October is National Bullying Prevention Month. A month dedicated to not only help prevent bullying, but also raise awareness about bullying and promote kindness and inclusion. Studies have reported that at least 20% of students ages 12-18 experience bullying nationwide and affects not only those are bullied, but also those who witness it. Bullying can happen in many different settings, but one common setting is within places of education.

To discuss the bullying that occurs in schools further, we have Jason Coleman, who works at the Mental Health Association in Delaware as a Community Educator. However, he has previously worked as a school counselor and is here to offer his personal and professional insight on the topic.

1. What are some behaviors that are generally associated or can be defined as bullying?

Well the general definition is that bullying is any intention behavior that may make another student feel unsafe, cause physical or emotional harm and or create an unsafe or hostile school environment for them. While a lot of people look at persistent behavior it does not take repeated incidents to qualify as bullying. It could also be due to the power difference between the students. As times have changed this has encompassed cyberbullying which is very prevalent and often the source of a lot of in school problems between students.

2. How does bullying impact students’ health (both their physical and mental well-being)?

It (bullying) can have a great deal of impact on students and particularly when you look at cyberbullying because it is not confined to the time boundaries and location of the school.  Essentially there is no escaping it and can happen at any time of the day or night, on weekends and holidays, etc. There is a natural physical impact from the stress of bullying and it can range from problems sleeping, eating, exacerbating issues of depression and or anxiety and a host of other things. 

3. Do you think the pandemic has had a positive or negative effect on bullying? Why or why not?

My guess is that many students while experiencing the loss of connections and close friendships due to social isolation, have also been having a degree of relief from some of the interpersonal issues that happen in schools. At least when cyberbullying is involved there is an opportunity to disconnect from and block unhealthy peers. Although sometimes students are unwilling to do this and it doesn’t stop the other person from bullying them.

4. What should you do if a student tells you that they are being bullied? What should do you do as a parent/guardian if you find your child is bullying?

First, try to listen to them and understand what they are experiencing. Sometimes it can be easy for adults who are not in the situation to think logically or be dismissive to the situations that kids may find to be overwhelming because they have some perspective and power that the student doesn’t have. Parents should reach out to school counselors and administrators about what they are doing from a school perspective to address the problem behaviors. There may also be an official investigation form that schools may need to submit to the Department of Education or DOE with some specific guidelines they will need to adhere to and follow up with. Also, parents should understand that changing the situation may not resolve what their child is feeling, so continuing to monitor and be supportive will be very important.

For parents of children who are engaging in negative behaviors it will be important to look at and investigate what needs the child is trying to fulfill by the behaviors. Some kids are looking for values from other peers who are also engaging the same behaviors, some may be overcompensating for insecurities or a number of other unseen issues. Typically, all behaviors have some type of a goal or purpose to the individual even if it is not something they have thought about in a concrete way. 

Some avenues to explore may include a mentoring program, if available, or some other type of positive peer group activity or interaction to have them partake in. When we think of negative behaviors it can be more productive to try to replace them rather than simply eliminate them. 

5. Why is it important for a student to advocate for themselves in these situations and how would you encourage them to do so? What if a student doesn’t have the tools at their disposal?

While self advocation is important in many regards and situations, it may not be a skill that students have developed or rely upon regularly. Furthermore, if students have had prior negative experience relying upon teachers or caregivers they may be less likely to want to talk to them or view their interventions as something that will be helpful in the long run. Teachers, parents, and caregivers should remember that being consistent and following through with their “help” are important components of actually being helpful.

If schools want students to self-advocate more often they are responsible with creating a school culture that encourages it and a system by which to do this. Counselors should be easy to access and teachers/staff have to be aware of problematic behaviors and have a standard to hold students to. Dismissing behaviors as “typical kid stuff” does not help the students impacted or allow the ones engaging in the behaviors to grow and learn either.

6. How do you start a conversation with a student about bullying? With a parent/guardian?

Focusing on feelings and also looking at changes in behavior, academic performance, interest in school can be helpful. Most importantly parents have to follow their instincts and be persistent if they are concerned that something is wrong or that their child is going through something.  Making all the decisions about what will happen with the school or situation may not give the student a sense regaining power or control that can be stripped from them from experiencing the bullying behavior. For example, sometimes parents or teachers may try to call a meeting and put the children together to talk about the issue and that might not feel safe or be helpful to the child experiencing the bullying. 

When talking with parents/guardians I think schools need to be committed to finding a solution and doing what they need to recreate a safe environment for a student who is experiencing bullying. Being transparent helps and so does not proposing solutions that they can’t follow through on.

Bullying is a very serious and prominent issue-in the workplace, in schools, and often, through social media applications. It’s important to listen, be aware, and speak up for others when you may suspect bullying. Providing your child with a safe place to learn is worth it.  

For more information on how to address and raise awareness about bullying, visit stopbullying.gov

Jason L. Coleman, M.Ed, is a Community Educator who partners with various organizations and entities on behalf of the Mental Health Association in Delaware to raise awareness around mental health concerns, knowledge of resources, and to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health.