Sunday, August 26, 2012

Defining bullying up

As I’ve written before, I’m ambivalent about the recent trend toward “bullying prevention education.” I’m all in favor of getting kids to put themselves in other kids’ shoes and to think about right and wrong ways of treating other people. I also think it’s great to make sure that kids know what they can do if they are being mistreated or if they see someone else being mistreated. But I can’t help but sense a kind of mission creep. The term “bullying” is increasingly applied to a larger and larger sphere of conduct, and is used to justify a particularly authoritarian and punitive approach to behavior management. Instead of talking about how to help kids develop their own consciences, we end up talking about whether certain acts count as “bullying,” and if so, what we should do to the bullies.

Our elementary school recently surveyed the kids about bullying as part of its “Steps to Respect” program. The survey asked the kids to “Check the kinds of bullying you’ve seen or had happen to you at school,” and then offered the following choices:
Called names
Rumors spread
Left out on purpose
Hit, pushed, or kicked
Belongings damaged or taken
I can imagine bullying occurring through any of those means, but won’t that list catch many things that none of us would consider bullying? Friends can tease each other, and may even sometimes call each other names. When does talking about one’s classmates become “spreading rumors”? Where is the line between “leaving someone out on purpose” and simply wanting to choose which kids to play with during what little free time the school offers? I wouldn’t want to have my belongings taken, but is all theft a form of bullying? Pushing and even hitting aren’t that uncommon in certain types of play – our most popular sports are “contact sports” – but not every foul is an act of bullying.

What is gained by simplifying the issue in this way? If the kids take the survey literally, they will come away with a distorted and trivialized sense of what “bullying” means. (If you’re anything less than an angel, you’re a bully.) If the kids understand that only some things in those categories really qualify as bullying (as I suspect they do), then they are already more sophisticated than these teaching materials give them credit for. The survey seems designed to inflate the rate of reported bullying, and thus to justify yet more behavioral interventions and harsher discipline.

More thoughts on bullying here, here, and here.


Doris said...

If you log onto the "Steps for Respect" website (yeah, I know), they have a very short video posted that defines bullying in a much more delimited way--and, frankly, the presentation seemed pretty sensible to me (power differential, intent is to cause harm, repeated behavior over time, etc.). From what I gathered, a school using the Steps for Respect program is supposed to start by gathering data, so presumably that's what this survey stage is aimed at. It's nice that they are seeking the children's perceptions. It just makes you wonder why the "solution" has to come in a pre-packaged program (about $900 or so, I believe it was, for the complete "kit" for a school).

Chris said...

Doris – Thanks – yes, I did see the more restricted definition on the website. But if those restrictions aren’t somehow reflected in the wording of the survey, I’d still have to question how meaningful the results are. Also, the “power differential” concept, though I can see why it’s in the definition, strikes me as awfully vague. In the end, I’m not sure what’s gained by fastening onto the word “bullying,” instead of just having a discussion about how to treat other people.

The survey was anonymous, so the school can’t use it to follow up on particular incidents that are identified in the responses. The only way I can understand it is as data-gathering, and it’s hard for me to imagine how the data gathered through a question like that one can possibly be useful. Notice that the question also asks about bullying that “you’ve seen or had happen to you.” So one prominent incident might get mentioned by many individual students. How will those responses translate into meaningful data?

Some of the other items on the survey also seem like leading questions. For example, “Have you ever told an adult at school that you were being bullied?” which is followed by, “If yes, what happened after you told?” and “If no, why didn’t you tell?” Again, I can see why, if a child has been bullied, it would helpful to see those responses. But the question seems to assume that everyone’s been bullied, and so seems likely to inflate the result.

Finally, the survey seems designed to elicit the kind of responses that will justify the course that the school has obviously already settled on: more heavy-handed behavior management. If the school is able to raise consciousness about bullying and encourage kids to stand up for themselves and others, that’s all to the good. But how do the students feel about the school more closely monitoring and scrutinizing their behavior, and exponentially increasing the amount of discipline it administers? Is it possible that the school might discourage bullying by modeling – that is, by treating the kids with more respectfully, more gently, and less coercively? No one is surveying the students about that.

Doris said...

I agree with you in all the essentials. It's a thorny issue. We want school staff to be attuned to the social climate at a given school, and we want them to be responsive to children who are struggling socially. But I don't see how you get there with a pre-packaged, standardized program.

Plus, the program seems to have a "musical" component. I'm with local philosophy prof, public television host, and music blogger Scott Samuelson on this one. Children should never be asked to sing songs that no one, in the history of the world, has ever loved!

Chris said...

And I sure agree about the packaged program. To me, this is an area where it really makes sense to keep the discussion open-ended and responsive to what the kids themselves have to say. The more it just ends up being someone else’s Powerpoint presentation with predetermined conclusions, the less meaningful it can be. And don’t even get me started on the use of group songs, chants, or pledges to indoctrinate the kids into a certain way of thinking . . .

Rivka said...

A friend of mine told me that at her sons' school, the anti-bullying message has been so deeply ingrained at every level that the kids play "cops and bullies."

She also noted that the concept of "bullying" is spreading to cover ordinary examples of kids having inferior problem-solving skills - a fistfight on the playground between two kids who are equally matched, or a falling-out between two good friends that results in name calling.

Of particular concern is the way that a child who doesn't have great self-control can be deliberately goaded into a physical reaction by kids with more sophisticated verbal weapons, and then labeled "a bully."

Chris said...

Rivka -- I have also heard stories of kids playing "Special Ops" and giving younger kids a hard time for not following school rules -- and then being accused of bullying for doing so. No one stops to think whether those kids might just be replicating what they see the adults at the school doing.