Bullying: How Much Responsibility Is On The Elementary Teacher?

The start of the new school year is the ultimate “reset” button.

Any sloppy study habits, homework malfunctions or yucky classmate interactions are things of the past. Bring on the clean slate.

My youngest – Aaron- is starting first grade; my oldest – Alec - is starting his junior year of high school. Aaron is excited for the year ahead, but a little apprehensive over having to see his nemesis after several months of no contact.

Last year, Aaron was in a nasty frenemie-type dynamic with this classmate. He often came home and vented about that day’s drama involving the other kid. Alec, being a good big brother, told Aaron “Just go tell your teacher!”

I balked at that. There were 30 children in that kindergarten class! I’m sure managing tattletales was not high on his teacher’s priority list. When I taught in the primary grades, policing every complaint was a total time suck. And most of the time, both kids were kinda acting like jerks, to be honest. Which complicates the whole process of finding a fair solution to whatever injustice pops up among young children.

Aaron was not an innocent party in last year’s drama, and we had many a discussion around his role in the whole thing, making better choices and basically “keeping your side of the street clean.” But I have no doubt he fueled some of the conflict.

But what would I do if he was the victim of a bully?

I spent five years teaching in the primary grades, and I know how hard it is to monitor the interactions among a large group of children.

Heck, on some days, my goal was simply to maintain law and order.

When dealing with a classroom full of 6-year-olds, crowd control is no easy task. Running a classroom where every child treats others with kindness and respect is near impossible. So what is a teacher’s responsibility when it comes to any bullying going on during the school day?

As a mom, I have a new found perspective, leaving me torn about how much responsibility teachers should – and can – bear when it comes to maintaining a safe, healthy classroom for every child.

I reached out to a social worker friend to get some strategies around bullying, and he gave me a couple nuggets of wisdom regarding reasonable expectations for parents to have of teachers and some tips for parents to reflect upon when communicating with teachers:

1. Create a Culture of Kindness

The best thing a teacher can do to prevent bullying is to create a safe culture in the classroom from the start; this involves a lot of teacher-lead class discussion at the beginning of the year about kindness, shunning, teasing and sarcasm. Children are often interested in concepts like fairness and justice, so they will very likely set the tone for how classmates should treat each other with guidance from the teacher.

2. Pay Attention to The Little Things

What may sound like a minor rejection to us adults can be very hurtful to a child. For example, if two children tell another child that he cannot play with them, it is important for adults (parents and teachers) to listen to the child and help him/her process and problem-solve around the incident. When we brush kids off by saying things like "Just go play with someone else!" we are actually condoning a form of bullying. After all, shunning is a type of bullying; it's very common but since it is nonviolent, it is often overlooked.

But how can teachers manage all the little complaints without being sucked in the black hole of time that this could entail?

Setting up regular classroom meetings can help the teacher structure a dedicated time for handling these issues, as well as encouraging the students to set the tone for a kind environment themselves.

3. Build-up our Bystanders

The most effective anti-bullying programs focus on the bystanders. The bully and the victim are often locked into their dynamic, but way more kids bear witness to bullying and are not sure how to act. Discussing the options (speaking up, find an adult to intervene, etc.) and role-playing these actions can give kids the skills and confidence to stop the cycle.

Recess can be a very difficult time for many children; the lack of structure and diluted adult supervision can bring out bullying behaviors in many children. Having specific conversations and role-playing sessions that target recess are ways we parents can help our children navigate tricky times.

4. Clear Communication between Parents and Teachers

What if you feel your child’s teacher is not doing enough to promote a positive environment?

Reaching out and communicating properly with the teacher is crucial; this is best done in a collaborative, non-judgmental way. For example, instead of saying "My child is being bullied and says that you aren't doing anything about it!" try "My child has been telling me some interesting things. When is a good time to meet so we can discuss this?"

Blame and accusations make teachers defensive. Remember, the teacher likely doesn't see the bullying going on. Most teachers welcome new information and collaboration with parents and value the physical and emotional safety of their students.

Occasionally, you may find yourself partnered with a teacher who is maybe not as...um...responsive as you would hope. It is reasonable to reach out to other school staff members - such as the principal, assistant principal, social worker or counselor - if your child’s teacher stays radio silent to your requests to connect and problem-solve around social issues.

In many ways, a teacher is like a “daytime parent” for our children. However, the logistics of the classroom, school day schedule and sheer number of youngsters make nurturing difficult for classroom teachers. Productive, collaborative communication between teachers and parents is the key ingredient to nipping bullying in the bud.

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