Interrupting the Cycle of Bullying and Victimization in the Elementary Classroom

Article excerpt

When a group of elementary school teachers decided to pay more attention to bullying in their school, it clearly had an impact on the problem. But beyond that, as Ms. Siris and Ms. Osterman report, the teachers' increased awareness of their students' needs translated into a better learning environment overall.

BULLYING may be viewed as an inevitable part of growing up, but it is hurtful and debilitating for the victims. Many eventually escape with only painful memories; for some, however, the repeated slights, harassment, rejection, and sense of isolation lead to violence -- against themselves or others. Here's how one fourth-grader expressed the feeling of frustration:

I feel I always get picked on at school. I don't get included at all. People tell me I am going to hell. I get called carrot top, loser, mentally retarded. I get so mad. I tell, and no one believes me. I cry, and still no one believes me. Sometimes I really want to kill myself.

While educators may hold the key to preventing and controlling bullying in the school, too often the daily incidents are ignored and overlooked.1 The teachers at

W. F. Boardman Elementary School in Oceanside, New York, however, decided to see if they could make a difference.

Following a districtwide workshop alerting teachers to the problem of bullying, a small group of Boardman teachers volunteered to participate in an action research project led by their principal.2 As the first step, each teacher identified one student in his or her class who was a target of bullying by other students. The goal for the subsequent 10 weeks was to develop and implement an action plan designed to reduce the incidence of bullying and victimization.

Framing the Problem

The victims of bullying, while equally likely to be boys or girls, differ from their peers in noticeable ways. Whether because of differences in their clothing, ethnic origin, appearance, or behavior, some students stand out and become vulnerable to bullying. These students are lonely and often insecure. When attacked, some withdraw, while others -- "provocative" victims -- react in kind. Such victims may tease and annoy their persecutors and not know when to stop. Their reactions to the initial bullying further alienate the victims from their peers and from their teachers.

The students who were selected for this study -- first- through sixth- grade boys and girls representing the full spectrum of academic ability -- shared many of the characteristics just noted. Some stood out because of their clothes; some were newly arrived immigrants with limited English skills; some kept to themselves and were easily upset; and some were bossy and would "egg" others on, tattle, and otherwise annoy their classmates.

While these kinds of behavioral problems are often attributed to deficits in the student or the family, this study focused on the effect that the classroom environment has on such students. The study examined whether changes in the classroom environment could address the students' unmet psychological needs. Children, like adults, have three basic psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and a sense of belonging. When these needs are met in the classroom, students are more likely to be engaged socially and academically.3

Students in classrooms that provide for these needs have positive and supportive relationships with teachers and peers, and they enjoy school. In contrast, when these psychological needs are not met -- when students are not successful, feel powerless, or feel they are not cared for -- they disengage. School is no longer a positive experience, and they react by becoming withdrawn or aggressive.

Feeling rejected, in particular, has important social and academic consequences.4 Students who feel like outcasts become more detached from adults and peers. Such students have poor attitudes about themselves and others, their relationships with others are unsuccessful, and they begin to reject classroom norms. …