The first time my kid experienced bullying at school, I was angry and frustrated, but optimistic. As difficult as the situation was, I believed that once the principal heard our story, he would recognize how unjust and unacceptable things were and would move mountains to make sure my kid was safe and the situation would be dealt with, straight away.
I was shocked to learn how ill-equipped and unwilling he was to deal with the situation and so I withdrew both of my kids from school and began homeschooling.
About three years later, I put my kids back in a different school and unfortunately we were faced with a second round of bullying. Fortunately, I was far more prepared to handle the situation the second time around.
There are eight strategies that I used in my meeting with the vice principal of the second school that were pivotal in putting an end to the bullying that day. No second meeting was necessary—the situation was dealt with in one fell swoop.
Bullying is a prevalent problem in schools and it doesn't seem to be getting better. But bullying doesn't have to continue—it can and must be stopped. I decided to share my strategies in case other parents might find them helpful.
First things first
One of the first things you might be faced with addressing is resistance from your kid—he/she might not want you getting involved for fear of things getting worse. Unfortunately, that is a seriously legitimate concern and all the more reason why this situation has to be approached in the most effective way possible.
When the bullying first started, my daughter didn't want me involved—she wanted to handle the situation on her own. Admirable as that might seem, I believe it's unreasonable to think a child can shut down a bullying situation without adult intervention. As someone who helps married couples resolve conflicts that they previously have not been able to resolve on their own, it's simply unrealistic to think a child is equipped to deal with a situation as serious and stressful as bullying.
The buzz phrase floating around schools these days is "building resiliency in children" which is fantastic—who couldn't stand to be a bit more resilient, right? Right. Except when it comes to bullying. In reality, this approach is an irresponsible copout that allows schools to avoid responsibility (I’ll explain why that’s true later on).
In my opinion, the only thing kids should be concerned about is doing their best academically and having some innocent fun, along the way. They shouldn't be worried about choosing the right hallway to walk down in order to avoid being thrown into the lockers or making sure they eat their lunch the right way so it doesn't get thrown into the garbage can. And they certainly shouldn't be fretting over which strategy to use on someone who is being abusive—it is the responsibility of an adult to intervene, role model those strategies and deal with the issue. That responsibility should not be placed on a kid.
When we place that kind of responsibility on a kid it's unfair, it's unreasonable and it places a significant amount of stress on them that can cause issues with anxiety for years to come. More common than not, it sets them up for the type of failure that can have devastating emotional and/or physical implications.
As great as my kid is, she wasn't equipped with the life experience or skills needed to put a stop to the bullying. Did she learn some skills and build some resiliency while trying to deal with the issues on her own? Certainly, and those skills are still with her today but when things didn't get better I said, "Enough is enough" and I made a promise that I knew I had to keep—I promised her the bullying would end, and I meant it.
Strategy #1: Confidence
What I'm talking about here is your confidence, not necessarily your kid's confidence. Without this first strategy, I wholeheartedly believe none of the following strategies will be effective so it will be important to address your level of confidence before your first (or next) meeting with the school staff.
Emotional confidence sets a strong, assertive and solid foundation that evokes respect and makes it so your words, desires and needs are taken seriously by the school staff. If you're wishy-washy, passive or open to letting the school staff shirk their responsibility, unfortunately, that's what's going to happen.
As much as they genuinely want their schools to be a safe place for your child, my experience is that school staff really don't know how to accomplish that. So, as strange as this sounds—because you likely expect the school to be equipped to handle this situation—it will be up to you to take the lead and show them what needs to be done in order to put an end to your child's bullying at school.
Going into my meeting with the vice principal at my daughter's school, I knew it would be up to me to show her what would need to be done in order for the bullying to stop. Luckily, the knowledge I gained from my failed experience with the first school and all of my experience as a Life Skills Coach gave me the confidence I needed to be taken seriously.
The kind of confidence that I projected going into the meeting was rooted in the following expectation:
My expectation was that the bullying MUST end and that it was the vice principal's job to ensure that was going to happen. I knew that I wasn't going to accept excuses or any 'plan' that allowed her to shirk her responsibility. It was going to be a cold day in hell before I would accept one more day of my kid getting bullied at school. Period. End of story.
Having said that, however, I need to explain that my approach was calm and assertive, not aggressive or harsh. True confidence is about inner strength and assertiveness, not anger and aggression. You won't make headway or be taken seriously if you go into the meeting, guns-a-blazing, swearing or wailing like a banshee. Be strong. Be calm. Be respectful. Be confident.
But, regardless of how assertive, respectful and confident you are, you may be faced with dealing with a school administrator who is passive and simply doesn't have the skills needed to deal with the situation (as was the case in my first experience). Or, you may be faced with a school administrator who will feel threatened by your confidence and assertiveness and may become aggressive and dismiss you and your needs.
If you're faced with an administrator who refuses to help you, go above their head. Do not stop until you find someone who will help you. Your kid needs you to intervene and put an end to this problem because the chances of them doing it on their own are slim and no one else will do it for them. It's up to you.
Strategy #2: Record the Conversation
When my daughter and I entered the room with the vice principal, I was carrying a pad of paper and a pen that I used to record her key statements throughout our entire meeting. There's something magical that happens when you record a person's statements—it motivates them to choose their words carefully because they realize the conversation might find its way into the hands of the people who write their paycheque.
Asking strategic and pointed questions and documenting her answers demonstrated that the meeting was official, that she was going to be held accountable for the things she said, and that I expected to be taking seriously.
Typically, most schools make noble declarations about children being safe while in their care but when it comes to bullying, rarely are those statements backed up or supported by actions. By recording their words, it holds them accountable for their statements and by default, commits them to taking action.
Strategy #3: Get them to Acknowledge the Problem
In order to get the vice principal to acknowledge that there was a problem, I first described a specific bullying incident and then I asked her if she thought that was acceptable behaviour. When she said "no", I jotted down her answer. She sat up in her chair—I had her attention.
I then asked her if she would be comfortable if a student in her school continued to behave in those ways. Again, her response was "no" and again I recorded her answer.
In effect, I had gotten her on record acknowledging that the behaviour was unacceptable, that it was something that should not continue and therefore was something she could not ignore, moving forward.
Strategy #4: Get them to Acknowledge Responsibility
The next thing I needed was for her to take responsibility for resolving the situation so I asked her if she agreed that my daughter’s safety was her responsibility while in her care at school. When she said "yes", I jotted down her answer.
This is where it might be helpful to arm yourself with the school's mission statement. Chances are it states that the school will provide an environment where your child is safe and will be encouraged to succeed, flourish and thrive. After reading the mission statement, I suggest you ask them if they agree with the statement and the idea that it’s their responsibility to keep your child safe while in their care. Also, ask them whether or not they believe a child dealing with the stress of being bullied is as likely to succeed and thrive as one who isn't being bullied. Record their answers.
It's pretty hard for them to shirk their responsibility when they've acknowledged your child is being harmed while on their watch and that it's their job to make sure that doesn't happen.
Strategy #5: Make a Plan of Action
Once they’ve recognized there is a problem and acknowledged that it is their responsibility to make sure the problem stops, the next step is to devise a plan of action.
At this point it will be necessary to describe, specifically, the details of the bullying as to when and where the bullying takes place and the nature of the bullying.
It's important that you ask the staff member to describe, exactly, what they will do to address each and every situation. For example, if your child is harassed on the way to the bus, ask her what specifically, she plans on doing to address that situation.
Do the same thing for each scenario until you understand, exactly what is going to be done to ensure your child will be protected.
I recommend not rushing through this step—make sure there is a plan in place for each scenario, that you know exactly what the plan will be, that you are comfortable that the plan seems feasible and make sure you record the details.
Strategy #6: Measure Success
This strategy involves making sure the plan is going to work. I asked the vice principal how she was planning on measuring whether or not our plan was successful in ending the bullying?
The look on her face told me that she was surprised by this question. Typically, parents trust school staff when they say they will handle the situation and the parent leaves the meeting with a newfound sense of relief that the problem will be fixed.
But it was at this point that I remembered the promise I made to my daughter when I said the bullying was going to stop and I needed to make sure the plan was foolproof—that it was going to be successful in making that happen.
I cannot stress, enough, how important it is to ensure this step isn't missed. Without measures set firmly in place guaranteeing the plan will work, your kid's worst nightmare could come true and the bullying will not only continue, it could potentially get worse. A 'great' plan is useless if it doesn't solve the problem it was intended to fix.
How do you measure if the plan is working? There are likely a few ways but what I suggested was to have the vice principal touch base with my daughter, daily, to see how things are going. I asked my daughter, right there during the meeting, if she was prepared to commit to that process. I reminded her that without her contribution to this part of the process, the plan couldn’t be successful. Getting commitments from both of them will help ensure the plan is successful.
Strategy #7: Follow-up
Before the meeting ended, I told the vice principal that I needed daily reporting on the situation. This strategy would not only ensure I knew how things were going, but by touching base each day, it would help motivate her to follow through on our plan—to hold her accountable to the commitment she made to keep my daughter safe.
The follow-up came in the form of a daily phone call or an email.
Strategy #8: Address the Real Problem
In order to fix any problem, you first need to understand what’s causing the problem. When it comes to bullying, the real problem is that the bully is abusive and so the solution lies in helping them understand and stop their behaviour.
In my experience, schools place far too much emphasis on "building resiliency" in the bullied child in order for them to better 'cope' with abuse and not enough emphasis is placed on the real problem—the emotional or mental challenges at the root of the bully's abusive behaviour. This approach is similar to telling a battered woman that she should learn how to ‘cope’ with being beaten every day and while she’s doing that she should be excited about how resilient she is becoming through the process. Meanwhile, her abuser is allowed to continue tormenting her whenever he wants.
Sometimes schools will suggest kids "avoid the bullies" and I totally and completely disagree with that strategy. It teaches the bullied child that they need to adjust their behaviour, when in fact it's the bully's behaviour that needs to be adjusted. So, as a way to drive home the point that the behaviours of the bully were unacceptable and needed to be addressed, I told the vice principal that asking my kid to avoid certain areas of the school or avoid certain situations in order to avoid being bullied was not an option.
By making this expectation crystal clear, it required the vice principal to focus on the bully and their behaviour. It also held her accountable for keeping my daughter safe, rather than placing that responsibility on my daughter. Ultimately my expectation made life pretty inconvenient for the vice principal, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing from our perspective—it likely was part of what made the situation end as quickly as it did.
At the end of the meeting I told the vice principal that it was also my expectation that the bully’s parents be involved and that the bully sees the school counsellor to address their behaviour.
I obviously couldn’t control whether or not the parents were called or if the bully got counselling, but this strategy was about placing responsibility where it belonged—on the bully and on the school—not on my kid, the victim.
In a nutshell
When schools place the responsibility on the victim to handle things ‘better’, they are simply being irresponsible—they are not dealing with the real problem, they are not ensuring the victim is safe and they are enabling abusive behaviour.
Taking this ineffective approach will ensure the bullying problem will never be resolved—it’s like putting new tires on a car that really needs a wheel alignment—the ‘solution’ will never fix the problem. And, what’s worse is that innocent kids will continue to be placed in harm's way.
But as a parent, you have the power to change things. If you can be confident and hold the school accountable to their mission statement, responsible for the safety your child and require more of them than has been required before, it will be possible to keep your promise to your child when you tell them the bullying will stop.
In my experience, bullying can be stopped—I simply did not accept any other outcome.