Are Schools Just Reacting to Bullying Instead of Preventing It?

In this op-ed, first-grade teacher Courtney Fox shares why schools should focus more attention on teaching kids compassion.

Will just punishing kids make the bullying stop? Not according to this elementary school teacher. (Photo: SW Productions)

is a first grade teacher and was the 2008 Delaware Teacher of the Year.

In her book How to Bullyproof your Classroom, Caltha Crowe reminds us “the problem of bullying is actually the challenge of kindness.” 

When I first read this quote in Caltha’s book, it really struck me. We are doing so much work to address bullying, but in reality we should also be teaching kindness, empathy, understanding, and all the other values that children need to learn to get along and prevent bullying.

Are we focusing so much energy on reacting that we don’t have the time or energy to do the proactive work of teaching children how to treat each other?

Caltha goes on to share her insights into how children are exposed to a culture of meanness through the media and it is this culture that is showing them how to behave in our world. As teachers, we have the power to move children past this and help change the climate in our schools.

Caltha makes this point so clearly in her book: “You can create a climate where children gain social recognition for their courage and their kindness, rather than their cruelty and misuse of power.”  I, too, believe that creating a climate based on kindness and respect can help us greatly minimize the problem of bullying in our schools. 

So how do we create a school climate where benevolence and inclusion are the core values that everyone lives by? It all starts with community—the classroom community, the adult community at school, and the entire school community. It’s vital that we as adults send the message to every child in our school that they are an important member of the school community, that they have something valuable to offer, and that they are missed when they are not there.

Fulfilling one of every child’s basic needs—to feel a sense of belonging—in positive ways will help minimize the negative ways children use to seek out attention from others. 

In our school, we make sure that kindness is present in all areas. We teach manners in the cafeteria, we role-play how to help others on the playground, we learn how to greet people as we pass them in the hallway, and we focus our lessons around our school rules, especially this one: “We take care of each other.” 

This notion of caring for others becomes a part of many conversations. For example, “How do we take care of others at recess?” For young children, their first responses usually tend to be about helping when someone gets hurt. For example, when I ask how to take care of someone on the playground, children often reply, “If someone falls down, you help them up.” But, teaching kindness goes much deeper than this. It isn’t solely about what we do after there is a problem. Rather, it is about thinking of others in a new way. Kindness is:

  • Including someone—before they have a chance to be left out
  • Learning to appreciate differences—instead of teasing someone for having something different
  • Thinking of ways to make people feel good—rather than using hurtful words to gain attention from others 

When children learn these basic skills, they naturally tend to include others more. Because we know that children may bully due to their desire for attention or in reaction to being left out, spending time teaching kindness will lead to greater inclusion, which in turn will decrease bullying behaviors in our schools. 

Even when we proactively teach compassion, bullying may never go away completely, for various reasons. But, giving children pro-social skills, like the skills of kindness and inclusion, will make a significant difference in children’s lives—socially, emotionally, and academically.

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