This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: I’m talking to Dr. Marcie Beigel about how to prevent bullying in the classroom.
Today I’m talking with Dr. Marcie Beigel (known as simply Dr. Marcie), a child behavioral specialist and author of the book Love Your Classroom Again: Realistic Behavior Strategies for Educators. She’s also the founder and director of Behavior + Beyond.
I was introduced to Dr. Marcie’s work when I heard her speaking about bullying prevention on a local news channel here in New York City where we’re both based, and am really excited to have her here on the podcast to share tips on this with you all, as well.
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I want to start by defining what bullying is, and what it isn’t, because I feel like bullying has become sort of a catch-all term that’s used whenever anyone says anything unkind. “He insulted me, he’s a bully.” But that really downplays the potential impact of actual bullying, and I think it’s important to understand the difference.
Definitely. And I think that this is a really important topic because bullying has become so generalized, yet not to the huge degree that the term is being thrown around.
To actually be in a bullying situation or dynamic, it’s ongoing. So it’s not one instance of someone being mean or someone being in a bad mood. It’s an ongoing experience of negative behavior between the same two people around the same topic. It often includes an action that they’re getting them to do and a perceived imbalance of power. Sort of the very stereotypical thought of the kiddo that is going to steal your lunch money, and comes up to you and says, “Give me your lunch money,” and then the kiddo who’s being bullied says, “OK, here,” as if they have no other choice, and this is happening every single day for three weeks at school, that’s bullying.
Right. So it’s really centered around the imbalance of power, that is what we’re talking about here.
Yes. But, to me, I want to specify that it’s a perceived imbalance as opposed to an actual imbalance. Right? I think for a lot of small children, they don’t get that just because this other child who’s maybe bigger or more popular or whatever the ramifications are, more something than them, that they don’t have to listen to them. Whereas they don’t. It’s not the same as listening to your teacher.
I think every teacher can think of kids who seem to always be the target of bullies. How can we as teachers teach our students to respond to bullies, and prevent themselves from being a target?
I love this question, because what I have experienced is that lots of children who have been bullied are pacified. They’re allowed to talk about it as much as they want, they’re told it’s not their fault, which it’s not, let me be clear. And just are allowed to, in some ways, spin out in their own anxiety around being bullied, and to me that is really unhealthy.
If they had an experience that was hard for them, let’s talk about it, let’s address it, and then let’s teach them the skills to move on from it and get past it. Or better yet, let’s teach our kiddos not to be bullied in the first place, because there are specific kids that get targeted repeatedly throughout their life and even into adulthood. I know some adults who are still in bullying dynamics because they allow themselves to be in some ways.
To me, the way that you really change that dynamic is teaching kids when they can say yes, when they can say no, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. Knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are, who you really are in the world is how you have good self esteem. When you have good self esteem, someone can’t bully you.
For me personally, I’m short, I’ve always been short, and no one could bully me around that because I know it. To me it’s just a fact. It’s not something I’m ashamed of or feel bad about, it’s just who I am. So if someone were to walk up to me and go, “Shrimp!” “You’re right. You’re taller than me.”
I don’t give the bully any response that is interesting or that would make them come back for more, because there’s no reaction. Whereas if you feel insecure or unclear about the fact that you’re short, you try to defend yourself, you tend to fight back, you give a big emotional response, and that’s really satisfying to all of us, right? We’re all looking for a big emotional response, and it tends to allow bullies to come back.
That’s a really good thought. I want to sort of go back to the piece that you said about how they’re not victims. Not that they’re not victims, but that we don’t want to train kids to perceive themselves as victims and to keep replaying that story to themselves where they are the continual target. I really like that a lot and the idea of really embracing who you are. What else can kids do to stand up to bullies? What should we advise them to do if they’re being bullied?
To me, bullying is an attention-seeking behavior, right? Behaviors only have a couple of functions, and when a child is bullying, they’re looking to get a reaction, they’re looking to get a response. So the best thing you can do when someone is saying something unkind, saying something mean to you is not react, which for small kids is really hard to do.
So the best advice that I’ve given kids is walk away. If somebody is talking to you in a way that doesn’t feel good to you, walk away from that person. You’re under no obligation to stay there. And if there’s something bigger going on as in you’re being bullied while you’re doing a group project or the teacher has assigned you a partner and they’re being mean to you, then talk to the grownup.
That’s why the teachers are there and express what’s happening and why you need something different, because the more we can get our kids to tell us in that factual basis as opposed to being devastated by it, the more empowered they become, because they have a way to change their environment.
How does this play out for kids whose culture or home environment sort of teaches them that walking away makes you, to be perfectly blunt, kind of makes you a punk, right? You don’t just walk away and you also don’t snitch, because in some communities that’s the worst response. So you don’t want to tell an adult, and you definitely can’t walk away. You have to stand your ground and fight. How would you advise a child for whom that’s the norm?
I think that that is a big piece of just addressing cultures overall. Is that really the message that we want to teach our kids? There’s a difference to me between standing up for yourself and fighting back, right? If someone comes up to me and says, “You’re short,” and I go, “I am,” with full confidence, secure in the fact because someone has taught me that I am short, it’s just a fact. It’s not something to feel bad about. My family will talk about it. I know that this is just who I am and that’s OK or, you know, growing up I was really bad at spelling. Someone goes, “You failed your spelling test,” and I go, “I did.”
And that, to me, is standing up. I don’t have to attack you and say, “Well you’re ugly,” if you call me short, and that, to me, is where the breakdown starts, and then it goes from bullying to a fight in which both kids are then going to get in trouble.
Right. Exactly. That’s what we want to make sure we prevent. I also want to talk about how teachers should respond to the kids who are doing the bullying. These kids are also often our students, and what I’ve found is that the stereotype of a “bad” kid bullying a “good’ kid isn’t quite accurate. Many of the kids who have the tendency to bully others are often quite tenderhearted themselves, they have a lot of very good qualities, but there’s also a lot of pain and misplaced aggression happening. So how do we put ourselves in a place of empathy so that we can get to the root of the problem and prevent bullying behaviors from taking place?
One of the core messages that I teach everywhere, which applies to bullies here, is that there are no bad kids. There’s just bad behavior. And so any label that you’re going to put on a child that starts to define who they are or that you start to think of them as who they are, they start to pick up that identity. So a kiddo who is bullying is not a bully. He’s having some problem behavior that we need to address. And if you as a teacher maintain that framework, you’ll be able to address that behavior.
But if you start going, “Oh, they’re just a bully. That’s all they are. That’s all they can be,” then that kid starts to identify themselves as that and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. So the first step as adults is to really say, “We have some problem behavior that needs to change,” rather than labeling the child.
And even if you’re not saying that out loud, that’s what we tend to think, right? “I’m not telling the kid that they’re bad.” But, you know, when you’re thinking, “This kid is such a pain. This kid is always in trouble. This kid never makes the right decision. He’s always bullying other people.” And you keep telling yourself that story that the child is a bully, that’s going to naturally be reflected in your tone, in your word choice.
I can think of instances where I was sort of playing those types of stories in my mind, and then overreacted to the behavior. The kid would just look at someone funny, and I’d just jump on them for it, and that’s because I had sort of framed that kid in my mind as a troublemaker. And that did a lot of damage. That’s a trap that I think a lot of us as teachers fall into.
Yes. It’s exactly what the problem is. That if you have defined a kid a certain way, then when that child and another child come up and say, “Well we got in a fight, and he hit me, and she called me a name, and blah, blah, blah,” you automatically already decided without actually knowing which kid was at fault. And that might not be true.
There have been a lot of classrooms that I sort of get to sit back and watch what’s happening in classrooms as a part of my role at times. And what I see is really wonderful caring teachers look at their classroom and happen to catch “the bad kid” doing something wrong, and yell at them. They get in trouble. They get kicked out of the classroom. But three other kids did the same exact thing, the teacher didn’t even notice it. The stories that we tell ourselves really do impact what we start to see.
So you want to make sure that you are defining the behavior and what you’re seeing and moving from there. Because the other thing about that is that then you’re going to start to figure out, “Well, why are they doing that?” Bullying is all about getting attention, so why is that kiddo trying to get attention in this way? Can I teach them to get attention in a better way? Are they missing social skills that they don’t really know how to go be friends and want to build a friendship and they’re doing that?
You will come at that child and teach them very differently than if you label them as a bully, and if you’re constantly looking for what positive you can teach that child of how to change that behavior, then the sky’s the limit, and you can literally in one school year, with one child, change their entire future, if you come at them from that perspective.
What about cyberbullying? One of the most frustrating things for schools is that a lot of bullying is happening after school hours, it’s happening via social media, and that’s really out of the jurisdiction of principals and teachers. So what do we as teachers do when we’re told by parents or students that there’s bullying happening, but it’s happening on students’ own devices during their own time?
This is one of those times where schools and parents really need to come together and get on the same page about what is good and what is bad, and then have ongoing conversations with their students, with their children about technology and about social media. I think that many children don’t quite understand what’s happening in the cyber world, and so they end up saying things there because they think it sounds cool or their other friend did it, or everyone else was saying this, and they don’t understand the impact they’re having, because you’re not sitting in front of the child who’s receiving that, needing to watch the impact it has. It’s removed enough.
The thing to me about social media that we as adults, I think, struggle with, is that we are creating personas that we’re putting out to the world, right? I’m on Facebook, you can go look me up, and I have met people who I don’t know in person but have found me on social media, and they meet me, and they talk to me like they know me. And it’s a little bit strange at first, because I’m like, “How do they … oh right. They know that I was on vacation, because they saw the photos … right. OK, this makes sense now.”
So we have created personas, whether it’s intentional or unintentional, that we’re putting out into the world, and teaching our children that that’s what they’re doing, and that you want to represent a true and accurate face of yourself out in the world, which means if you wouldn’t say it to somebody’s face, you shouldn’t be saying it online. If you wouldn’t talk that way in front of your parents, you shouldn’t be saying it to anyone online, and creating rules and dynamics around that, and then having that be a continuous conversation.
It’s not a one-shot deal, right? It’s an ongoing development of, “Well, what do you say now?” And especially as kids go from elementary school to growing up into middle school and maybe getting interested in dating and relationships, talking to them about how to use social media in appropriate ways that way is also really important, because it totally changes the dynamic.
As we wrap up, what’s something that you wish every single teacher knew about preventing bullying amongst their students?
The biggest thing that I can say is that it’s a classroom-wide challenge. It’s not just between two kids who are having a challenged dynamic. If you as the teacher show up as a leader for your class and say, “We treat people in this room with kindness,” and define what that means, “and we support each other and we raise each other up,” then you will be so much less likely to have bullying in your classroom, because children will feel safe and seen and supported. And be the model of that, and then teach all of the children in your classroom to do that, so there won’t be any space for them to bully each other.
Thank you so much, Marcie, for your time and for sharing your wisdom and experiences with us. If teachers want to learn more from you, where should they go?
There are two main places. One is I have a book that recently came out called Love Your Classroom Again: Realistic Behavior Strategies for Educators that you can go on Amazon and get. It has short, sweet chapters defining exactly how to combat some of the most challenging behaviors you’re facing. And then come to my website. It’s behaviorandbeyond.net, and all of my resources are there, links to all of my social media pages are there, and you can sign up for my blog. I send out weekly insights for you. Just a wealth of information, because I think that teachers and parents understanding behavior goes so much further in the day-to-day lives of children.
I always close out the show with something that I call The Takeaway Truth–a short but powerful sentence or quote that I want teachers to remember in the week ahead. Marcie, can you give us a Takeaway Truth for this week?
All behavior can change. If you remember that all behavior can change, you will always look for a way to change it, and that you know that it’s possible. And over and over again I’ve worked with teachers and parents where they thought it was impossible. They had tried and nothing worked, and we found a way to change it. So always know that it is possible to change.All behavior can change. Change is always possible. --Dr. Marcie Beigel Click To Tweet
This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 15-20 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead.
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