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Preventing Bullying: Why Classroom Interactions Matter

26 Nov 2019 by Mary-Margaret Gardiner

Throughout October, we saw a number of excellent posts from educators about National Bullying Prevention Month. While people tend to think of bullying as something that happens exclusively with older children, StopBullying.gov points out that peer aggression happens among children as young as 12 months. Across early childhood and K-12 alike, it’s important for educators to take bullying seriously to keep students safe. How can we do this in a CLASSy way?

At first glance, bullying looks like an extreme form of misbehavior - and it is! Beyond that, though, it shows that a student has an unmet need. That’s why effective strategies to counteract it in the classroom should come from a place of empathy, understanding, and proactive action, rather than punishment. 

Let’s dig in to some CLASS-aligned ideas about stopping bullying behavior in your classroom.

The Importance of Relationships

The teacher sets the tone for the way peers interact with one another in the classroom. This happens both explicitly, through directly telling students what is expected, and implicitly, by modeling expected behaviors. These kinds of interactions show up in the CLASS dimensions of Positive Climate and Negative Climate. 

If you’re unfamiliar with CLASS, Positive Climate is “the emotional connection between the teacher and students and among students” and Negative Climate is the “expressed negativity in the classroom.”

The CLASS lens values behaviors like modeling respectful interactions, building and acting upon relationships, and minimizing peer conflict because they show students that the classroom is a safe place with a caring adult and peer group. Setting expectations for respect and warmth between students can immediately show students that bullying behavior won’t be tolerated - and if something happens to a student, you’ll be there for them.

3 anti-bullying practices aligned with Positive Climate

1. Celebrate acts of kindness

For example, one teacher we observed called out positive behavior when they saw it in the classroom. Students “caught being kind” added a pom-pom to a bucket. The whole class knew that a filled bucket meant a class-wide celebration.

2. Model respect

This goes beyond teaching young children “please” and “thank you.” Show students how you behave when you make a mistake by acknowledging it and genuinely apologizing when the situation calls for it. 

3. Build in opportunities for kindness

We’ve seen pre-K and kindergarten teachers use transitions to have students get to know peers. Try having students give a compliment to a peer as they leave circle time, or find a partner for an activity based on something they have in common (such as number of siblings, birthday month, or favorite animal). Short, simple games can build up peer relationships.

Building Our Awareness

We can look to the dimension of Teacher Sensitivity (which looks at teachers’ awareness and responsiveness to students’ academic and emotional needs) for ways to prevent bullying. Practices aligned with Teacher Sensitivity help teachers stay on top of potential negative behaviors, notice them effectively, and respond promptly and appropriately when situations like bullying do occur.

3 anti-bullying practices aligned with Teacher Sensitivity

1. Talk through your emotions

Teachers constantly monitor students’ emotional, behavioral, and academic states. But students aren’t the only ones in the classroom! Cultivate awareness of your own feelings and acknowledge them in front of students. Showing students the appropriate ways you manage your emotions can help them learn to manage their own. Make the connections between your feelings and theirs explicit: “I see that you’re frustrated. It’s hard when you don’t know how to solve a problem! When I feel that way, I take a biiiiig, deeeeep breath to help me think. Can you try that?”

2. Keep up with less-challenging students

Some days, you only have the energy to deal with your “high flyers,” or students who are more direct about needing attention or help. However, make it a point to check in on students who aren’t as vocal. You’ll be quicker to notice if something is wrong - whether they’re having a bad day, struggling socially, or being bullied.

3. Shift your focus to meeting needs

Despite how it might feel at times, students who are tough on others rarely do it just to be mean. Rather than focusing on the negative behavior, try to understand what need isn’t met or what skill is missing. Is the bully trying to gain your attention? Their peers’ attention? Do they know how to ask for help? Are they trying to hide confusion? What patterns do you see, and how can you meet their underlying need while also addressing the behavior? The ABC framework can also help you think through behaviors like the ones above.

Think about the bullied student as well - how can you support them after they have been victimized? What can you say to acknowledge how they are feeling and let them know that it's not their fault?  

Creating a Community

In a classroom community, every student and teacher is an important, contributing member. Community members take care of their shared space and one another. Giving students meaningful opportunities to contribute - and view each other as equals - align with the CLASS dimension of Regard for Student (or Adolescent) Perspectives

Regard for Student Perspectives looks at the extent to which teachers emphasize students’ ideas and preferences and provide opportunities for students to make choices and take responsibility. 

3 anti-bullying practices aligned with Regard for Student Perspectives

1. Give everyone a role

Students want to help maintain their learning space. In pre-K, students can hold doors, turn on lights, or help lead lessons. Older students can help care for classroom pets, check that all of the computers are charging at the end of the day, or keep track of classroom supplies. Let students choose their jobs, and encourage them to suggest new ones when they see a classroom need: “All of the headphone cords are tangled together. How could we keep this from happening in the future? Who could check to make sure they’re wrapped up?” When the classroom is a shared responsibility, each student is an important part of the community . 

2. Let students make the rules

Most schools or centers have shared building rules or expectations. These are an important starting point, but they often explain what not to do, rather than how students should behave. Ask students what norms they want to set - how should students interact with one another and with you? Let students dictate realistic expectations for themselves and refer back to them throughout the school year.

3. Schedule class wide check-ins

Give students periodic opportunities to reflect on and discuss the classroom environment. In pre-K, this could be a conversation during circle time. With older students, it may make more sense to ask for responses as a quick exit ticket or longer writing assignment. Ask questions such as, “What problems do you see in our classroom?,” “Who are your friends?,” or “If you were in charge of our school, what is one change you would make?” Look for patterns across their responses and bring concerns to the whole group.  

Proactivity to Limit Reactivity

What do these ideas have in common? All of them are proactive strategies we use to develop relationships with students, recognize and validate their needs, and foster community. In CLASS terms, these strategies to prevent bullying are all about Emotional Support. The more time and effort teachers spend building relationships, learning about individual children, and developing their classroom community, the less likely they are to see negative behaviors like bullying. 

Even in a highly effective classroom, challenging behaviors still happen. We love the resources available from CSEFEL for younger children, CASEL for older children and, of course, the curricula from the National Bullying Prevention Center for elementary, middle, and high school students. Just like CLASS, these organizations recognize that interactions are important in how we keep students safe and help them learn.

If you’re a teacher or school leader, you know how vital classroom climate is and the importance of day-to-day classroom interactions in developing it. Learn more here about how CLASS, an evidence-based observation tool, can help teachers and schools focus on these interactions, improve their practice, and help students grow.

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