At the beginning of the school year, teachers always try to consider different ways to stop bullying from entering their classroom and derailing instruction. It's a major part of the job, and it should be at the forefront of every educator's mind as the doors open for the first time.
The Importance of Classroom Community
Early in my career, a principal told me that when the school year was first getting started, I should spend more of my time developing a community and stopping potential bullying. "Don't worry about curriculum right now," she said. "Spend meaningful time developing routines, developing systems, and, most importantly, focusing on community-building activities. Then you'll be able to teach anything and deal with the adversity of managing a classroom for the next 10 months!"
I've followed that guidance closely ever since. But what she let me discover for myself was how developing that strong sense of community at the beginning of the year creates an environment where everyone feels safe to be themselves, and those who normally lean toward antagonistic behavior often stop bullying. In fact, I find that bullies turn into bodyguards, and their would-be victims become leaders.
But how do you get there? Here are a few strategies that I like to use to create a safe environment where even potential bullies can become a part of the community.
Develop Class Rules Together
The first thing I like to do is get the students involved in developing our set of class rules. It's been said that those who create the rules are less likely to break them, and allowing the students to participate in governing the classroom empowers them to behave properly.
Be sure everyone is involved in this process. Don't import rules; really let the class guide the development. Then discuss the proposed rules, vote on them, sign them, and agree to follow them. It's a good idea to number them, as well. Finally, post them in your classroom for everyone to see. This creates a more stable environment for handling confrontation. Then it's not just, "I don't like that when you do that." A student can clearly say, "I don't like that when you do that, and you're breaking Rule #7, which is 'Treat others with respect.'" This can stop bullying and empower everyone in class.
Even the Playing Field
Creating an atmosphere of vulnerability in the class is a great way to turn everyone into a potential expert, friend, or role model. I like to have students anonymously write down three things that worry them about school the most. I collect these worries and post them on the classroom walls. Then we take a "gallery walk" (a silent walk) around and read all of them.
Afterward, students are asked to choose from among their classmates' notes and think of advice they could give. We sit in a circle and go around, discussing how we can help each other. Fears are kept anonymous unless the person decides to speak up. The need to feel safe in this activity is incredibly important to students, so teasing is not permitted. If someone breaks the trust, they must leave the circle for a few minutes.
I'm always surprised by this activity. The creative ideas students come up with to help each other are often beyond my imagination and expectations. One student wrote he was afraid he was going to be bullied because of his size—he was very small for the grade level—and had in fact been bullied in the past by someone in the class. Of all people, the former bully spoke up and apologized. He said he'd teased and bullied the smaller student because he always felt that he wasn't as good a student as he was. Everyone, including myself, was shocked. This stopped classroom bullying quickly. Two weeks later, the former bully was protecting his former target on the playground.
Break Out the Books
I like to use literature as a means to expose behavior that most students know won't end well. One book that's good for younger kids is "How To Lose All Your Friends" by Nancy Carlson—it shows all the mean things a person can do to end up alone with no friends. After we read the book, we brainstorm ways to sabotage the classroom community. We list how to be mean to someone and write them down for all to see. When you read the list as a class, everyone laughs, but they also realize that these are behaviors to be aware of in others and in themselves.
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It's not easy to stop bullying. It takes place in ways we often can't imagine. But when you develop a classroom community and ensure your students have the tools to maintain a safe space, you're doing your part to bring bullying to an end.