Use Student-First Language to Stop Bullying Behavior

Print More

hbarahal_photoOctober was bullying prevention month and there were programs all over the country to highlight bullying as an ongoing issue in schools. Some programs try to get at the root of bullying, while others give a cursory nod to prevention, use simple slogans and surface-level events.

Now that bullying prevention month draws to a close, how will you keep the action going in your school or program?

At the heart of bullying is a complex set of behaviors and situations, and if we don’t break them down we will have a difficult time doing anything to prevent them happening again. Having experienced being bullied as a child, I know that bullying behavior happens all the time, to all of us — even as adults.

Think about your own day-to-day life. Have you been in a situation where you felt powerless or pushed around? Have you experienced feeling bullied by your Internet provider? A customer service representative? Your co-workers, supervisor or friends? Bullying behavior is situational. The customer service rep who bullied you on the phone doesn’t necessarily behave that way in other situations, with her co-workers, friends or family.

Did you know that one out of every four students report being bullied during the school year, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics? According to The Youth Voice Project, which claims to be the “first known large-scale research project that solicits students’ perceptions” about “reducing peer mistreatment,” the reasons for being bullied most often reported by students were looks (55 percent), body shape (37 percent) and race (16 percent).

But we can have an impact. School-based bullying prevention programs decrease bullying by up to 25 percent, according to a 2013 Congressional Research Service report. And according to research published in Naturalistic Observations of Peer Interventions in Bullying, more than half of bullying situations (57 percent) stop when a peer intervenes on behalf of the student being bullied.

[Related: Schools Stand Up Against Bullying on Unity Day]

One way to dive deeper into bullying in schools and after-school programs is to simply stop labeling individuals based on behavior. We know it is not appropriate to label children in our programs as “special ed” — we don’t say, “Oh Sally — she’s special ed.” We say, “Sally is one of my students who has special needs.” Using student-first language is a basic way of putting the child before the characteristic. After all, Sally is a whole person with many characteristics who should not be labeled or defined by just one.

The same principle applies to bullying behavior and situations. Referring to a student as a bully is putting that characteristic above all else. This reduces his or her complex personality to one thing — being a bully.

Bullying behavior is situational. A teacher can bully students, a parent can bully a child, a child can bully other children, and sometimes children bully the adults in their lives. When having solutions-oriented conversations about situations in which bullying has occurred, we can take one simple step and describe the situation and behavior using student-first language. The child who bullies in one situation may be victimized in another. The child who witnessed the situation may exhibit bullying behavior next time.

Children (and adults) who bully in some situations can also show great compassion or empathy in other situations.  Calling someone a bully can in itself be a form of bullying. It can influence and damage a child’s understanding of herself as a whole person who has the agency to act in many different ways, in different situations.

So, instead of labeling so-called bullies, let’s investigate the dynamics of bullying situations and use student-first language when discussing them. This simple step can go a long way toward breaking down bullying situations so young people can reflect and preventing similar situations from recurring in the future.

Helen Barahal has been a teacher and after-school/early childhood center director in New York City. She holds a master's degree in international education and has spent the last 20 years in nonprofit and school settings working with children and educators. She is co-founder of Dewey Learning, and works with education technology companies and nonprofits in the areas of literacy, data use and social emotional learning — including bullying prevention.

More related articles:

Bullied Kids Speak Out: We Survived — How You Can Too

From Statehouse to Schoolhouse: Anti-Bullying Policy Efforts in U.S. States and School Districts

A Grieving Mother’s Quest to End Bullying