No bullies allowed: Prevention programs help students

Most children experience some form of bullying or teasing at sometime or other in their lives. Kids often move in and out of childhood relationships.

One boy in middle school started to bully an old friend and the principal had to call his home. The parents of the boy who was bullied also called. After sitting down and asking their son why he was doing it, his parents found out he thought he'd outgrown his friend and felt much more mature.

Later, when the friend caught up and the maturity gap lessened, the two eventually became friends again. "I think kids are often not yet equipped to solve their problems," his mother says, "For my son it was easier just to break up the friendship," than to grapple with the maturity changes that adolescence brings.

Sometimes bullying is triggered by differences. Children who have a different appearance or manner, are overweight, or have anything about them seen as different can be picked on by a classmate. Children in one family were teased by another child because their last name was considered unusual. Teased at school and on the bus about their name, the children came home crying and didn't want to go to school. After they called the parents of the child doing the teasing, who happen to be friends, it stopped in its tracks.

Bullying can be transient, occurring with a single incident, or it can be a repeated problem for some. Repeated bullying is often a concern for parents and the child. "If your child is on the receiving, or the giving end of bullying, year to year," a parent points out, "something is going on."

Carlisle Public School has a problem with bullying, but so do schools in Acton, Bedford, Billerica, Chelmsford, Concord, Westford, and schools across the state, the nation, and the world. A simple Google search turns up tens of thousands of web sites on the topic.

It happens on school bus rides before or after school, in hallways, on the way back from gym class, at lunch and recess, and sometimes in class. A more recent type of harassment, called cyber-bullying, includes e-mails, instant, and text messaging with negative comments about another student. The school has received a couple of reports of it, but not on any of the school's computers.

During unstructured times such as bus and recess, incidents are more likely to occur. "Kids sometimes say things they later regret," says Assistant Principal Michael Giurlando, who tries to teach students to be more sensitive when they speak, and to think of the appropriateness of what they say. "If it's not something you can say in front of an adult, then it's not something you should say," he tells them.

Principal Steve Goodwin praises Giurlando's efforts in the last two years that Giurlando has been Assistant Principal in Carlisle. "He's made dozens of connections with kids. He has lunch with them in the cafeteria, and helps to model good behavior for them."

Both principals, Goodwin and Giurlando, have made an effort to be more visible on the play plaza and in the cafeteria during lunch and recess this school year. "If I can solve a problem at the moment, as I see it," Goodwin says, "I don't have to have someone down to the office after the fact." The tactic has been particularly effective in the middle school, allowing more conflicts to be taken care of behind the scenes, without progressing, Goodwin says.

When there is an issue that comes up at school, the school sometimes needs to call the home. "We need honest communication with the parents, to let them know we are working on this. Parents are a vital part of this, and they, along with the kids and the school, are a partnership," says Giurlando.


Research shows that prevention is probably the best strategy to prevent bullying from happening. Various prevention programs have been developed to help schools focus on the issue. Carlisle draws on the Open Circle program to support students in elementary grades K-5. The program was developed at Wellesley College in 1987 to encourage social and emotional learning in schools.

Open Circle, which has been the centerpiece of the school's elementary social competency program, includes a section on bullying and ways for children to problem solve when they encounter it. This year guidance counselors Sharon Grossman and Jenny Bove also supplemented it with two other elementary programs, "Quit It!" and "Bully Proof," both developed by the Monadnock Center for Violence Prevention.

The school reviewed the curriculum and expanded the number of Open Circle lessons in grades K-5 this year to ensure key lessons are taught at every grade level, Superintendent Marie Doyle says. With consistency, the school wants all students to receive the same training and progress in their social skills with each grade.

Fifth-grade led assemblies

Community meetings of students in grades two to five are held every other month in the auditorium to get kids together and help build the school community, says Giurlando, who helps to oversee the meetings. The assemblies started during the last school year after the administrative staff, second grade teacher, Lynn Walker, and other teachers visited a school in a nearby town to see how the meetings work.

Fifth graders, the oldest elementary students, host the assemblies. They prepare and put on a skit with actors and a stage crew, and offer a math challenge question for students.The assemblies help to develop "the notion of leadership" in students, Giurlando says, while celebrating civility. At the assemblies, students are given recognition for their actions, he says, such as consistently helping to pick up in the cafeteria, helping younger students in the new after-school science classes, or being a good buddy to a younger student in the buddy program. "We remind students we are a community of learners, but also a community that's here to help each other."

Second Step program

The school uses Second Step: A Violence Prevention Curriculum, to address social issues, including bullying, in middle school. The program is administered under the school's health curriculum. For many years the school has also held small group meetings with middle school students and a teacher advisor, either weekly, or every other week. Teachers advise the same group of students all year, getting to know them better, including the social dynamics of the student groups.

The school has also discussed training students in techniques of conflict resolution to help student leaders to address social conflicts, with the support of a staff member.

"Bullying cannot be tolerated at any level," says Superintendent Marie Doyle. Teacher and staff training and development are key, Doyle points out: "Our mission is to educate them, empower them, and support their efforts to have a voice to stop teasing and bullying."

The school has worked hard this year to focus on the issue. This year Principal Steve Goodwin and the school psychologists attended an anti-bullying training seminar given by author Stan Davis. The seminar and related book (see Resources) point out that along with a bully, and a target, there are often bystanders. The training helped the school to focus on bystanders, Goodwin says, and how to empower other students to do something about the problem, rather than ignore it.

Students must understand clearly what are considered unacceptable behaviors at school. Continuing to educate students on social issues, and training teachers, aides, bus drivers and other staff to recognize and stop bullying will go a long way to improving student life. "Every child needs to feel safe and included in our school," Doyle points out as one of the school's basic missions.

While bullying prevention programs help to curb the problem, schools can only do so much. The roots of the problem reach out into society and into homes. "The more violent television, violent movies, violent video games, and music glorifying violence kids are exposed to, the more likely they are to solve problems in violent ways. We can limit kids' exposure to all these media," says Stan Davis in his guide for parents.

Family modeling and parents also form part of the bullying equation, where what is said and modeled at home can and sometimes does come out at school.

School programs help, but no one can claim the problem is close to being eradicated. One thing is clear: bullying is taken more seriously now than ever, a fact of school life that can only benefit students. "It's on the radar for teacher, administrators, and kids," Goodwin says. "It exists, and in the last five years it's being discussed more than ever before."

Recommended resources

Principal Steve Goodwin recommends the following book: "Schools Where Everyone Belongs: Practical Strategies for Reducing Bullying," by Stan Davis, 2003. The book acknowledges that teasing and bullying are something that children do because of their development stages, and it looks at ways that communities can address the issues by being proactive and educating students, Goodwin says.

School psychologist Sharon Grossman recommends these web sites for parents: 1) The National Association of School Psychologists' web site contains an article 'Bullies and Victims' for parents; 2) "Schools Where Everyone Belongs: Practical Strategies for Reducing Bullying," author Stan Davis' web site. It has extensive advice for parents, schools, and anyone who deals with children.