How to stop bullies

Bullies can be stopped, but it takes a village. write Alan E. Kazdin and Carlo Rotella on Slate. The common solutions — tell your kid to stand up to the bully, tell your kid to ignore the bully, call the bully’s parents, ask the teacher to intervene — usually don’t work. One kid — already identified as vulnerable — can’t do it alone.  They recommend a strategy developed in Norway that engages the whole school community in identifying and suppressing bullying.

There are some useful ideas:

Problem-solve with your child. Problem solving is a more precise term than you might think—a procedure in psychology that has been well studied. It consists of first identifying and stating the problem (“So, Jack is picking on you at recess …”) and then prompting and encouraging the identification of potential strategies or solutions (“So, what are some things you/we might do?”). One reasonable goal would be to identify two or three possible ways of handling the situation or general approaches to the problem. Bear in mind that the objective here is to reduce or eliminate the bully’s opportunities to intimidate your child in a place where no adults are watching—so you can work on doing more to stay within the range of adult supervision, for instance, or to minimize exposure in unsupervised places. For each strategy, identify what its consequences might be. (“OK, one strategy is to go to the teacher. If you went to the teacher, what would happen?”) Talk out each strategy and its potential results. When you have identified two or three, select together which might be the best and discuss why. This trains your child in a critical process as well as helping to identify a realistic solution that your child is likely to buy into, which increases its chance of being effective.

When I was a kid, bullying was a boy thing, though teasing was unisex.  It was held down by a common ethic usually expressed as: Pick on someone your own size.  It even applied to Carlo, who’d been held back twice and was much bigger than the other fifth graders. But he was clearly unable to fight his own battles, so a bunch of boys went after the kid who’d broken Carlo’s finger. The village failed to beat up the bully, because he pulled a knife in self-defense, leading to a suspension. Nobody picked on Carlo again.

About Joanne


  1. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Community suppression of bullying may be one of the benefits of homeschooling. My children and grandchildren socialize with a group that contains many homeschoolers. Get-togethers are frequent and sociable for all. Parents are quick to intervene when their child’s behavior goes astray to protect their own social standing as well as the child’s. I’ve never observed bullying and very little teasing.

  2. I worry, though, if parents always intervene, then the kids never learn the skills necessary for dealing with difficult social situations. One of the problems I have with friends and family members whose children are homeschooled is that, without exception, they struggle to function in social settings without their parents. Further, they look at non-homeschooled kids as the “others” who are immoral, deviant, to be feared and judged. I know this is not the case with all homeschooled kids, but I think there is something useful in learning how to deal with people who are different than oneself. Obviously, these same traits exist in the public- or private-schooled population as well.


    “I’ve never observed bullying and very little teasing.”

    I bet there are some public school teachers who can say the same things. But I guarantee you it is happening to some degree. It may not be physical contact, but may be emotional or psychological bullying which is more easily hidden.

  3. tim-10-ber says:

    This article is good as it offers ideas for parents and others to help children who are bullied. But what happens when the bully is the classroom teacher? Teachers bully by using words in a very demeaning, condescending or even threatening manner. I have heard them as my kids have been bullied by teachers. Ditto for administrators or coaches… So…how do parents stop this from happening?

  4. I was bullied on 6 occasions that I can recall (all by boys). The 5 occasions that I fought back physically ended immediately with the bully never speaking to me again. Fighting back may not work for everyone, but I liked the results. It may have worked for me because it was girl-vs.-boy and I wasn’t really vulnerable–they just thought I was because I was smart, “the teacher’s pet”, a non-conformist to my peers’ opinions, and a girl. They thought wrong.

    The other occasion was sexual harrassment. I was kind of frozen in place and didn’t do/say anything at the moment. After school, I reported it to my teachers, who told the principal (one of the boys’ fathers), who did nothing. I’m not sure how “problem solving” would fix this situation. I thought through my possibilities (punch them in the teeth, tell him off, cry and do nothing, tell a teacher) and picked the one that I thought had the best chance of success. It still failed to change anything. The female P.E. teacher in charge at the time blew me off with “boys will be boys.” My classroom teachers were outraged, but only had the power to pass it on to the principal. The principal was a parent of one of the boys (and a wimp anyway, I discovered later). I always looked back and wondered if I should have risked getting suspended and gone with “punch them in the teeth.”

  5. To a large extent, bullying happens because you have overly large groups of people forced into social interaction day in, day out, frequently against their will with the ability to lose individual identity in the group setting.

    To Mark G.: I worry about children who learn their social “skills” in institutional settings and then find, once they leave that setting, that they lack the sophistication to set aside the group approval behaviors they frequently develop as a response to the institution. I also worry that they identify homeschoolers as “others” and tease, marginalize or villify them.

  6. I agree with the post above about parental intervention. Kids used to spend lots of time in free play with neighborhood kids and they learned to handle themselves, for the most part. Too much parent involvement means the kids don’t learn this. Of course, there are also more parents who aren’t doing their jobs and civilizing their own kids properly, too.

  7. Homeschooling Granny says:

    I get the point that parental intervention can be interference but what I am seeing is parents who intervene to teach their children skills. They tend to talk through various possibilities with their children, just as the article suggested. Left to their own devices, children don’t always come up with the best solutions.

  8. “One of the problems I have with friends and family members whose children are homeschooled is that, without exception, they struggle to function in social settings without their parents.”

    That this is your observation “without exception” leads me to suspect that this says more about your friends and family members than it does about their children. Because I am hard-pressed to think of a single friend of mine over the years whose homeschooled children struggled socially without his or her parents.

    “Further, they look at non-homeschooled kids as the “others” who are immoral, deviant, to be feared and judged.”

    Good grief, man; what sort of people are you hanging out with? I realize you can’t pick your family, but, for friendship, what is it that draws you to people who bring their children up to view other children as immoral and deviant???

  9. Margo/Mom says:

    I suspect that the methodology from Norway that is referred to derives from Olweus. While the problem-solving approach looked at an individual response, Olweus focuses on involving the bystanders who tend to allow the bully to continue. The school really needs to take a role in training chidren in appropriate responses to bullying that they witness. In fact it is often surprisingly easy for socialized responses to deflate the power of bullies. Far too often we instruct children to “tell a teacher.” The research shows that this is generally ineffective on several fronts. One is that it seldoms brings a response and second, it may bring further bullying as the victim is seen as weak.

    My son has sometimes amazed me in his creative responses to bullying situations–and he has been a target on several fronts. One time he explained that he offered to let the bully fight him after school and then managed to get on the school bus before he could be found. I wouldn’t have thought of that–but he did, and apparently it worked. Being a large kid who tends to hold his ground also helps. That most likely comes from a number of out of school involvements in which kids and people were included and respected across lines of difference. Interesting that recently an adult asked him how he handled being made fun of. A part of his response was that it had always been a part of his life–citing the many times that he changed schools in elementary school–each one a transfer initiated by the district to go to yet another “program” to better meet his needs. Sometimes we think kids don’t know or don’t feel rejection when it occurs. They do.

  10. Wow, Suze, ought to get to know me more before offering personal attacks about my family and friends, or that I am “drawn” to people who raise their children to view others as immoral. Get to know me and then you can jab at me and I won’t mind…with the anonymity this discourse affords, it seems people feel comfortable being disrespectful with those who possess different views and experiences (would that be considered bullying?) If you read the second half of my first paragraph, you see that I concede that my experience with homeschooled kids is not likely the norm and that such behaviors are not limited by where a child has their education. I’m glad that your friends and family have had greater success with homeschooling than those in my family and community. I have no doubt that there exist well-adjusted, socially capable and intelligent products of homeschooling.

    Stacy, I see your point about the socialization which happens in schools, and I agree. I didn’t intend to defend schools as being perfect in their means of socialization, though I do think that a public school can offer exposure to a wider diversity of people. Whether that results in a better ability to navigate different situations later on, I have no proof, but in my experience (which Suze indicates is clearly an anomaly, or perhaps I am a freak-magnet) homeschooled kids are often sheltered from discomfort or have the world highly mediated for them by well-intending parents. Again, that is my experience with homeschooled kids (including ones who eventually enter my classroom or who I have tutored), and I am not ascribing these observations onto all homeschooled children.

  11. One of the benefits of homeschooling is that we can come alongside our children to teach them to resolve problems in an adult manner. My 8 year old homeschooled son recently encountered a situation at the park where another boy was repeatedly being too rough and injuring the other boys. My son took him aside and explained to him that he needed to stop being so rough. The boy apologized and modified his behavior.

    I don’t see public school children handling conflicts well. When I was in public school, there were rarely any adults around to reinforce proper conduct or resolve conflicts. Children were left to fight it out or be victimized. I see nothing beneficial about leaving children to work it out amongst themselves. They’ve not been given any of the social tools needed to do so.

  12. I will add that once children have had some training in resolving conflicts THEN they can be expected to try it themselves before going to an adult. Unfortunately, I don’t see public schooled children learning how to resolve conflicts in an adult manner. I believe this is because they get so little interaction with adults. Parents get very little time with them due to the long school day and after-school activities and there are few adults on the playground when conflicts occur. It’s a pity since these life skills are so important to becoming a healthy adult.

  13. I think this discourse is an example of what perpetuates the problems in the school system: clearly there is a need for teaching these social strategies to kids, ideally parents would do this, as it appears may happen in many homeschooling situations (though I would argue that it is also possible even if a child is not homeschooled). Schools are criticized as sanctuaries for bullies, teachers are criticized for not catching them in the act…yet if one were to push a meaningful system or set of systems for promoting teaching students these strategies in schools the immediate response would be “leave that to the parents, teach them to read and do math…”

    It seems public education is a in no-win situation, no matter what. Schools are asked to do too much and serve contradictory purposes, be all things to all people and yet not step on parents’ toes. No wonder meaningful reform has never taken root for the masses.

  14. It doesn’t take a village, nor does it take sitting around “problem-solving.” Yes, that might work, but in the old America, you faced your fears and stood up to the bully, even though you thought you might get your face rearranged. It’s called courage. Bullies are cowards, and they back down once they find someone who’s not going to take any more of their sh*t. Let your kid grow a pair of balls by teaching him how to fight in order to defend himself. The circuitous idiocy advocated above will rob your kid from learning a valuable lesson and from feeling good about solving his own problem. Hand-wringing adults holding conference in a circle jerk is counter-productive. There are variables involved, so what I’m saying is not a blanket policy, but I do speak from experience when I say that bullies are cowards and will back down from someone that stands up to them.

  15. tim-10-ber says:

    Mark G — I think you hit the proverbial nail on the head with your comment about schools being asked to do to much and not step on parents toes.

    If parents would send their kids to school ready to learn, understanding how to begin to resolve conflicts, having had a breakfast, a good night of sleep, etc. the schools would be able to do the sole thing I thought they were charged with doing — providing a high quality education with highly effective teachers to the children help the children excel at very high levels…Sadly with the high percent of SES, ELL and special needs kids in the government schools this is becoming harder and harder to do for all kids. Those kids that do truly come to school ready to learn tend to get lost in the shuffle and do not get a high quality education from highly effective schools even supposed top “30” academic magnet schools. Bummer!!

    The best thing for my sons in their experience with governemnt schools was the very diverse background of students. The best place for these interactions we found were in the sports arena…

  16. Homeschooling Granny says:

    What about the bullies themselves? Why do they do what they do?

    Aren’t they children who are trying to meet their own needs? In figuring out for themselves what to do, bullying is the tactic they hit upon? As in “The Lord of the Flies”?

    Perhaps I don’t see bullying among the homeschoolers and their schooled friends in my circle of acquaintances because each child has a caring adult there to respond with loving guidance.

  17. Cardinal Fang says:

    BadaBing, good job. You neatly followed the comment template supplied in the article.
    You did, however, forget to start your comment with “Horse feathers!”

  18. You probably have a point, Homeschooling Granny. Most of the kids who are bullies are probably acting out of a sense of self-preservation. They are often modeling the treatment they receive from parents or family. I remember sitting in a wraparound meeting with four teachers, a kid who we were meeting with for academic purposes (though his bully behavior also precipitated the meeting) and the parents. I watched as the parent belittled, demeaned, and essentially bullied this bully until this freshman sat cowering and literally in tears (which only incited more rage from the parent). The kid was so embarrassed to have this happen in front of his teachers, but it was the exact behavior he was engaged in toward his peers. We finally stopped the meeting and separated the parent and kid–after that, the kid seemed to bond with our teaching team, as if there was some tacit plea of “now you see why I do what I do?” His bullying ebbed somewhat after that, without any structured intervention from us, and sometimes all it took was a look from one of us to quell his behavior. We did talk to him one-on-one about it over the course of the year during conference period. Perhaps he just needed some other adult to see what he was dealing with.

  19. Margo/Mom says:

    Mark–bullying adults are by no means limited to parents. Not only are there the outraqeous examples that emerge from time to time (misuse of restraints to the point that kids die, some athletic director that was demanding that kids with conflicts engage in “cage fighting”), but there are plenty of teachers who engage in demeaning language on a day to day basis. This was a comment made following middle school site visitations in my district during a performance audit. As a parent I have encountered many “front line” personnel who have adopted rude mannerisms as a matter of course–always excused by “you don’t know the kind of people we have to deal with.” I recall working with my son and a school counselor to identify people he could go to when he was being harassed (and in this case, the behavior met legal definitions of harassment). In one class he reported that the teacher was no different than the class bullies.

    In my experience the behavioral expectations of schools are all over the map–considering all behavior: adults and children. Behavior is in large part social. There are norms that must be taught and established within the social environment. I don’t know any educators who enjoy the role of batting clean up when these things are ignored (that is, reacting to bad behavior after the fact), and yet, there is such an unwillingness to put time into preventive work. Sugai has data on the amount of instruction time recovered through implementation of positive behavioral support in the form of norm setting. But, it’s awfully hard to get people to pay attention.

  20. deirdremundy says:

    Re: parental intervention and bullies.

    One thing that confuses me is why we EXPECT kids to be able to handle bullies on their own.

    If an adult punches another adult, police and lawyers get involved.

    But if a group of children beats up another child, it’s the beaten child’s responsibility to defuse the situation?

    Why should a child be expected to ‘handle’ abuse when an adult is allowed to seek help?

    Also, the old “bullies are injured and insecure” thing is a myth! According to recent research, bullies tend to be more powerful and popular than the bullied. They are acting on the idea that “Might= Right.” The only way to ‘Fix’ a bully would be to get them to channel their popularity and power into defending the weak, rather than oppressing them.

    But we live in an age where King Arthur, Superman and other defenders of the small are considered ‘wimps.’ So can we be suprised that we’re stuck with more bullies than protectors?