Bob Sullo

Dealing With Students Who Bully: Part II

Once I've reminded myself of my role and goal, I'm ready to deal with Jon, the student introduced in my last post, "Dealing With Students Who Bully: Part I (The Essential First Step)."

The next few sentences are a challenge. I'd like to write something that my audience will like. And I know what many of you want: a recipe for dealing with kids who bully. The "right" thing to say. Some of you may be wondering, "What's the choice theory formula when faced with this situation?"

Sorry to disappoint, but there is no magic bullet. Many "experts" will promise you success if you follow their lock-step program. If you're naive enough to settle for simplistic solutions to complex human issues, there are plenty of purveyors of 21st century snake oil. I'm just not one of them.

If you have conquered your disappointment and continued reading, I can share two things that I always do when dealing with kids like Jon. The first is to build and maintain a positive relationship with him. I have dealt with many teachers over the years who have asked me in politically incorrect language, "How do you connect positively with a jerk?" Apart from the insensitivity of their language, the answer is really quite easy for me: I do everything I can to build a positive relationship with Jon and every other kid, parent, teacher, and so forth because that's my job! Whether it's "natural" is irrelevant. Whether it's "easy" is irrelevant. As a professional educator, my job includes working with all students, including those who "don't deserve it" and who are more difficult to like.

Creating and maintaining a positive relationship with Jon is not a one-shot deal. It's an ongoing series of interactions that begin the first time we meet. And it's something so fundamentally important that it serves as a backdrop to every interaction we have, including when he has behaved poorly.

The other thing I do with a student like Jon in this situation is to try to create (or explore if we have) a shared quality world picture. William Glasser has identified four primary patterns of interacting, including counseling and managing. This is a situation that calls for managing. As a manager, I have an agenda and my goal is to invite or enlist the other person to embrace that same goal.

I don't begin by asking Jon, "What do you want?" That question is perfectly appropriate in other contexts, but his answer may take us far from where I want to go and, as a manager, I want to structure the conversation carefully. I begin by asking, "Jon, do you know what it is that I want?" I don't threaten him. I don't punish him. Sensing that he is probably emotionally charged at the moment, I ask him a question that gets him thinking and less focused on himself.

This may sound strange, but it doesn't especially matter to me what Jon says. I have had situations where the poorly behaving student correctly identified what I wanted. Other times, they have no clue. Sometimes they express indifference. Whatever they say gives me information about their current state of mind and willingness to engage with me. And whether they correctly guess what I want or not, I have structured the conversation so I can tell them, "What I want is for this to be a safe environment. Does that sound reasonable to you?"

I have had countless interactions like this, and I have never had a student tell me that my goal is unreasonable.

"OK, so we agree that it's reasonable to want a safe environment. That's what I want. Let me ask you, is that something you want as well?"

More often than not, students tell me they want what I want: a safe environment. When they do—and it's important to me that they overtly express their desire—I say something like, "It sounds like we want the same thing. Since we're on the same side, this should be easy." I have taken a student who might have entered my office seeing me as an adversary and made him an ally, working toward a common goal.

There are rare instances when kids have told me that they were not interested in a safe environment. I'm not there to argue. At that moment, I'm not even especially interested in convincing them to change their mind. I'm simply seeking clarity of intent. "Well, it looks as if you and I want different things. You need to know that I'll do everything I can to ensure that our school is safe. You and I get along well, but that doesn't mean I’m going to tolerate behavior that interferes with my goal of making this a safe school."

Interestingly, the few times the conversation has taken this turn, kids typically shift position. Once they see that I am willing and able to both like them and hold them accountable for their actions, they usually decide to cooperate.

Finally, when dealing with a student who bullies others, I make sure I do two things. First, I enforce the rules of the school. It doesn't make any sense in having rules if they aren't going to be enforced. Second, I make sure I do everything in my power to teach the student a more responsible way to meet his needs. Imposing consequences without teaching a better way to behave is a waste of time. Punishment doesn't magically equip kids with new, effective, responsible behaviors. That requires teaching. So while I enforce the rules and impose any consequences the school handbook includes, I also make sure to include a teaching component so that the student learns how to get what he wants without taking unfair advantage of other students.

In summation, when dealing with kids who bully others, I suggest:

  • Beginning by remembering your role and goal.
  • Building and maintaining a positive relationship with the offending student. (It's part of our role as professional educators.)
  • Assessing if you have a shared want/goal/quality world picture: a safe environment.
  • Clearly articulating what you want.
  • Enforcing school rules.
  • Teaching the offending student a more responsible way to meet his needs.

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.

Comments (3)

Audrey R. Farrington

September 21, 2012

It is interesting that you included building and maintaining a positive relationship with the offending student.  Despite the fact that bullying is unacceptable, building a relationship really works.  I am principal at an elementary school in The Bahamas( K4- grades 1-6).  Something else that works for us is assigning the student a responsibility.  This gives students a sense of self worth and I continue to observe a change in attitude and behaviour.  Students love to be recognized. 



September 22, 2012

I am interested in hearing more about your teaching plan with a bully.  We are a pbs school and we do individual and group booster groups, so any ideas that might work with what we do are appreciated.


October 1, 2012

This is wonderful! Finally someone who gets what needs to be done with children not TO children. What do you say to teachers who INSIST that the child must receive consequences but it’s not their job to TEACH the skill. Or that the child is Choosing the behavior? I deal with this all the time. I have come to learn they mostly want the child removed from the class…simply because they can’t sit on the carpet, they require different teaching, or they are not like the rest of the kids?

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