Telling Tough Truths

Summer 2008

By Juliet Sternberg

When I give talks to the parents of middle school children, I often share with them a section of Operating Instructions, Anne Lamott's funny, poignant memoir of her first year of parenthood. In it, she writes about the apprehensions she faced as she contemplated the prospect of raising a child. She recounts desperate worry that the baby might not emerge from her belly physically intact; the frightening thought that she would run out of the money needed to sustain her son; and her terror envisioning him as a teenager riding in fast cars with friends. However, worse than all her other fears, she writes, was the "agonizing issue of how on earth anyone can bring a child into this world knowing full well that he or she is eventually going to have to go through the seventh and eighth grades." No period in her own life, she explains, involved more "meanness, chaos… hurt and aloneness."

The years of pre-adolescence and early adolescence are full of challenges. There is the virtual impossibility of making peace with a body that is in such intense physical, hormonal, and cognitive flux. There is the emotional vulnerability that comes from wanting so desperately to feel competent and to belong. And there is the start of that complicated task of figuring out who one is as a budding adult, amidst a culture that sends a muddled mix of messages about manhood and womanhood, ethnicity, race, and sexuality.

Some of the hardship of the middle school years, however, is due to the uncanny capacity of young people this age to act in ways that can make each others' lives a misery. "Bullying" — the use of words or actions to intentionally hurt others — peaks and occurs in epidemic proportions during youngsters' middle school years. Recent multi-school research in the U.S. and abroad found that, during a single school term, three out of four middle school students had been bullied and half of all students had bullied others. In the Kaiser Family Foundation's nationwide survey of youngsters in 2001, 55 percent of eight –11 year olds and 68 percent of 12–15-year-olds reported that bullying is a "big problem" at their school.

At our middle school, the past year has been a time of increased reflection by faculty, staff, and administrators on the ways in which bullying touches our students' lives. What follows is an overview of our current thinking and practice as we strive to understand and address these troublesome behaviors in a way that weaves together our community's wisdom with the lessons of the latest scholarship.

A Societal Change in Understanding and Approach

"Bullying" (also known as "relational aggression") is no longer a term reserved for the most egregious instances of social cruelty. It is an entire continuum — ranging from mild to extreme — of behavior intended to injure another, either physically or emotionally. Whether the meanness occurs repeatedly or only once, directly (to a person) or indirectly (about a person), the most recent literature regards it as bullying.

When many of us were junior high school students, we likely dealt with these trying situations with little adult guidance. In the past, most grown-ups viewed bullying as an unfortunate rite of passage best left for young people to work out on their own. In contrast, social scientists, clinicians, and a growing number of educators now strongly advocate adult involvement. When instances of relational aggression are addressed by school communities, they can be transformed from anxiety-provoking hardships into opportunities to build students' social and emotional intelligence and capacity for responsible citizenship. Furthermore, when students learn better strategies for managing social dilemmas, not only does less bullying take place, but there is also growth in students' overall psychological resilience and well-being. As a result, youngsters have more inner resources to devote to academic tasks.

Toward a More Humane Community

As educators in a Quaker middle school, we have always considered it part of our mission to maintain a supportive learning environment and to nourish students' capacities for moral thinking, compassion, and mutual respect. Practices designed to eliminate words or actions that violate the rights of others and curricula that promote empathy, respect for differences, and nonviolent conflict resolution have been an easy fit for us. Our teachers' most explicit work on these issues has occurred in a variety of contexts including life skills and Quakerism classes; relevant queries during Meetings for Worship; discussions of ethics and justice issues in social studies and literature courses; cooperative learning experiences in all subject areas; facilitation of interpersonal feedback groups; off-campus service projects; and thoughtful individual and small group conversations with faculty, parents, and administrators when disrespectful behavior occurs.

As part of this enduring commitment, in December 2006, we developed an anonymous computer-based survey and administered it to our middle school students to learn more about their experiences with relational aggression. Since studies have found that much of the bullying that occurs among young people goes undetected by teachers and parents, we hoped to understand more fully the nature and extent of such behavior in our students' lives. As we explained to the students at the time, their keen observations and their wisdom — the "expertise" they have developed through living and learning together day in and day out — are essential for adults to hear to be of help. With added insight from the students, we hoped to be able to tailor our bullying prevention and intervention efforts more specifically. Furthermore, we anticipated that the process of answering the survey questions, in and of itself, would have a positive impact: It would raise student consciousness about these troublesome behaviors and open up lines of communication between teachers and students.

When students took the survey, they were given a definition of bullying and its various forms and asked about their experiences while at our middle school — being bullied, witnessing others being bullied, and participating in bullying behavior. They were asked where, when, and what happened; what, if anything, they did to intervene; and whether adults were asked for help. The survey also assessed students' overall feeling of safety at school, the extent to which they view bullying at school as a problem, and their ideas about how best to respond.

Thanks to parents' resounding willingness to permit their sons and daughters to take part in the survey, as well as the faculty's commitment to be as inclusive as possible, we obtained a 99 percent participation rate across all grades (fifth­ through eighth). As we reviewed and analyzed the results, we were struck by students' apparent eagerness to share their struggles, hopes, and opinions on this sensitive topic, and by their diligence in addressing each of the survey questions put before them. This thoughtful, forthcoming response suggested that bullying is of great import in their lives, and that they are ready to trust us to help them with these tough situations. Feeling privileged and equipped by this deeper understanding of our students, we have been inspired to fashion an even more intentional and thorough approach to our work on this issue.

An Overview of Bullying at Our School 

Although our students face less bullying than is reported generally in the research literature, we were humbled by its frequency in our students' lives. While in middle school, two out of three (67 percent) of our students have been bullied in some way at least once, almost all (90 percent) have witnessed some form of bullying, and, by the middle of eighth grade, about half (47 percent) have bullied another student. Moreover, instances of relational aggression are not infrequent. Within the month prior to the survey, one out of every two students (47 percent) had received some form of bullying. As is true of the findings of the most recently published studies, our results challenge the notion that youngsters can be rigidly categorized as bullies, bystanders, or victims. Rather, most of our students have had experiences in all these roles. While it was reassuring to find out that only 14 percent of our students view bullying at school as a "big problem" (as compared with the national average of approximately 61 percent, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation study), our hope is that by being more vigilant and proactive, we will be able to reduce this percentage even further. 

Types of Bullying

Consistent with recent large studies of middle school students in the U.S. and abroad, our survey indicated that most of the "meanness" in our students' lives is embodied in words spoken and heard. Sadly, degrading and hurtful remarks are hurled into the air many of our students breathe: 80 percent reported having witnessed such verbal bullying; 57 percent reported having received it; and 31 percent acknowledged that they themselves have bullied another child with words. 

The second most common forms of bullying reported by our students were physical and emotional bullying. Approximately one third of our students say that they have been physically bullied (e.g., shoved, poked, slapped, kicked, tripped) and one third report that they have been emotionally bullied (e.g., overtly excluded from a lunch table; taunted by the public disclosure of a secret crush; ranked/rated according to perceived characteristics such as "hotness" or "weirdness"). Whereas 9 percent of our fifth graders acknowledged having physically bullied someone at some point during middle school, that fraction doubled by eighth grade. Across all grade levels, twice as many boys as girls reported physically bullying another student. 

We found that the experience of being cyber-bullied is rare in our younger students' lives (affecting only 5 percent of fifth graders) but becomes more common with each grade of middle school (ultimately affecting 21 percent of eighth graders). However, despite all the media attention it has received, only 2–3 percent of our middle school's student body said that they have used cyber channels to bully another person (e.g., sent nasty or threatening text messages or e-mail, or posted disparaging rumors on websites.) Two to three times more girls than boys reported involvement. These differences across age and gender may reflect the finding that girls and adolescents make greater use of the Internet and cell phones for all kinds of communication. 

Finally, of the five forms that bullying can take, sexual bullying was the least common in our middle school. Rates of having received unwanted sexual comments, gestures, or touching range from 1 percent (fifth graders) to 14 percent (eighth graders). Across grades, an average of only 1-2 percent of all of our students state that they have sexually bullied another person. 

Adopting a "Best Practices" Approach

Despite the tendency for bullying to occur at high rates during the middle school years, our teachers and administrators have been energized by the convincing evidence that anti-bullying efforts can be effective. Since our data became available, teachers have been apprised of the current "best practices" for school-based bullying prevention and intervention, and are in the process of weaving together the various strands of such a sustained, multilevel, division-wide approach. Furthermore, in the messages we send to our students, we consistently try to convey the idea that relational aggression is not okay — is not just "kids being kids" — and is worthy of concerted effort towards change. 

Empowering Bystanders to Act

Partnering with Parents

Regardless of the kind of bullying that takes place, our survey revealed that being a "bystander" (rather than bullying or being bullied) is the most frequent way that relational aggression touches our students' lives. This situation is not unique to our school and helps us understand why the most successful anti-bullying programs are those that explicitly acknowledge the dilemmas bystanders face and empower bystanders to take action. With this in mind, it is highly encouraging to us that more than half (58 percent) of our students reported that, when they have seen bullying, they have been able to help stop it. Furthermore, when asked what they had done to lend a hand, our students articulated many sound strategies: telling the person who is bullying to stop; asking a teacher for help; countering the bullying remarks; standing up for the person being bullied; stating that the bullying behavior is not right; and refusing to join in the behavior. Our goal is to increase the number of students who feel empowered to help, and to equip them with a variety of strategies they can call upon in such situations. 

Supervising "Hot Spots" and Embedding Anti-Bullying Themes Throughout the Curricula

Our survey identified that more students (53 percent) feel at risk of being bullied in the hallways than in any other location in our school. Many also named the locker rooms, cafeteria, and playground as places in which they feel susceptible (44 percent, 36 percent, and 35 percent, respectively). Because adult oversight reduces bullying in a particular location, our faculty, administrators, and staff have immediately increased the level of adult supervision in these "hot spots." However, our long-term goal is for students to develop behavioral ethics and competencies that will lead them to treat each other better even in the absence of adults. Therefore, teachers have also been meeting by grade level to coordinate approaches to intervention and to develop concrete, specific plans to expand the presence of anti-bullying lessons and themes across subject areas. 

Recognizing Appropriate and Inappropriate Behavior

Through an increased number of focused discussions and role-plays with our students, we are enhancing clarity and publicity about which behaviors are unacceptable and instituting effective and immediate consequences when infractions occur. We are also working harder to recognize and encourage prosocial alternatives — for example, speaking up in constructive ways about bullying; telling staff what is seen and heard; befriending isolated peers; and demonstrating honesty, accountability, and empathy in the face of one's own interpersonal mistakes and missteps. 

Helping Students Speak Out

One interesting finding revealed in our data is that as our students grow older, their strategies for intervening change. When bullying occurs, our younger students are much more inclined than our older students to involve adults. Multiple studies have found that students' reluctance to tell adults about incidents of bullying they have observed is one of the biggest hurdles schools face in working to improve children's relations with one another. To this end, we are helping students distinguish between "ratting" on a peer (where the goal is to get another in trouble), and "reporting" (where the goal is to protect oneself or others), and we are encouraging the latter. Furthermore, we are trying to create a climate in which taking courageous steps on behalf of oneself or one's peers is rewarded and valued. In other words, we want it not to be just "okay to tell" but "a responsibility to tell." We realize that if we want to encourage older students to keep us informed about their experiences with bullying (as well as other important aspects of their lives), we will need to counter the developmental forces that make it feel harder and less "appropriate" to involve adults. 

While we certainly want to support older students in their efforts to solve and cope with problems more independently, we try to convey to them that speaking out to adults about bullying is not childlike but mature, and a component of the "Concern for Community" that we strive to foster and assess at report card time. Whatever their age, students are informed that all instances of bullying that are brought to the school's attention will be taken seriously and investigated thoughtfully. In our work with those youngsters who come forward, we do what we can to take into account any fear or reluctance they might experience and to protect their confidentiality when needed. 

Understanding Service and Activism as Antidotes to Bullying

Recent scholarship examining relational aggression among girls suggests that young people who are standing together to address societal ills and injustices are less likely to mistreat one another. The theory is that much bullying is, at root, a maladaptive way of coping with larger societal pressures and oppressive expectations and practices. For example, when youngsters police each other's appearance and behavior, they are displacing onto peers their own anxieties and frustrations about navigating the cultural dictates that bombard them, such as unattainable physical ideals and/or narrow definitions of girlhood and boyhood. Therefore, if students can become more aware of the challenges they and others share in contending with these forces, they are able to join together in addressing them, rather than targeting one another. 

Working Towards a Culture Where Kindness is "Cool"

What's the difference between getting to choose your friends and excluding people? Is teasing okay if it's done to fool around? What do I do if I see someone being bullied but I'm scared, too? If I report something I see to a teacher, how do I know it won't make the situation worse? How can I be a part of a group if I don't like doing what the other kids are doing?

 These are some of the fabulous questions that our girls and boys have been raising and grappling with in our recent discussions. We find that most students are eager to reflect upon their own social behavior, relieved to hear that they are not the only ones struggling, grateful for adult guidance, and anxious to learn some ways of taking action safely. 

All in all, the results of our survey have guided us to renew our commitment and refresh our practices as we strive to create a community where all forms of social cruelty are unacceptable. While we are very aware that some young people use repeated instances of bullying to create and maintain social power and status, we know that many of our students feel pulled into mean behavior because their strong desire to "fit in" at a given moment wins out over their deep knowledge that such behavior is unkind. Those schools that take a strong, explicit, and consistent stand against bullying empower children facing these internal dilemmas to choose acts of kindness rather than meanness. When we have created a school culture in which bullying is "uncool" and actions that help to prevent and lessen bullying behaviors are "cool," we will feel our efforts have been successful. 


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Juliet Sternberg

Juliet Sternberg is a clinical and school psychologist who consults at Friends' Central School (Pennsylvania). This article is based on one published in Friend Central School's Forum.