This week I attended a Supporting Positive Behavior conference. As I sat and listened and discussed topics that seemed common sense and logical, I had a realization that we treat bullying differently than other negative behaviors. This post is the first of a series of posts about bullying. Here we will look into what is bullying.

Our Current Response

We teach kids all about bullying and then say don’t do that. This is so different than other approaches to behavior, which is to teach and reinforce the positive behaviors and correct and redirect when the positive behavior isn’t displayed. The topic of bullying creates an emotional reaction. This may be because of past experiences or the trauma it can cause for others. As a result, we engage in Bully Prevention programs, Anti-Bullying presentations, Speakers, Assemblies etc. We define bullying, role play bullying, invite students to speak up and report, and discuss the consequences of bullying. We teach students that bullies are bad and that there is a severe consequence for this behavior. These “bullies” have no place in our school, and we are going to fight them now! We adopt a pound of flesh mentality and any solution other than a punishment means that the school is not doing anything to stop it.

Now don’t get me wrong, I in no way condone cruel behavior from people and realize the ramifications from it are horrible and sometimes unthinkable. But for a moment, let’s think. Who are these heartless bullies? They are someone’s child or perhaps your child. Do you think anyone wants their child to hurt other people? I doubt it, just like I doubt parents enjoy their children throwing tantrums. Why is our approach to bullying different than other negative behaviors? There seems to be some stigma that the only reason a person would bully another is because he/she is a bad person.

This is obviously a huge and hot button topic. Every situation and solution will not be presented in this one post. I will cover this topic in 3 parts. I offer points for reflection for the majority of situations that I would consider typical in a middle school setting.

Let’s back up a moment and look at the definition of bullying.

What is bullying?

Bullying has three different criteria. Students learn that all three need to be present. Without all three it isn’t considered bullying, even though the behavior is not right and should be address with the students and parents of those involved.

  • Unwanted by the receiver
  • Ongoing
  • Unbalance of power


There are typically three different roles in a bullying situation. People sometimes participate in more than one role.

  • Bully or Bullies-person or people engaged in the bullying behavior
  • Target-person(s) receiving the bullying behavior
  • By-Stander(s)-people who observe the behavior and do not respond in a way to stop behavior

Who are bullies?

Sometimes these bleed into each other and are not completely clear cut. I cannot count how many times students have pretty much melted in the chair across from me when they realize that they have harmed another person. It is rare that I have a student that intentionally went out to hurt someone. However, this does happen. In order to figure out how to stop someone from bullying, it is important to understand the why.

I also have many students come to report bullying and it turns out that the other student was rude or mean, but not bullying. However, this is a great opportunity to teach students different tools or strategies for when another student behaves cruelly and to help problem solve with them for what they can do in this situation and in future situations.

Don’t get me wrong, bullying does exist (not just with children). I work with students and families regularly to remedy damaged relationships. We collaborate so we can teach the correct behavior for the students who were targeted, observed the behavior and who bullied another.

Redirecting Bullying Behavior

I have found that we focus on condemning children based on a negative behavior rather than teaching them to respond to situations with empathy. With many of the most extreme scenarios, the cause lies in something much greater than a student or a group cruelly targeting another student. Examples of this could be mental health concerns, trauma, abuse, and struggles in family life. These are all situations where children need support from caring and skillful adults. Yes, there needs to be redirection for the behavior, but it is necessary to understand why the child is doing this. We need to understand what is going on with them and for them to understand how their actions harmed others.

How to not raise a bully

Who are targets?

To make matters worse, students are often fearful to report bullying behavior by others. Students do not want to be considered snitches. This will make them fearful of retaliation. This is a true fear. If the cause of bullying is not addressed, the consequence will be more than likely a lesson to avoid getting caught. This can make it more difficult for those who would like to report. Because of the punitive adult reaction to this behavior, students are learning that bullying leads to a consequence for the bully and will fuel future bullying opportunities. We no longer refer to students as victims rather they are targets. This is to empower students to stand up for themselves. It is important to teach students how to respond to bullying and also what they can do to avoid becoming a target.

Who are by-standers

The by-standers are those who do not participate, but observe or are present during the interaction. Believe it or not, the actions of these people have the biggest impact. When I talk with students who by stand, they are so ashamed. Sometimes it takes them awhile to realize their role. Students need to understand how they can help to stop the bullying behavior.

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