When 17-year-old Tyrone Smith walked into Waukesha South High School last month with a pellet gun, he was on a mission. While we can’t know for certain if he intended to actually use the weapon, since he was shot by a school resource officer shortly after pointing it at another student, we do know that there was pain behind this action.
According to criminal charges filed shortly after the incident, Smith told investigators that “he wanted to scare students who had picked on him — or might pick on him in the future — and that ‘other kids would hear about this and be scared.'”
Smith’s experience with bullying is anything but an isolated event. As PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center explains, more than one out of every five students reports being bullied.
What Is Bullying?
The federal government defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.”
This behavior can be broken down into roughly three categories:
#1 Verbal Bullying
- Inappropriate sexual comments
- Threatening to cause harm
#2 Social Bullying
- Leaving someone out on purpose
- Telling other children not to be friends with someone
- Spreading rumors about someone
- Embarrassing someone in public
#3 Physical Bullying
- Taking or breaking someone’s things
- Making mean or rude hand gestures
And as StopBullying.gov also points out, these behaviors can significantly harm both the aggressors and the victims over time.
There’s also an extremely fine line between the two, as Smith’s story highlights. Research strongly suggests that bullies are made from previous victimization. A 2004 study by the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education found that nearly three-quarters of school shooters had been the victims of some sort of harassment at school.
Managing Outcomes by Managing Students’ Social and Emotional Health
Victims of bullying often suffer a variety of mental health effects, ranging from depression and anxiety all the way to antisocial behavior, which can, under certain circumstances, lead to violence.
The key to understanding this jump from pain to anger and ultimately violence, the researchers explain, is understanding the emotional response young people can have to such treatment at the hands of their peers — a reaction that is particularly pronounced when students have struggled in other areas of their lives as well.
Tracy Evian Waasdorp is one of these experts. Co-author of “Preventing Bullying in Schools: A Social and Emotional Learning Approach to Prevention and Early Intervention,” she recently gave a webinar presentation for the National Institute of Justice highlighting her promising work in the field.
With her colleagues Elise Pas and Catherine Bradshaw, Waasdorp has designed and begun implementing what the team calls the Bullying Classroom Check-Up (BCCU) (review and download an overview of the program below).
What makes this approach so revolutionary is that it breaks with most other evidence-based bullying intervention models to focus on teacher behavior rather than that of students.
In her presentation, Waasdorp explained that most teachers she spoke with described a lack of time to effectively respond to behavior perceived as bullying. In general, she said, they see behavioral disruptions in class as exactly that — disruptions that simply need to be stopped so they can get back to the task of teaching.
This is when schools often turn to traditional disciplinary approaches to eradicate problem behavior.
But this technique, she explains, not only doesn’t stop the bullying from occurring, it can also make it worse.
“Nonresponse, delayed response. or ineffective response worsens the situation,” Waasdorp said, because it makes students think that “teachers don’t care.”
It can also be difficult for teachers to immediately discern the culprit. “Children are reactive,” Waasdorf said. “The one hurt may seem like the aggressor.”
And this lack of compassion from the adult in the room can make an already struggling victim feel that much more isolated.
Marginalized kids don’t have anchors at school,” psychologist John Van Dreal said in a recent interview with NPR. “They don’t have any adult connection — no one watching out for them. Or no one knows who they are anymore.”
It’s All About Relationships
Waasdorp described the realization that she should be focusing her research on supporting the emotional health of victims as an “aha moment.” And the best way to do that, she found, was through building meaningful teacher-student relationships and reinforcing positive social interactions in the classroom.
This is where the BCCU comes in.
Building upon the Classroom CheckUp coaching model for improving teacher responses in the classroom, the BCCU has teachers not only complete trainings via the TeachLivE mixed-reality simulator in detecting and effectively managing harmful student behavior, but it also pairs these teachers with coaches that can give immediate feedback on their progress.
And the results seem to speak for themselves:
- Coached teachers were more likely to recognize that adults at school weren’t doing enough about bullying.
- After training, teachers were more likely to refer students to counselors as well as intervene on behalf of the victim.
- Statistical trends suggest that coached teachers were more likely to be able to detect the various types of bullying in their classrooms. Teachers reported witnessing more bullying behaviors in the
absence of any observed increases in student aggression levels.
- And perhaps best of all, given how precious time is for often overburdened teachers, the training only took about four hours to complete.
Learn more about the Bullying Classroom Check-Up:
Learn about funding opportunities for bullying prevention programs in our previous coverage: