Kids need a little adversity in order to develop resilience – a theme that conscientious parents often try to instill early on in life. In the case of the proverbial scraped knee, for example, a parent may encourage a child to get up and make their way into the house on their own. It is this hardy mentality that so often obfuscates the issue of bullying in schools, which some people still believe to be a healthy rite of passage. A scraped knee will heal in a few days, but the effects of bullying can harmfully manifest themselves over the course of a lifetime.

In a 2017 report, the Center for Disease Control described the effects of bullying, which one out of every five school kids experiences:

  • Increased risk of depression
  • Sleep disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Maladjustment in the school and work environment
  • Behavioral problems
  • Self-victimization
  • Increased suicide rate
  • Stomachaches, headaches and other stress-related symptoms.

Being bullied is not a rite of passage. In many cases, it constitutes a criminal act. The individual and societal effects of this behavior are perfectly aligned with the social worker’s mission, which is to support a client’s ability to thrive by combating the financial, emotional, physical and cultural barriers to success. In order to attack bullying at the source, however, social workers must first be able to identify even its most subtle forms.

What Is Bullying?

What is bullying exactly? Bullying is the abuse of power to physically or psychologically harm someone who cannot readily defend themselves. Most experts refer to a “power imbalance” that drives this behavior, meaning that the bully is usually stronger, older, and/or more socially privileged than the victim. Bullying can be verbal, physical, online (i.e., cyberbullying), psychological and more. Relational bullying is a more passive form that includes quietly ostracizing a person by spreading rumors and turning others against the victim. No matter what form it takes, bullying is accompanied by a laundry list of long-term consequences, as listed above, and must be guarded against in all school environments. How can school social workers (and others) contribute to this effort? The solution is a multi-faceted one.

How School Social Workers Can Prevent Bullying

As with family social work and most other cases, social workers use their skills to educate all parties involved with the problem behavior, establish safe environments, train bystanders and supporters on proper behavior regulation, and so on. Each case of bullying is different, requiring an individual approach, but at the same time, school environments can be set up in a way that greatly reduces bullying from occurring in the first place. A social worker can apply the following individual and environmental approaches to significantly curtail school bullying.

Early Education

The mind of a child is the world’s most powerful learning machine. By introducing consistent anti-bullying themes into the curriculum early on, educators and social workers can get ahead of the problem. The most powerful way to do this involves workshops and events that allow children to see bullying in action. Anti-bullying initiatives should aim to not only prevent students from becoming bullies themselves, but to educate them on how to identify and prevent acts of bullying involving their classmates.

Advocacy

Advocacy is massively important to anti-bullying efforts within a single school, the surrounding community and the entire country. Social workers can participate in efforts to tighten anti-bullying policies and laws. They can oversee awareness campaigns, create physical resources (pamphlets, posters, commercials and radio ads, etc.) and coordinate speaking engagements to spread awareness about the perils of school bullying. They can participate in community-wide rallies and other events to raise awareness and promote anti-bullying initiatives. Advocacy can take many more forms, but the most important part is that it is positioned in front of the right audience to effect real change.

Establishing a Safe Environment at School

Possibly the most immediate and important step in combating school bullying is the creation of a safe environment. If bullied kids don’t feel that they can come to an adult at school for help, they are much more likely to suppress the issue and develop self-harming and other unhealthy behaviors.

Setting up a safe environment is more than just planting an adult at recess, in the halls or on the bus. It’s about clearly communicating to kids that they can and should approach these adults when there’s a problem. Kids being bullied are often afraid that the bullying will get worse if reported, so they need to understand that coming to an adult will solve the problem. In order to maintain this level of transparency and communication, of course, faculty need to be trained on actively (not reactively) addressing every instance of bullying.

Regulating Social Media Use  

It may seem that school faculty have little power in preventing cyberbullying, but they can still take steps to minimize it. Most schools struggle with enforcing no-phone policies, but keeping this effort alive will cut down on cyberbullying in the form of verbally abusive texts, tweets and posts shared between students. Social workers and other faculty should also encourage close monitoring of students using computer labs, ensuring all computers are in a public area. Cyberbullying can affect students even more profoundly than physical bullying, since the incidents are often far more visible. Making all students aware of the harm caused by cyberbullying is another important step in mitigating this issue.

Educating Bystanders

Less overt forms of bullying, such as relational bullying, which involves spreading rumors and harming another student’s reputation, require a more proactive and observational approach by social workers, faculty and other students. If this form of bullying is to be prevented, then all of the parties in mention must be educated on the proper way to identify and resolve relational bullying. The first step is to support bullying victims.

Helping the Bully, Not Just the Victim

The knee-jerk reaction of students, parents and even school faculty is often to punish the bully (and nothing else), but in many cases, the bully needs more help than the victim. It’s not that social workers should de-emphasize the seriousness of bullying, because that’s already a critical part of the problem. Simply punishing without addressing the causal factors behind bullying behavior, however, is not likely to permanently solve the problem with any given student.

Sometimes, bullying can alert social workers to investigate an unhealthy family situation. Helping the bullying student to feel supported by restructuring their learning environment is key to combating bullying from both ends.

As always, social workers in the school environment and any other are encouraged to use their discretion in order to provide targeted interventions based on individual circumstances. The above methods will help to guide those decisions and create a framework that will resolve bullying issues even before they happen. With a supportive environment and proactive students, faculty and social workers, bullying can be reduced significantly.

Tim Kalantjankos

B.S. Sociology | University of Nebraska at Omaha

A.S. Physical Therapy | Clarkson College

October 2019

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