Bullying – Beyond the Classroom

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An important key to a great positive youth development program is creating a safe and inclusive youth environment. To accomplish this the National 4-H Council and NC 4-H have put together a guide with a focus on bullying prevention. The number of young people affected directly or indirectly by bullying is well above 70% and in 2019 20% of youth ages, 12-18 reported being a victim. Bullying is an adverse childhood experience (ACE) and youth who have been a target of bullying tend to be more depressed, have more health issues, miss more school, and predictably have lower self-esteem. Youth who have observed bullying are more fearful in that environment, feel guilty if they do not intervene, and may join in to avoid being targeted themselves. Youth who bully others are more likely to exhibit risky and antisocial behaviors like alcohol consumption and smoking. For these reasons, we need to work hard at bullying prevention in all spaces where youth gather including in cyberspace.

In 2014 the Center for Disease Control officially defined bullying as a form of youth violence. I am not talking about simple conflicts or disagreements, which are a natural part of youth development required to build healthy coping skills, rather ongoing, unwanted, purposeful, and aggressive behavior in an unbalanced relationship. 

The National 4-H Council is clear, “bullying is no longer a rite of passage” it is emotional and physically dangerous for our youth. To adequately address bullying, prevention has to happen on many levels. Organizational policies and rules will set the stage for a safe environment. When that doesn’t work, targeted interventions should be employed for youth who do not follow the rules. 

However, intervention may not be what you think. Mediation, a common practice, may be damaging to the overall result an organization wishes to achieve, which of course is for the bullying behavior to stop. A critical issue with mediation is a possible assumption of guilt on both parties. A bully has a victim and most victims do not want to face their abuser. This can have an unwanted side effect, and make it less likely for victims to report the abuse to an adult. There is scant evidence to support the idea that conflict resolution decreases bullying incidents.

The idea of zero tolerance policies may also have unwanted side effects. Stopbullying.gov tells us bystanders can make a difference when they intervene, however, bystanders of bullying may not be encouraged to become involved if there is a chance they could be included in the punishment.

Prevention strategies somewhat differ across developmental stages. In early childhood, success has been achieved with education. Educators and caregivers have found that teaching kindness and empathy through modeling and practicing can be effective. More time may be spent reacting and tending to aggressive behavior, but if it isn’t addressed at this age it can increase, leading to antisocial behavior, bullying, and/or school failure.

Bullying can become a normal occurrence in elementary school. Educators should work to create a culture of respect in the classroom, clearly outline the rules, get to know the students and watch for relationships with unbalanced power.

The risk for bullying increases in middle school. Adults who observe an incident should stop the bullying immediately and apply appropriate interventions to all involved. Surprisingly this isn’t always the instinct.

In high school incidences of bullying are less common, but they still occur. Youth can and should be more involved in setting the rules, teaching each other tactics for standing up against bullying and not becoming a target, and recognizing when bullying is occurring. Adults will help enforce appropriate rules, but the youth are empowered and more likely to follow them when they are set by the youth.

Cyberbullying is an insidious version of bullying that can be inescapable for a victim and unlike face-to-face bullying, it occurs 24 hours/day, 7 days/week, 365 days/year. The audience is much wider because a video can “go viral” in a moment. Educators and caregivers can help be part of the prevention solution by teaching digital citizenship, enlisting older youth to positively encourage younger students, restricting/guiding online use, and installing anti-bullying apps.

How can caregivers know their youth(s) are being bullied? Most importantly, watch for a change in activity, mood, or behavior that has no reasonable explanation. Ask them questions if you see them withdraw from the family or friend groups, spend long hours alone, or if they are falling behind in schoolwork. Some victims may become angry, have trouble sleeping, lose their appetite, or seem depressed. Communication and trust are key in any family for crisis prevention or in reaction to a crisis. Seek professional help should the effects become extreme.

Youth and adult education is the best way to prevent bullying. Informed adults can create safe spaces where all youth feel welcome, modeling the expected atmosphere of respect for individuality, and even celebrating differences. Educators deal with this issue regularly but bullying does not only happen at school and the consequences of encountering bullying behaviors affect the whole child. Prevention will only happen when an entire community works together. For more information about types of bullying, bully prevention curriculum suggestions, ACEs, and/or resources on bullying please contact Pam Kerley at pkerley@ncsu.edu. Pam is the 4-H Program Assistant for North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Lee County Center. 4-H is a positive youth development program offering programs that suit a variety of backgrounds, interests, budgets, and schedules. From in-school to after-school, clubs to camps, 4H’s programs are available in Lee County and we welcome children who want to have fun, learn and grow. In North Carolina, 4-H is brought to you by the NC State Cooperative Extension. N.C. Cooperative Extension’s experts and educators share university knowledge, information, and tools you can use every day to improve your life.