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Help! How can I address bullying that might be happening online among my students?

Dear Ask a Montessorian, I teach Upper Elementary and in my smallish group, I believe there may be some ‘behind the scenes’ bullying happening on social media.  I’m aware that all or most of these students have social accounts, and even though I’ve addressed this topic with them and their parents as a beginning of the year discussion, the way some students are responding to each other in class and certain cliques that seem to be forming has me wondering.  What can I do about this, especially with one particular student who I feel may be a bullying victim more than any of the others?

Dear E-II Teacher, your sensitive observation of the children identifies an unfortunately common problem.  We find bullying in classrooms, workplaces, domestic relationships, and, as you noted, on social media.  There is no simple solution for this complex problem. But there are things that we can do, beginning with understanding why bullying is so prevalent.  

Understanding Bullying.It is a basic human need to feel valued.  Seeking acceptance can be complicated. Some people secretly fear that they are not enough; they believe that in order to be valued they must build themselves up.  Unfortunately, some discover that if they can’t elevate themselves, pushing others down has the same effect. They target the fragile to provoke a response so that they can feel powerful.  Therein lies the irony. Bullying, with the outward appearance of power and dominance, is rooted in insecurity and fear.   

This is why consequences generally have little effect on bullies’ behavior.  Punishments reinforce bullies’ self-image of being not enough, making them more likely to bully again but this time more covertly, using body language or social media.  Their bullying becomes harder to detect.

The good news is that we can impact this problem using a 4-pronged approach, beginning with building an empathetic community.  

Teaching Empathy.  The ability to understand and share the feelings of others is not inborn.  Empathy is learned through experience. As guides, we provide these learning experiences when we:

  • use empathy in conflict resolution and problem solving.  Children naturally consider how a situation affects them personally but they can see problems from others’ perspectives when prompted.
  • give Grace and Courtesy lessons on how we impact others’ feelings.  For example, illustrate the lasting effect of hurtful words by aggressively crumpling a paper and then trying to flatten it back out afterwards.  Apologies do not remove the scars of hurtful words. For more on this demonstration, click here.   
  • incorporate empathy into literature discussions.  When we connect a character’s feelings to our own, we develop empathy for the character.

The more practice children have with putting themselves temporarily in others’ shoes, the stronger their empathy muscle becomes.  As that muscle strengthens, children can progress beyond merely understanding others feelings to taking responsibility for impacting them. 

Understanding Cause-and-Effect.  The Hierarchy of Human Interactions provides a powerful vocabulary for discussing our daily treatment of one another.

 The Hierarchy of Human Interactions

  • Gallantry – acting without thought of oneself – the good of the other matters most
  • Chivalry – considering the cost but doing it anyway
  • Courteousness – going out of the way to be nice but with no cost to oneself
  • Politeness – automatic niceness, no thought included
  • Civility – neither positive nor negative
  • Toleration – putting up with someone just to get through the situation
  • Shunning – excluding
  • Rudeness  – offensively impolite or unkind
  • Abuse – purposefully, repeatedly hurtful

These interactions are defined by intent.  Civility has a neutral intent.  Interactions above civility on the hierarchy have positive intent – what we want for all of our interactions.  Bullying, interactions that fall below civility, have negative intent. We want children to understand 3 things about bottom-half interactions:

  • The goal is to elevate oneself the only way they know how.
  • Bullying makes the bully feel powerful temporarily.  
  • After the “high” wears off, the bully feels worse than before; they will bully again.

Hierarchy vocabulary can be used in conflict resolution discussions. “I intended to be polite, but I hear that you felt excluded.”  It can also be used to teach children to elevate themselves and others through positive interactions, which helps short-circuit the bullying cycle.

For more ideas about implementing The Hierarchy of Human Interactions in the classroom, see here.  

The Anti-Venom.  Even if we eliminate bullying in our classrooms, we cannot eradicate it in life.  Do you know anyone who has never been bullied?  Arming children with effective ways to respond means that, while they may be a target, they need not be a victim!  

When bullied, our inclination is to choose between out-bullying the bully and slinking away. Both responses feed the bully!  More effective responses end the event quickly without giving the bully power. Consider these potential responses to verbal or on-line bullying:

  • “You are so stupid.”  🡪 “You are so tall.”  OR “We all have a role to play!”  
  • “Everyone is invited but you.” 🡪 “Finally! Some me-time!”
  • “You are un-cool.”  🡪 “So was Einstein!” OR  “You know, you might be right!”
  •  “You have no friends.”  🡪  “Funny… I don’t feel that way.”

When a target delivers a message like this in a positive tone of voice and then walks away, the bully doesn’t feel power over the target; bullying is less likely to reoccur.  For more on non-complementary behavior, see https://qz.com/736618/researchers-have-found-that-one-of-the-most-powerful-tools-to-diffuse-hate-is-also-the-hardest-to-master-genuine-empathy/ 

Safe Reporting.  Whether bullying is prevalent in the classroom or not, it is important that children have a safe place to report negative interactions.  Children need to know that it is ok to need help to solve a problem, and that adults who love children want to keep them safe. Activities outlined above open the door for children to report being targeted.  Journaling gives children a more private means of alerting caring adults of the need for help, especially with prompts asking about “butterflies and boulders” in their lives or relationships.

Parents can also provide a safe haven.  To be effective, they need to know that it is normal for elementary-age children to experiment with social norms.  A child who seems fine at home may be experimenting with negative interactions in sports or may be the target of bullying on-line; monitoring children’s social relationships (including texts and social media accounts) is important.   

When we help children understand the goals of bullying, give them tools to defend themselves and others, and give them ways to ask for help when needed, we build skills that they will use for a lifetime.  

“Peace is what every human being is craving for, and it can be brought about by humanity through the child.” –Dr. Maria Montessori

Betsy Lockhart has been a Montessori educator for 24 years.  She is certified 6-12 and is an elementary instructor at Montessori Education Center of the Rockies in Boulder, CO.  She is a frequent contributor at national and regional Montessori conferences and at Montessori schools. Follow her weekly blogs at www.lockhart-learning.com.