Taking A Small Step Back To Take A Giant Leap Forward – Part 1 of 3



Proactively emphasizing and teaching positive expectations and values such as respect, acceptance, empathy, positivity, cooperation and peaceful coexistence can serve to establish a new climate.

Lately it seems that, for better or worse, we have all become more aware of ‘bullying’ and its negative impact on children and school culture. Unfortunately, some have gone so far as deeming it an ‘epidemic’. Also unfortunate is the vagueness of the term ‘bullying’ and, as a result, seemingly scattered and inconsistent approaches for addressing the behaviors. To begin dialogue about ‘bullying’and ideas on how to approach it, please first consider what the term means to you. The American Psychological Association defines bullying as “a form of aggressive behavior in which
someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. Bullying can take the form of physical contact, words or more subtle actions. The bullied individual typically has trouble defending him or herself and does nothing to ‘cause’ the bullying (apa.org).” Even given this thorough and logical explanation, it remains up to the individual to make the judgment. What is aggressive? How does one determine intent? What is discomfort?

Take a Step Back

‘Bullying’, like ‘working,’ ‘playing’ and ‘friendship,’ is quite a subjective term. Based on the person, situation and environment, it can mean several different things. Consider the concept of ‘friendship.’ What does ‘friendship’ look like? For some, a friendship may include daily contact, exchange of intimate secrets, frequent prosocial/selfless behaviors, standing-up for one another, etc. For others, especially those with social skills deficits, friendships
may look drastically different. Communication may be relatively limited, altruistic behavior may be less prevalent, seeing one another may be relatively infrequent etc. Most important here are the specific attributes enveloped within the larger concept of “friendship” (such as feelings of satisfaction and joy that come from positive interpersonal connections, feelings of confidence associated with knowing that people care about and like you, feelings of security associated with knowing that these people are willing to help you when necessary and willing to help fill your free time, etc.).

Labeling a person as a ‘bully’ or labeling a behavior/trend of behaviors as ‘bullying’ depends on the person, situation, environment and even the culture. Labeling a person as a ‘bully’ or labeling a behavior/trend of behaviors as ‘bullying’ depends on the person, situation, environment and even the culture. It goes without saying that applying a label to anything has an effect. The word ‘bullying’ has strong negative connotations, so a proverbial pot will be stirred once the term is introduced. Note that the word ‘bullying’ and all its variations have been placed in quotes over the course of this article – the purpose is to highlight the abstractness of the term and to provoke thought about its validity. Let’s say a group of children is found to be targeting one other child and throwing things at him/her. It sounds quite negative on the surface; however, if the situation is explored and the children are found to be participating in a game of dodge ball, the situation should be re-examined. In this case, the would-be aggressors would be behaving in an acceptable, expected way.

Now, if it were discovered that the ‘aggressors’ were targeting their own teammate, the situation changes yet again.
Would you label these children ‘bullies’? Is this an isolated incident, or a trend? Is the ‘attack’ all in good fun and is everyone laughing together including the ‘victim’? Is there some sort of history between the ‘aggressors’ and ‘victim’? Is there a risk of injury? Who is making these judgments – a teacher? A parent of an ‘aggressor’? A parent of the ‘victim’? A child? The range of complications that can arise in a situation like this is quite vast, so it might just pay to
reserve judgment until sufficient information/data is collected. If a child approaches you and claims that they are being ‘bullied’, you may want to ask them what they mean by ‘bullied’. The answer may be surprising. It bears mentioning that, across the board, any incident or situation in which health and safety are at imminent risk
should absolutely be met with urgent intervention.

In other situations, we can usually afford to take a step back, gather information, and act accordingly (if action is determined to be preferable to inaction, which could certainly be appropriate in some more minor instances). Working from the ground-up to understand the situation as fully as possible can make it easier to intervene
and also to take preventative measures in the future. Data-driven decision making is being heavily emphasized nowadays, and rightfully so. From a behavioral point of view, behaviors that could be considered ‘bullying’
would likely have some desired consequence/outcome. If the desired outcome is to enhance your self-esteem, one way to achieve that goal is to negatively affect the self-esteem of others so that you look better by comparison. Most would probably say that putting others down is certainly a damaging and unacceptable way of tipping the self-esteem balance in your favor. Unfortunately though, it seems to be an effective one given the frequency with which it is used. Positive or negative, if the strategy was not effective, it would not be utilized.

Take a Leap Forward

In the learning process, we naturally try to fill blanks and solve unknowns with our own instincts and imaginations. Take our above example of self-esteem. If the automatic instinct to enhance your own selfesteem is to put someone else down, then a large problem exists with the instinct/thought process, and not necessarily all with the behavior. In this light, it makes sense to proactively build positive instincts and expectations, so that there is less room for the imagination to roam and explore negative instincts.

Don’t rely heavily on reactivity: After an  incient of perceived bullying, many would agree that “something needs to be done.” In accordance with this philosophy, some schools and institutions adopt a zero-tolerance policy and/or take strong action in response to bullying incidents as the exclusive approach. The primary focus becomes on the negatively-oriented incident. Benhar (2012) suggests that this may not be the best practice because of several unintended outcomes which include: providing sought eparent after attention to bullies, giving bullies a sense of accomplishment/confidence with the ‘bully’ label, responding to negativity with more negativity (which may spiral),
and inconsistency with implementing an anti-bullying program.

In fact, the statement “something needs to be done” has merit. However, that ‘something’ needs to be evidence-based, consistent and effective. Knee-jerk reactions and power struggles in response to bullying behaviors can be ineffective and even adversely effective. As stated, all situations are unique, and whatever consequence or disciplinary action that is implemented should be appropriate. Additionally, consider the ‘bully’ and why this person is behaving in such a way. Might this person be experiencing emotional issues that may worsen as a result of punitive measures? If so, the bullying behavior may continue or even escalate if not addressed from a supportive angle.

Prevention and proaction are key: How can negativity be nipped in the bud when dealing with something as negative as ‘bullying’? A growing trend in district schools, non-district schools and other educational settings, such as New York Institute of Technology’s Vocational Independence Program (a post-secondary program for young adults with learning disabilities and/or autism spectrum disorders) is the use of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS, for short). PBIS is a collection of systematic procedures all operating under the philosophy of ingrained positivity. “One of the foremost advances in schoolwide discipline is the emphasis on school wide systems of support that include proactive strategies for defining, teaching, and supporting appropriate student behaviors to create positive school environments.

Instead of using a piecemeal approach of individual behavioral management plans, a continuum of positive behavior support for all students within a school is implemented in areas including the classroom and nonclassroom settings (such as hallways, buses, and restrooms)” (pbis.org) With PBIS, positive values, behavior and language are explicitly woven into an institution’s culture in the form of expectations. Accordingly, negative behaviors are deemphasized
as to reduce the attention devoted to them. For example, instead of saying “Don’t Vandalize School Property”, the expectation should be stated more positively – “Respect School Property.” Even introducing the words ‘don’t’ and ‘vandalize’ invoke negativity and sour the tone of the dialogue. In an environment where negativity is so overshadowed by positivity, it stands to reason that issues like ‘bullying’ would struggle to emerge. Besides, rules are
meant to be broken; expectations are meant to be exceeded.

PBIS practices are found to be effective in decreasing ‘bullying’/exclusion behavior, bettering school climate and promoting positivity (Waasdorp et.al, 2012). Setting clear expectations helps to fill in some ‘blanks’ that children may have when deciding how to behave. If we are never taught that we should show up to a birthday party with a gift, we may never do so because it’s expensive and inconvenient. Likewise, if we are never taught that empathy is expected of us, we will look to achieve our goals with or without it. If we are never told or taught that respect for others is expected of us, we may operate under the assumption that respect for others is completely optional. It’s unsafe to assume that children will develop positive instincts on their own and without at least some oversight
and guidance.

In addition to all that PBIS does to address ‘bullying’ behaviors, PBIS can also serve to empower the would-be victims of ‘bullying’ as well. By explicitly promoting expectations of assertiveness, respect and good decision-making, children may be more apt to absorb these traits and use them effectively. Instead of establishing and maintaining
a ‘helpless victim’ mentality, children are encouraged to use their resources, play to their strengths, employ effective and positive coping strategies and make the best decisions possible. At times, it can seem that life holds far more unwritten rules than written ones. The case of ‘bullying’ behaviors boils down to choices made in the moment by children (or adults, for that matter). Sure, there are consequences for negative behaviors, but punitive measures
can only go so far. If the goal of the negative behavior is achieved and outweighs the punishment, it’s chalked up as a victory.

Taking a step back, it seems as though answering injustice with firm justice may not be the most effective approach all of the time. Proactively emphasizing and teaching positive expectations and values such as respect, acceptance, empathy, positivity, cooperation and peaceful coexistence can serve to establish a new climate; one where negative, ‘bullying’ type behaviors are not met with undeserved attention and counteraction, but rather fall by the wayside as
positive behaviors, attitudes and instincts prevail and dominate the norm.•
Walter Mayer, LMSW is the Coordinator of Residential Life at New York Institute of Technology’s Vocational Independence Program in Central Islip, New York.
American Psychological Association. ‘bullying’ “Bullying.” http://www.apa.org/topics/bullying/. Accessed August 14, 2014. Benhar, Michael. “Bullying Prevention and Positive Behavior Support.” Strategies for Successful Learning 6, no. 1 (2012) Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports – OSEP.” School.”
https://www.pbis.org/school. Accessed August 14, 2014.
Waasdorp, T. E., C. P. Bradshaw, and P. J. Leaf. “The Impact of Schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports on Bullying and Peer Rejection: A Randomized Controlled Effectiveness Trial.” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 166, no. 2 (2012): 149-56.