The B-Word

Thanks to Laurie Mendoza, MA, CAGS, an elementary school counselor in Massachusetts for this post about Bully Nation. Check out her site at School Counseling Files


Yowza.  I just read a book that affected me profoundly, and in a way that is going to dramatically change the way I approach the issue of bullying and aggression at my elementary school. It totally rocked my counseling world.

The book—which I read in an afternoon—is Bully Nation by Susan Eva Porter. It would be impossible for me to summarize it quickly and do it justice, so instead I’m going to tell you some of the things that made me go hmm and hope they’ll interest you enough to make you read the book yourself.

So. Turn on the news or listen to the discussions among parents and school staff or think of how often one kid accuses another of bullying.  There’s obviously a bullying epidemic, right?

Actually, no there isn’t.

Wait. What the what??? 

Dr. Porter totally dismantles the widely-accepted notion that kids are under siege from bullies 24/7.  While she provides a number of good reasons why we are under that impression, it was when she pointed out that the definition of bullying has expanded hugely in the last ten years or so that I instantly thought, “Well, duh. That is SO incredibly obvious.”  Then I did a face-palm because apparently I am not a master of the obvious.

Bullying used to be defined as some form of coercion—forcing someone, usually smaller, to do something they didn’t want to do—often via physical force. It was pretty clear, and most people could agree if something constituted bullying or not.  But in the last decade behaviors that used to be considered just plain mean or even routine kid stuff are now being called bullying.

(“Dirty looks?” Really? My brother would have been in jail FOR LIFE.  Mom, Mike’s looking at me again!)

What was fairly black-and-white has become much grayer.  Many of the newly classified “bullying behaviors” are subtle and subject to interpretation.  The “subject to interpretation” part is important to note because as the definition of bullying has expanded and become more amorphous, anti-bully language, school policies, and state laws have moved in the opposite direction, growing more rigid and unequivocal.

In almost any situation at school where there is a conflict between children, anti-bullying procedures kick in.  By law in most states, once the B-word is invoked by a child or parent. These force us to spend huge amounts of time and energy investigating every incident, require us to place black-and-white labels on children, and take away our ability to use our professional judgment in dealing with individual situations.

Bully language is overly simplistic and emotionally laden. Its labels—bully, victim, bystander—place children in predetermined roles that are each harmful in their own way. Once the roles have been assigned it is nearly impossible for adults to look at all sides of the story, to have compassion for the child who is labeled as the bully, or to focus on solutions instead of punishment.

Bully language also makes it almost impossible for children to feel hopeful or empowered.  The anti-bullying programs and procedures we’re being required to implement give kids a whole lot of messages we shouldn’t be comfortable with.

For “victims,” these include things like:

  • Anything anyone does that causes me any type of emotional discomfort or pain is bullying, and it can damage me for life
  • I have no control over how I feel; I am completely at the mercy of others and how they treat me
  • I am incapable of solving my own problems
  • If I’m a “victim,” I don’t have to examine or take responsibility for my own actions

For “bullies:”

  • If I hurt someone’s feelings—even if that wasn’t my intention—then I am a bully
  • Being a “bully” means I’m a bad kid and I can never change
  • I can never make a social mistake
  • Relationships can’t be fixed once there’s a problem

And even for “bystanders:”

  • It is my responsibility to stand up for others even if I don’t understand what’s going on
  • If I don’t, then I am just as guilty as the bully

The reason we should be opposed to these messages are obvious: they are the opposite of the messages we try to impart to our students every day—that they are worthwhile individuals who are in the process of learning how to be caring, capable, and resilient problem-solvers.

Porter reminds us repeatedly that we are talking about children. During their school careers, kids have to learn many complex social-emotional skills: how to manage their feelings, control their impulses, read social cues, develop empathy, and tolerate frustration, to name a few.

Expecting children to do these things—perfectly, at all times, and regardless of whether or not they are developmentally able to (as Zero Tolerance policies dictate)—is setting them up to fail in a spectacular fashion.  Always demonstrating these skills can be a challenge for many adults.  We all can personally attest to that.

Social-emotional skills are complicated and need to be explicitly taught.  They require lots of practice, reinforcement, and correction, and the child has to be developmentally ready to learn them.  Trying to legislate mature social behavior or to teach it only by punishing mistakes would be like suspending a Kindergartener for not knowing his multiplication tables: ridiculous, ineffective, and harmful to his mental health.

I view most kids’ difficulties as skill-based deficits or developmental delays (thanks, Collaborative Problem Solving!), so I try to look at situations from each child’s perspective while considering history and context.  It’s important to do this because once we label a child a bully and believe he or she is deliberately setting out to harm peers, we lose both our compassion for that child and our ability to help. When is the last time you were at a meeting where people were thoughtfully considering ways to teach skills rather than punish a so-called bully?  My experience has been that once the B-word is invoked, any attempts to try to reframe the conversation are often seen as me being an apologist for the kid’s bad behavior.

School counselors—of all people—need to be able to recognize the complexities of children’s interactions, identify the lagging skills (of all parties!) that create problems, and help come up with positive solutions that will teach those skills. And we need to do it with compassion.

I’ll be scheduling a meeting with my administrators to discuss my personal plan for the upcoming year:

  1. I will not use any type of bully language when discussing students, and I will steer my colleagues away from doing so.
  2. I will never forget that:
  • all students do well if they can; they are children who are learning how to be kind and socially appropriate and who need support (and appropriate modeling by adults!) to do so
  • there are always two sides to a story; almost nothing is as black-and-white as it may first appear
  • there is always hope

3. I will adapt my practice this year by focusing on helping kids develop resilience: 

  • I’ll spend at least part of each session recognizing progress instead of harping on problems
  • I’ll teach specific skills for identifying and managing emotions
  • I’ll teach specific skills for self-calming
  • I’ll provide accurate feedback about students’ behavior  
  • I’ll continue to use Izzy Kalman’s Bullies to Buddies materials to help children reject others’ negative comments about them (

4. I’m thinking seriously too about teaching kids those verbal talismans that used to “protect” us when we were in school: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me and I’m rubber, you’re glue; what you say bounces off me and sticks to you.I

I can hear you now: “That’s crazy, Laurie!”  

And here’s my response: I know you are but what am I?

Read the book.  Let’s discuss.


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