and communication technology at Bayview Glen, an independent school in Toronto.

Bullying can affect students' self-esteem, development, mental health and learning. They may begin to be absent from school more, or lose interest in their studies. Sometimes, they can be cut off from their peer groups and friends.

Beyond the victim, bullying can have a negative impact on the perpetrator and those who witness incidents, and damage the entire learning environment.

Teachers play a major role in predicting, detecting and preventing bullying. The College advisory, Responding to the Bullying of Students, lays out their professional responsibilities as well as ways to be proactive. How are College members putting the advisory into action?

It starts with understanding what bullying looks like: behaviour that makes someone feel uncomfortable, frightened, hurt or humiliated. Many things can be, and aren't necessarily, a type of bullying. The advisory echoes a definition from PREVNet, Canada's foremost authority on bullying prevention. Typically, bullying has three elements:

Jason Prichard, OCT, a behaviour consultant with Trillium Lakelands District School Board, says it's important for students and teachers to grasp the difference between friendly and shared teasing (where there's no intent to harm), and aggression. "Define the bullying terms so everyone has the same language," he says.

With the three elements in place, bullying can take on many forms, including physical, verbal, social (e.g., exclusion, gossip), and cyber (the use of texts, emails and social media to bully).

"To reduce the chances, we have to look at the classroom environment," says Danielle Hunter, OCT, a French and modern languages facilitator with the Durham District School Board. "Bullying is a relationship problem, and the only way we're going to reduce it is by focusing on relationships."

Promoting healthy relationships is a big part of a teacher's job, says Hunter. She cultivates team-building activities. For example, Hunter has had her class work in small groups to build a kaleidoscope. Everyone could only touch their own materials but could offer suggestions to that group's members. The emphasis was on finding a solution together. "Before the activity, we discussed what working together well would look, sound and feel like," says Hunter.

These exercises help students to work toward a common goal, foster empathy and value their classmates as individuals.

"Activities that are planned in the class are strategic to the skills you're looking to develop," says Hunter. "When we strengthen relationship skills, we're making connections. It's harder to be unkind and engage in bullying behaviour when you know the person, and respect their differences as an individual."

France Campeau, OCT, agrees. "A type of imbalance I see occurs during team assignments," says Campeau, a Grade 6 teacher at École élémentaire catholique Sainte-Lucie in Long Sault, Ont., part of the Conseil scolaire de district catholique de l'Est ontarien.

She says very bright students can get teased because their classmates feel intimidated, while students who struggle can get teased too. Both can become isolated and feel left out. Campeau pairs such students, so the stronger one feels helpful and the weaker one gains confidence. Beyond reducing the chance of bullying, "it makes for a healthier classroom environment," says Campeau.

Chuter makes clear at the class level that it's valid to have dissenting opinions, and that all backgrounds, cultures and ideas matter. He does this by establishing norms during discussions, like looking for opportunities to add on to the ideas of others, or modelling positive ways to dissent: "I wonder if …" or "On the other hand …" or "We might consider …," which can happen in a positive and non-agrressive way. At a school-wide level, that can also happen through assemblies and clubs that honour the spectrum of students, and help them to feel themselves. Inclusion becomes an anti-bullying strategy.

In her class, Natasha Charpentier, OCT, discusses social expectations. "What do we want our community to look like? What does justice mean? The key is having a climate where we hold each other accountable," says Charpentier, who teaches English, history, social science and art at Almonte District High School in Almonte, Ont., part of the Upper Canada District School Board.

Teacher in classroom wearing a mask.

She doesn't tolerate comments that target marginalized groups, or that poke supposed "fun" but have a real jab. She even looks out for dismissive tones of voice or gestures (like eye rolls). "That's where bullying can start," she says.

Sarah Reilly, OCT, appreciates how the College advisory gives all educators the same standards to identify bullying, and reflect on ways to counter it. She uses community circles to review what bullying behaviour looks like.

"Discussions include how the behaviour of others can have a ripple effect and a lasting impact, socially and emotionally," says Reilly, a Grade 8 teacher at Boyne River Public School with the Simcoe County District School Board. "Identifying microaggressions and subtle bullying acts, naming them, and creating an environment where the class can discuss how they feel, creates a sense of empowerment."

With her students, Reilly unpacks books, movies, TV shows and personal situations to help students identify the different forms bullying can take. "These discussions have opened the eyes of some students to see within themselves how they may change their own behaviours," she says.

The curriculum can also be a vehicle to create an environment where bullying becomes less likely. In her English class, for example, Charpentier might use short stories that cover themes like feeling alone or being perceived as different. Or she'll have the students rewrite a story from another character's point of view. In history, she'll look at social groups that have been prejudiced against, and how that has devastated whole populations. And in art, she might discuss how the artist can be a voice for social action.

In her class, Campeau reminds people that everyone can make mistakes, highlights the value of forgiveness, and talks about mental health. It's all part of helping her students to be kind to one another.

That doesn't eliminate bullying, so it's important to look for clues that trouble is brewing. Hunter watches the relationship dynamics. Who gravitates to whom? Are some individuals or groups asserting power? In unstructured time, who's alone? By noticing the signs, you might be able to pre-empt problems.

Still, eliminating bullying is tough. So teachers can also help students to deal with those instances.

"You need to arm kids with communication and self-advocacy skills in the moment to set boundaries," says Prichard.

Charpentier works with her students to come up with a script. If someone says something to you that hurts, you can say, "That doesn't make me feel good" or "What do you mean by that?" This isn't about fighting back physically or verbally, but about standing your ground. "It doesn't always work, but it can diffuse the situation," she says. "It empowers people, and there's a lot to be said for that."

If bullying does occur, students should feel comfortable telling their teacher, parents or another trusted adult. Getting students to be forthcoming doesn't start when you notice rejections or bruised feelings. It starts with the basic teacher-student bond.

"The strategies are all relationship-based," says Prichard. "Simple things like standing at the door and welcoming kids when they arrive in the morning. Checking in with them. And having a relationship with the parents, so they feel comfortable coming forward if their child has an issue."

You don't need special training in bullying prevention, says Prichard. "You need to know your students," he says.

Be a stress detective, he says. Look for signs that something is amiss — maybe a change in the student's demeanour or body language, for example — and have a plan for what to do if you see it.

Prichard worries, too, about the impact of bullying on the bystander. "A lot of kids feel guilt in having not said something. There's risk that's going to shake their confidence and self-worth," he says.

It's important to encourage bystanders to intervene. In fact, Prichard calls it something close to a duty to report. That can be a challenge.

"Students often comment on not wanting to be a 'rat' or a 'tattletale,' however by empowering bystanders and providing strategies, this feeling of shame transforms into a different type of social power," says Reilly.

Charpentier doesn't like the term bystander, as it implies watching passively. People who observe or know of bullying are witnesses, and can be part of the solution.

As the College advisory says, "bullying resonates." It can affect everyone involved, and have long-term repercussions. Which is why, says Prichard, it's so important to "have a classroom culture that makes students feel safe and secure, in mind, body, spirit and emotion."