… and how to fix it.
Not all bullying is intentionally malicious behavior.
In 30 years of education, I learned that many students are unaware that some of their behavior is, in fact, bullying. Most students who bully seem to get caught up in escalating meanness through peer pressure or an urge to belong. Famed Stanford psychologist Philip Zambardo spent decades studying how inattentively well-behaved people can get seduced into bad behavior.
The following brief three-part intervention was by far the most effective way I found to reduce recurring bullying in schools.
Empower the victim by explaining my intervention and asking permission to speak to the bullies. They almost always ask me not to speak with the perpetrators, fearing retaliation. Once they’ve heard my plan, they usually permit me. I then ask the victim, “If the bullies would like to apologize, may they?” Most times the victim just wants to be left alone.
Inform the bullies that I received a report from someone other than the victim. This helps eliminate retaliatory behavior. Make sure that your entire school buys into an anti-bully program. At the very least, mandate that it is every student’s moral obligation to report bully behavior. The responsibility for reporting belongs to the school community, not the victim.
Allow bullies to correct their behavior honorably. This is typically an appealing option when the alternative is a formal report that results in punishment. The intervention itself is a short commentary without discussion. I find that discussions typically produce unproductive blaming of the victim (“She’s mean”) or rationalizing (“He deserved it.”)
The Commentary to the Bully
I received a report that you are bullying X. Someone other than the victim reported it.
Bullying is a mean and harmful act. I assume that you are bullying because you think it’s fun or interesting and you don’t know how much suffering you are causing the victim.
If you stop immediately it signals to me that you’ve been bullying out of ignorance. In that case, this is our last conversation and I won’t deal with this further.
If this continues, it signals to me that you are intentionally malicious. I treat malice more seriously than I treat ignorance.
The question is whether you’ve acted ignorantly or cruelly. How you behave after this talk gives me your answer.
Many times, the bullies want to apologize (a good sign). Let them know the victim’s wishes.
This simple procedure empowers the victim and allows the bullies to move in a restorative direction. This works in all levels of schooling from elementary to high school.
Zimbardo, P. (2011). “You can’t be a sweet cucumber in a vinegar barrel.” In Brockman, J., ed. The Mind. New York: Harper Collins.
Michael Rousell PhD is the author of The Power of Surprise: How Your Brain Secretly Changes Your Beliefs. He studies life-changing events.