CLEMSON, South Carolina — The perception of bullying has shifted from being a normal part of growing up to a pressing social and public health issue. This is a welcome paradigm shift for many school administrators and higher education faculty involved in the field, but the reality of how to deal with bullying behavior can still perplex even the most devoted parent, teacher or principal.

Bullying is not on the rise — numbers suggest it is decreasing in some areas — but the complete elimination of it may be wishful thinking, according to Sue Limber, a professor in Clemson University’s youth, family and community studies department, Limber said prevention efforts can reduce the harmful effects of bullying and the rate of bullying, so equipping parents and teachers with effective strategies for identifying and addressing negative behavior is a more realistic approach.

“Parents, teachers and administrators should listen to their kids and students first and foremost,” Limber said. “Asking questions and getting a sense of the social climate of the classroom and school can help prevent bullying behavior or at least clue you in to a possible problem before it gets out of hand.”

Limber and Jane Riese, director of training for the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program in the U.S., which is based at Clemson, weighed in on the topic of bullying behavior and described what parents should do to handle it in an effective and healthy manner.

Bullying and the parent-child relationship

  • Bullying behavior involves aggressive behavior, an imbalance of power and is usually repeated over time.
  • It’s important to not label children as “bullies,” especially considering many children exhibit this behavior on occasion.
  • Bullying behaviors begin early and the likelihood of being bullied decreases steadily from third to 12th grade. This is why it is crucial to address the behavior early and prevent its cumulative effects.
  • Warning signs for victims of bullying behavior include changes in mood, dietary or sleep fluctuations and a sudden loss of interest in favorite hobbies or activities.
  • Children will often try to resolve the issue themselves before bringing it to a teacher or parent. Parents should take all reports of bullying seriously and keep in mind that hearing about bullying for the first time doesn’t mean it is a new problem.
  • Parents should check in regularly, inquire about a child’s friends, get a sense of the entire group and ask children how they might include a child who is being bullied or left out.

Robin Kowalski, a professor in Clemson’s psychology department, has done extensive research on the subject of cyberbullying. She offers advice for parents and educators faced with this very modern form of bullying behavior.

Cyberbullying

  • There is usually an overlap between cyberbullying and traditional bullying behavior, with some researchers saying only 10 percent of children are involved in cyberbullying independent from traditional bullying behavior.
  • Online gaming is the primary vehicle for cyberbullying for elementary school-aged children, but social media accounts for most cyberbullying in later life.
  • Cyberbullying should be taken seriously because its potential is 24/7; children often feel they can’t escape it like they can traditional bullying.
  • Schools now provide more technology for students, so schools should take steps to caution students and prevent cyberbullying. One class or informational session is not enough.
  • Schools should also assess cyberbullying behavior so they can educate broadly and better focus interventions.
  • Removing gaming or social media to prevent cyberbullying essentially victimizes the victim. The answer is open discussion and monitoring.
  • “Supervision is better than snoopervision.” Parents should make children aware of the dangers of cyberbullying and monitor behavior, but not to excess.

Jan Urbanski is the director of Safe and Humane Schools in Clemson’s Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life. She offers insight into what parents should expect from schools and how schools can address bullying behavior.

Education’s role in prevention and intervention

  • Parents should view schools as partners in the process, check their own emotions before contacting schools and not assume a teacher has fallen short with their child. Most educators take bullying seriously and parents will usually find a very receptive audience.
  • Many state laws require schools to develop a policy on bullying and most include bullying in their codes of conduct. Educators should inform parents about prevention strategies and how they address known or suspected bullying. Educators should also be able to inform parents of the school’s safety plan, timeline for intervention and steps to prevent retaliation.
  • Parents should document the situation in the event a parent must take the issue to a school board or higher official.
  • Educators should place just as much importance on witnesses to bullying behavior. Nearly 85 percent of kids are witnesses to bullying, so if parents and educators advise them to report it, they can help lessen the incidence of the behavior by changing the school climate.

All of the Clemson experts agreed that parents and teachers should not just expect kids to “figure it out” themselves. Bullying behavior is not something that “makes a child tougher,” and telling a child to ignore it or “just laugh it off” is a missed opportunity to address the behavior. Parents, teachers and school administrators should talk about their own expectations of how people should be treated in order to set precedents and establish a welcoming environment that is open and honest for children.

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