Climate change: a better way to deal with bullying

Schools are understandably concerned about bullying. It can create a corrosive school environment, disrupt learning and have a long-term effect on everyone involved.

SAFETY-ICON-revisedRecent research shows that schools can help reduce the rate of bullying if they put students in a safe, connected environment that teaches them how to manage conflict and stand up for what’s right.

“Bullying prevention has been eclipsed by more meaningful conversations about school climate,” says Finessa Ferrell, a director for the Colorado Education Initiative program in Denver, who has done extensive work in the areas of school violence prevention, bullying and students’ social and emotional learning. “If you don’t focus on climate, you’re stuck in the trap of investigation and punishment, and the core issues never get fixed.”

Problems defining bullying

“There’s significant controversy about how to define it,” Ferrell says. “Traditionally, the definition has included a power differential — whether social, emotional or physical — intention to harm and an activity that’s repeated over time, but it’s much more complicated than that.”

Resources for your school

Bullying Solutions can be found at

The Colorado Education Initiative offers a wealth of resources to help schools create a healthier climate

Transforming School Climate Toolkit

Connecting Health and Learning Health is Vital to
Student Success: An Overview of Relevant Research

bullyingMichael Carpenter, a nationally certified bullying prevention consultant who founded the International Bullying Prevention Conference and is co-author of Bullying Solutions, agreed. “Stick with a conventional definition of bullying, and you’ll miss a lot of problems — even behavior that isn’t necessarily ‘bullying’ needs to be addressed,” he says.

Some problematic elements of conventional definitions:

They don’t account for the target’s perspective. “One person might be extremely upset about an incident that doesn’t bother someone else,” Ferrell says.

Bullying can be a one-time event. “If your child’s head is shoved into the toilet once, you’re not going to say that wasn’t bullying because it wasn’t repeated,” Ferrell says.

Could the “bully” and the “target” have equal power? “Sometimes two students cycle back and forth between being friends and doing terrible things to each other,” Ferrell says. “Is it bullying? Is it conflict? Either way, it needs to be addressed.”

Changing the climate at your school

Get a handle on the problem. “Survey staff, students and parents to learn about the climate and culture of your school,” Carpenter advises. “Where are bullying hot spots? Where do kids feel unsafe and when? Ask for specifics.”

Empower students. Most students are neither the aggressor nor the target but become complicit in creating a bad environment by not speaking up. “Teach students to intervene in situations that are unjust and unfair,” Ferrell says. “We call this creating ‘upstanders.’”

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Practice is critical. “A key indicator for success in improving school culture is regularly scheduled, ongoing class meetings,” Carpenter says. “Talk about what kindness looks like, what meanness looks like. What is intimidation? What is coercive behavior? What is and isn’t acceptable behavior or language?”

“Kids are often very uncomfortable with behavior they’ve witnessed and feel guilty about it, but a powerful leader in a clique is the aggressor, and they don’t know how to stand up to them,” Ferrell says. “Give them a script for dealing with these uncomfortable situations and have them role play.”

Ferrell also recommended creating situations where students are forced outside their friend groups. “Expose them to kids from other groups — try to undermine the cliques.”

Build relationships between students and adults. Students need trusted adults, and schools must offer mental health counseling to help kids navigate challenges.

Take action. Students must feel there are consequences for their actions, and when a problem is reported, something happens. Confidentiality is a must. Online and other reporting tools can be helpful.

Offer professional development for staff. “There are plenty of adults who practice bullying behavior,” Ferrell says. “Their behavior needs to be addressed too.”

Address cyber. “If something bad is happening online, it’s happening in your school too,” Ferrell says. “Cyber is part of your culture, and you need to address it and give students skills for dealing with it.”

This article is provided by Church Mutual Insurance Company in Merrill, WI. Risk Reporter newsletters are available from the company for religious organizations, schools, camps and conference centers and senior living facilities.


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