Bullying behaviors

As kids return to the classroom, help them face bullying.
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Bullying, once thought of as simply playground hijinks, goes far beyond just taunts and shoving. Illustration by James Heimer

“Why do you have that weird stuff in your lunch?”

“You’re too slow for my team.”

Group text: “Jane looks so fat in that dress.”

“I need that report tomorrow, so you’ll stay and finish it tonight.”

Bullying, once thought of as simply playground hijinks, goes far beyond just taunts and shoving. As anyone who has been bullied knows, the effects can last a lifetime.

Bosses, colleagues, hyper moms, spouses, significant others, parents and children can use bullying behavior to get what they want. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Education define bullying as having three core elements: unwanted aggressive behavior, power imbalance and repetitive bullying behaviors (stopbullying.gov/resources/facts). Their research also says that about 20% of students ages 12-18 experienced bullying and, nationwide, 19% of students in grades 9-12 experienced being bullied on school property. Of those ages 12-18 who reported bullying, 15% were bullied online or in texts.

Tom Thelen, CEO of Reset Schools, experienced bullying as a child. “I was short, had allergies, had asthma and wasn’t an athlete,” he said. He now consults with and has spoken at more than 800 schools across North America on the topic of bullying.

Thelen, who lived in Grand Rapids before a recent move to Florida, admits to being appalled by CDC numbers that say bullying peaks around sixth grade with bullied kids saying it happens three or four times a month.

“Those are shocking numbers,” he said, adding that cyberbullying makes up 10% to 13% of bullying, a number still below that of physical, verbal and social bullying. He also says that number doesn’t decline as kids get older.

“You can be cyberbullied from halfway around the world. It’s easier to get away with, but also, it’s easier for the device to be tracked,” he said. “I encourage kids to report cyberbullying. Take a screenshot and report it. If it becomes violent or sexual, report it to the police.”

Jamal Fisher, director of behavioral health and social emotional learning at Grand Rapids Public Schools, speaks about the mental health aspects of bullying.

“Students definitely talk more and have more dialogue about their feelings. We are helping students put names to those feelings, and they are more likely to seek help when in distress.”
Jamal Fisher

“Bullying itself is not a mental health issue, but bullying can be the result of a mental health issue,” he said. “I like to start with the idea that hurt people hurt people.”

He says bullying happens at all ages and grades with younger children not having the same level of assertiveness as older children. Bullying isn’t as sophisticated, more a form of teasing. Adults step in “if one student is always getting picked on or teased, or a group, in particular, is doing the teasing.”

Middle school, Fisher said, is the most difficult time for bullying, in part, because children are going through so many biological changes. There can be huge disparities physically, with some students looking elementary age and some like high schoolers.

“In high school, bullying is more sophisticated with not so much physical aggression as middle school. It’s a lot more talk, starting rumors and through social media,” Fisher said. “It’s more covert and teachers might be a lot less likely to know about it.”

School should be a safe place with teachers and staff going out of their way to acknowledge and correct bullying behaviors. “But we don’t own their phones and can’t control Facebook and Instagram. We can control and say no to devices, but is that always appropriate?” Fisher asked. “Phones are used for internet access and for Zoom calls with teachers, as well as phones can be related to safety issues.”

GRPS and other school districts across the area are looking for solutions. One is to help kids understand bullying so they can easily identify when it’s happening to them or others. Children also are encouraged to find a trusted adult to report bullying, as well as to get away from the bullies by finding an adult or finding other children who don’t act that way.

“I believe nationally and locally we have a lot of good things going on, including the be nice. initiative in our area,” Fisher said. “We also have a lot more open communication with people having more candid conversations about mental health and their feelings. Students definitely talk more and have more dialogue about their feelings. We are helping students put names to those feelings, and they are more likely to seek help when in distress.

“Prevention is key,” said Fisher, pointing to the website stopbullying.gov as a key resource. “We are helping kids understand bullying but, also specifically, educating parents on bullying.”

Put an end to bullying

Tom Thelen Courtesy Tom Thelen

Tom Thelen, founder of Reset Schools and author of “VictimProof: The Student’s Guide to End Bullying” and “Mental Health 101 for Teens: The Practical Guide to Mental Health, Self-Esteem, & Emotional Intelligence,” suggests several prevention strategies. Also check out his website at tomthelen.com.

1. Model self-control. “The less reactive we are as adults, the more our kids will learn they too can stay under control when getting free from physical bullying,” Thelen said.

2. Help children learn to walk away, to not let bullies see a reaction and then report to parents and educators. They can follow up to make sure the bullying is snuffed out.

3. Learn (and teach) resilience. An object can be moved out of shape yet bounce back to its original shape. So also, with children. “When children remember who they are, they can choose to be less reactive, which takes the fun out of it for the person looking for a reaction,” Thelen said.

4. Encourage children and teachers not to be bystanders, instead stepping in to help stop bullying. “About 90% of students say they wish teachers would step in when they see or hear bullying,” Thelen said. “The more proactive they are, the sooner they can spot bullying going on.”

This story can be found in the September/October 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here

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