Bob Sullo

Dealing with Students Who Bully: Part I (The Essential First Step)

Note: Just as I warned about the dangers of identifying kids as "victims" in my last post, I try to avoid calling kids "bullies." So even though it's faster and easier to label a kid as a bully, I prefer to say "a kid who bullied another." It might seem like a subtle difference, but I think it dramatically changes our perception and behavior.

After reading "Standing Up to Bullying: Refusing to Be a Victim," a reader from New Hampshire asked me to discuss how I would handle a student who bullies another. The following scene (or something like it) happened to me more than once during my time as a middle school administrator.

I return to my office after supervising 200 5th grade students at lunch, and my secretary informs me that Jon is waiting for me. He has been sent to the office for bullying other students. It's not the first time. Apparently, Jon and was in the boys' bathroom when a 5th grade boy entered. Jon told him the bathroom was off limits unless he paid Jon. Scared beyond belief—Jon is a rather imposing 6th grader and the 5th grade boy is both small for his age and timid—the 5th grade boy left quickly and went to the nurse's office, where he asked to use the facilities.

As I entered my office and saw Jon, chair tipped back and just a trace of a smirk on his face, I immediately felt rage surging inside of me. At that moment, I wanted to berate him. I wanted to humiliate him. I wanted to punish him. A part of me even wanted to smack him. (Yeah, I'm a senior faculty member of The William Glasser Association and consult all over the world, but I haven't fully eliminated anger from my behavioral repertoire.) As much as I genuinely like Jon, he can be horribly mean and had gone after a weak target. I was enraged. This isn't why I got into education.

Fortunately, I am well-versed in internal control psychology/choice theory. Even though nearly everybody I know would blindly accept it if I were to say, "Jon makes me so angry!," I knew Jon doesn't make me anything. Like everyone else, he just behaves. Unfortunately for me (and lots of others), he often behaves in hurtful, inappropriate ways. Today was no exception. But the fact remains: Jon doesn't make me angry or cause me to lose it. He is responsible for his behavior; I am in control of mine, including how I choose to deal with him at this moment.

So, my first rule in dealing with a student who has bullied another is this: Remember my role and my goal. Forget the poorly behaving student for a moment. Instead, let me focus on the following:

What's my role in this situation?

Given my role, what do I want?

It has been my experience that when I remember to ask myself these two questions, my anger dissipates and I can more easily access behavior that will help the offending child in front of me, allowing me to do my job more effectively.

As a school administrator, my role included helping all kids behave responsibly, even those whose behavior was horribly inappropriate. Berating Jon or humiliating him wouldn't help him grow, mature, and become more empathetic. Aggressively informing him of my displeasure would only model a version of the bullying behavior I abhor. No, my role required me to deal with Jon differently, even though my anger and frustration with him was perfectly understandable.

And what did I want? Did I really want him to feel humiliated? No. I might have harbored the false belief that humiliation would somehow magically lead Jon to enlightenment, but what I really wanted was to help Jon develop a more appropriate, empathetic behavior repertoire.

When I entered my office, my behavior was dominated by angry emotion. In that state, there was no way I could do my job well. By taking a moment to ask myself, "What is my role? Given my role, what is my goal?" I gave myself a new way to behave, one that would allow me to deal more effectively with a student who clearly needed adult help.

When we are faced with a child who has bullied another, we understandably want to take immediate, decisive action. Because bullying is so offensive to us, it's easy to become a slave to our emotions in moments like these. For that reason, I believe the essential first step in dealing with a student who has bullied another is to calm ourselves by focusing on our role and goal. Once we get our own emotions in check, we will be better able to intervene effectively.

In an upcoming piece, I'll discuss the kinds of things I might specifically say to Jon and identify my two primary goals when working with him.

Bob Sullo is an ASCD author and educational consultant. Over the course of his career, he has worked with both general-education and special-education students from preK through graduation in elementary, middle, and high school. Visit Sullo's website, read his blog, and follow him on Twitter.

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