How to Address Bullying in Your Classroom

TeacherVision Advisory Board Member Tina shares teaching strategies for how to address bullying in the classroom when it happens, and the steps you can take to prevent bullying before it occurs.

Updated: October 24, 2019

How to Address Bullying in Your Classroom

Bullying is portrayed in many movies and TV shows as a funny gag to laugh at. Unfortunately, as any parent or educator knows, bullying is no joke. In fact, bullying happens daily in schools all across the globe, and many schools are cracking down with harsh punishments and "zero tolerance" bullying policies.

There are important steps that classroom teachers can take to prevent many instances of bullying before they even occur. Bullying can interfere with the learning process of the entire class. Therefore, it is critical to be proactive about creating an environment that is not only conducive to learning, but also where all students feel loved and safe.

Start a Discussion

Most kids have heard the word “bullying,” but truthfully, many don’t know what the word truly means. If they call someone a name, is that bullying? Are they a bully if they laugh when another student falls down? What if someone is teasing their friend, but they were just kidding? Start a discussion with your students about what they think bullying is, and then share with them the actual definition. (And if you don’t know, now is a great time to find out!) Bullying involves actions or words that hurt others intentionally, and is usually repeated, though it doesn’t always have to be. Set aside some time for your students to share stories, if they wish, and ask questions about what bullying is. Talk about what they should do if they are being bullied or witness someone else being bullied. Discuss the idea that bullying can be physical or verbal, and it can be done in person or electronically. Maybe even broach the subject of what to do if they are the bully.

Create a Classroom Community

The classroom should be a safe place for all students. Unfortunately, some students don’t feel safe anywhere throughout the school. Work to make your room an environment in which all students feel comfortable. Talk to your students early and often about bullying, make sure they know the school policy, and be sure that they know bullying is not tolerated in your classroom.

Kids need to know that their classroom belongs to them, and it should provide a space for them to feel like they belong.

Let students know that you are always there to listen, no matter the problem. Work on teaching empathy and kindness to your students using targeted activities and lessons throughout the year.

Keep a Watchful Eye

Because teachers can’t be everywhere, it is important to be attentive. Gateway behaviors often provide an indication that a kid might be headed down the wrong path. It is vital that teachers not only look for these gateway behaviors for bullying, but also that they know what to look for. We now know that things we might have brushed off in the past as “kids just being kids” can shine a light on a potentially bad situation. Recognizing these behaviors can help to prevent a bullying situation in the future.

If you see students exhibiting any of the following behaviors, be sure to pay close attention to those particular students and put a stop to the negative behavior as soon as possible.

  • Eye rolling, especially toward authority figures;
  • Staring at others for an extended period of time;
  • Teasing or name-calling;
  • Ignoring other kids;
  • Excluding other kids;
  • Laughing when others get hurt or in trouble;
  • Encouraging other students to laugh at someone else;
  • Purposefully hurting someone else;
  • Spying on kids or adults.

Not all of these behaviors can be described as bullying, but they each are certainly a good predictor of the potential future harm that they could escalate into. Stopping the behavior before it becomes bullying is one of the best preventative measures a teacher can take.

Be Present Throughout the School

Proximity control. That’s what most teachers are taught (or soon learn!) when they are studying to become an educator. Proximity, or being close by, is one way we are encouraged to control student behavior. If the teacher is far away, little Johnny may feel like he has an opportunity to launch a spit wad at the back of someone’s head. But if the teacher is circling the classroom, keeping him or herself in closer proximity to the students, then little Johnny has fewer opportunities to use that spit wad.

The same is true for all parts of the school building. As we already know, a teacher cannot be everywhere all at once. However, you can make an effort to be somewhere all the time. Now, I’m not talking about patrolling the hallways and bathrooms during lunch breaks and plan times. We are only humans, and we do need breaks. But during those times we are working, we need to be fully engaged. Whenever it’s possible, try to walk up and down the hall during class changes. Be by the bathroom during high usage times. If you see an out of the way corner, pass by a few times a day. Your presence can deter enough negative behavior to make it more than worth the effort.

No matter how much we want to, teachers cannot prevent bullying from happening one hundred percent of the time.

That is why it is also pertinent that we arm ourselves with the knowledge of what actions to take when we do finally have to deal with a bully. If you find yourself in a situation in which bullying is happening in or around your classroom, it is crucial that you deal with it right away. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Never Ignore the Behavior

What may look like harmless fun may actually be bullying. Kids, just like adults, have different personalities. What is a joke to one kid may be embarrassing or humiliating to another. Look for signs that a student just doesn’t feel comfortable with what is going on. Just like you can spot gateway behaviors for bullies, you can also look for warning signs of bullying victims. If you see students with unexplained injuries, damaged property, or sudden changes in behavior (especially avoidance), take a closer look to see what is going on in that student’s world.

Intervene Right Away

If you see a situation in which bullying is occurring, you should intervene as quickly as possible. Even if you just suspect something might be going on, talk to the students involved. This is where proximity really comes in handy. Work on engaging with students often so it seems as if you are just checking in, rather than reprimanding them.

Listen to Students

Additionally, always take any report about bullying seriously, no matter how frivolous it may seem at first. If the adult a student has confided in doesn’t take them seriously, that student is far less likely to report future occurrences of bullying behavior. Assure students that you are a trusted adult that is there to listen and to help.

Address the Victim and the Bully

Most of the time when bullying occurs, we focus solely on the victim. However, even though a bully has made bad choices, it is important to work on finding out the cause of the bullying behavior. Never publicly humiliate a bully in front of other students. Speak to the victim and the bully separately. Have the bully speak to a school counselor, or suggest that the parents seek outside counselling for their child.

Realizing that you have a bully in the classroom can be disheartening. However, equipped with the right tools, you and your students can still have a stellar year.

How do you handle bullying in your classroom? Share with us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Tina Wheeler is an elementary teacher in a combined 3rd/4th grade classroom at a small private school in Cuba, Missouri. She has been an educator since 2005, working in both the general and special education classrooms with students ranging in ages from 3 years old to adulthood. When Tina is not teaching, she works as a freelance writer. She also shares teaching tips and tricks on her blog at Miss Tina’s Room.

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