The 90 Other People
This post was written by a school social worker I worked with. I asked her to explain the thoughts behind an incredibly effective and inspiring program she implemented to stop bullying.
Last year, I worked in a school for the first time. I’ve been a helping professional for more than ten years, but this was the first time that I worked with children in the context of their peer group — perhaps the biggest, scariest, most mercurial force for change known to humankind.
It was also the first time I got bullied by a ten year old. In front of other ten year olds. Except, I was 30 and not ten. I was embarrassed, paralyzed, angry, shocked and totally complicit. The bullying worked. I was also complicit when I saw kids getting bullied. I usually let it happen, or pretended not to notice. Until the 5th grade team, led by your beloved blogger, asked me to do something. I was, after all, the school social worker.
I poked around a couple of websites and did some thinking about the larger social forces in our kids’ neighborhoods — gangs, “snitching”, the “innocent” bystanders. I came up with an 8 week program to address the four things on which bullying thrives – secrecy, a sense of identity, isolation and anger. It’s not evidenced-based or even scientific, but it helped us.
The vast majority of our bullying was done in secret, unknown to anyone but the bully and the bullied. In our program, every week, 90 kids filled out an anonymous survey asking them to identify the person who bullied the most that week. The three kids with the biggest bullying problem were announced the next day and invited to have lunch with the social worker, if they wanted to. They all wrote a “Bullying Speech”, if they wanted to, which explained why they bullied and what we could do to help them, which they could then read to 90 children — but only if they wanted to. They weren’t being punished, so nothing was required, but kids with a bullying problem were going to be called out in front of 90 kids and 4 teachers — and then offered some help.
Everybody knows who the bully is and kids who are labeled as bullies are often proud of their skills. But bullying is a behavior, not an identity. During our bully education moments, we made it clear that everyone in the room has been both the bully and the bullied, even the teachers. At the beginning of the program, we actually had every single kid complete a bullying speech to demonstrate the point that each and everyone of us has used intimidation in some way. We also used behavior-specific language, not identity-specific language. The biggest testament to this concept was Week 4 of the program, when a kid identified as having a problem during Week 1, 2, and 3 didn’t make it into the top 3 list of kids with bullying problems. “Bullies” are made, not born. And they can be unmade, too.
Kids who bully usually have other problems that keep them feeling lonely or different. The same is true for kids who get bullied. But our program celebrated, trained and empowered the third player in the bullying drama — the witness. The weekly survey also asked kids to name someone who did something to stop bullying that week. Those three kids were also invited to lunch — the same lunch as the kids who bullied. With the lunch, we hoped to relieve victim’s social isolation by empowering their classmates to help them. We hoped to relieve the social isolation of the kids who bullied by giving them some time with kids who knew how to use their leadership skills to help instead of hurt. (Kids who bully are often natural leaders, if they can find the right cause.) And we relieved the isolation of the kids who can defend themselves and each other by letting them know that the teachers and their classmates really appreciated them. That, in fact, they were the most important part of the equation.
Everyone in the bullying equation is usually angry — or scared. The bullies, the bullied and the witnesses all feel like crap the whole time bullying is happening. Our program emphasized fun. We read children’s books about bullying, we created a grade-wide competition for kids to create a dance to be called the “Bully Bump”, we used special, silly language for our courageous defenders “Bully Bumpers”, we called them, we set kids up with props and asked them to make up skits showing the best ways to help someone who was bullying.
This year, my partner implemented the program in her school to good effect. She said that her favorite part of the program was hearing the kids’ voices through the surveys and seeing the measurable differences pre and post intervention. In the end, the most profound aspect of it for me was teaching the kids how to change their own community. Truly, it’s not the teacher that can help, it’s not the kid who takes the lunch money and its not the kid who goes without lunch, it’s the 90 other people watching it happen that can make a difference.