How to Deal With Bullies

Dealing With Bullies: To Punish Or Not To Punish

This is not the first article we’ve written on bullying (in fact we just recently posted about cyber bullying) and it will not be the last one. This “trend” is indeed a serious problem within our school system; media, politicians, celebrities all talk about it and address the necessity of taking some serious actions against it. What could we, as a society, possibly do? Punish the children responsible for it? Expel them from school? Imprison them? A recent article, Why Punishment Won’t Stop a Bully, by Alfie Kohn gives us some food for thought. According to Kohn, bullying should certainly not be “regarded as a boys-will-be-boys rite of passage,” however, the way the system is dealing with this phenomenon is “counterproductive.”

“But as with other ills, both within and beyond our schools, some responses are much less constructive than others. The least thoughtful (or useful) strategy is to announce a “zero tolerance” stance on bullying. Either this phrase amounts to empty rhetoric—rather like responding to repeated instances of gun violence in our country by sending each cluster of victims our “thoughts and prayers”—or else it refers to a policy of harsh punishment for bullies.

The latter approach is worth our attention precisely because it comes so easily to us, complementing a punitive sensibility already well-established in our schools. Students who break the rules or otherwise displease us are subjected to suspension, expulsion, detention, enforced isolation (“time-out”), loss of opportunity to participate in enjoyable activities, and so on.”

Are we Modeling Bullying?

The author claims that making children or teenagers suffer for their actions in order to “repent” cannot solve the problem; on the contrary, a study published in 2005 reveals that “punitive discipline was subsequently associated with more antisocial behavior, less prosocial behavior, and increased levels of anxiety.” This only indicates that the worse we treat those who have done wrong, the worse their behavior in society will be. It comes as no surprise that the effects of punishment are negative and counterproductive. This is why we created the BeCool solution to bullying!

“Punishing kids who bully not only fails to address the source of the problem, but actually makes things worse. As educator and author Barbara Coloroso pointed out in her book The Bully, The Bullied, and the Bystander, punishment teaches the bully ‘to be more aggressive and hurtful. He will undoubtedly master the art of doing his bullying in ways that are sneaky or ‘under the radar’ of even the most observant and aware adults. More important,’ she adds, ‘punishment degrades, humiliates, and dehumanizes the children who are its objects. ‘(Sounds like bullying to me.)”

Considering these observations, we can freely conclude that punishment and severe restrictions promote aggression and further exacerbate bullying. Studies in the United States and Sweden have shown that often bullies have been brought up by aggressive and abusive parents by means of punishment. Moreover, the opposite conclusion that punishment leads to bullying is a likely option:

“From this perspective, it quickly becomes clear that the problem with school policy isn’t just that punishing bullies inevitably backfires. Rather, punishment in general is likely a hidden contributor to bullying, both because of what it models and because of its effects on the students who are punished.”

Should we reconsider our definition of bullying?

An interesting point in Kahl’s article is that traditional discipline and measures against “bad” behavior are a type of bullying; that adults have the right to “torment” younger individual the way the want whereas children are not allowed to do so.

“Definitions of bullying tend to sound something like this: a hostile action—or a pattern of abuse, intimidation, or harassment over time—in which those who are smaller or weaker are victimized by those who are larger or stronger. That the larger, stronger people may have graduate degrees or can spin out elaborate rationalizations for their actions is really beside the point.”

As a leader in the field of special education, we fully understand what it means to be a student in and out of the classroom. We are the first to acknowledge that bullying is a serious problem in schools, playground, and even at home. Unfortunately, the reasons motivating bullying are yet to be determined and probably too vast to ever truly understand. What we are beginning to understand is that punishing children may not help. Schools must start to work with students and make them feel part of a solution where problems are discussed and solved, not part of the problem, where they are just punished.

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Dr. James Stanfield, Ed.D.

Stanfield Special Education Curriculum

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