Combat Bullying By Creating Space

While bullying at school has certainly evolved over the years with the onset of technology and social media, the basic problem persists among younger people. Yet it remains a tricky issue to manage in a school, often occurring in subtle verbal or emotional ways rather than the more noticeable physical bullying. Although we know every good teacher will not tolerate bullying in his/her classroom, we also know how challenging it can be to spot it and eradicate it. Our hope with this short series is to help you make a preemptive strike against this undesirable behavior, creating a classroom culture of safety and empathy where all students feel welcome. And to start off; here are ways you can combat bullying by creating space.

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Not too long ago, I subbed in a third-grade classroom. The kids were overall very sweet, helpful, and kind towards me and with one another. As the day progressed, however, I did notice one kid who was being rude towards his peer. I pulled him aside quietly and said, “That’s not a nice way to talk to your friend.” To which he replied, “He is NOT my friend.” Yikes.


When I taught full-time in the classroom, I tried to combat student animosity with a naive hope that with enough effort and time, everyone could be friends.


It was always a losing battle. I failed to remember that this simply isn’t true in the real world, so why expect it from my kids? Truth is there are people I will never be friends with. There are people I may never get along with. Heck, there are people out there that I just plain don’t like to be around. As an adult, I’ve learned over time how to work through those situations with grace or avoid them altogether, choosing my battles carefully for the sake of my own sanity. 


But in the classroom, that’s not always possible for students. They will be forced to work with others; they have to share space every single school day with people they may not enjoy being around. Yet they are not always well-equipped to handle these feelings constructively. So how do educators deal with this common issue?


Recently, I ran across this social media post and thought it brilliantly addressed this very issue. If you’ve got time, I highly recommend watching it. 


The video shows a middle school science teacher instructing her students how to not be a friend. That sounds strange at first, but the concept wisely addresses the truth we so often try to fight against in the classroom: some people will simply never be friendly towards one another.


You can see that she speaks to her students respectfully, laying out ground rules for dealing with peer issues that I tried to teach my own students–but with a refreshingly honest twist. She’s upfront with the fact that not everybody will be friends in her classroom, and gives her students full permission to feel that way.


“Middle school is a public space, and everyone deserves to be here.”


She then goes on to explain how to create “respectable space” in her classroom. Healthy, practical ways to handle feelings of dislike towards another student. Her ground rules are concise and logical: no ganging up against someone you don’t like, no purposefully isolating anyone, and understand that no one person is above any other within the walls of her classroom. Use these as a springboard and modify/add rules to suit your own classroom, especially if you teach content that lends itself to subjective discussion.


While laying out ground rules like these seems simple, it will take some effort on your behalf to identify when they are being broken and to course-correct student behavior to a more desirable outcome. Your students need to see you do this every single time it comes up. They need to know they can count on you to have their backs if they become a victim of things like this, and they need to know they will be called out and corrected for breaking classroom rules.


As a teacher, you can also acknowledge the more difficult student relationships and try to avoid potential issues. Maybe don’t pair those two students together. Or maybe try putting them into a larger group where there is some buffer and they’re not head-to-head. While it is undoubtedly a vital social skill to learn to work with people we don’t enjoy being around, ask yourself if it’s worth the potential blowup for the sake of proving a point. Trust your judgment–and don’t be afraid to be flexible if something’s not working.


It can be painstakingly difficult for some students who have been behaving this way for essentially their entire lives. It takes time to change deeply-grooved behavior patterns, so be patient. The trick is to continue to teach everyone with fairness and grace – and a clean slate every day. Everyone will see that and appreciate it–from the “perfect” kiddos to your more troublesome ones.


It’s hard to remember sometimes that the kids who become such a big part of our everyday lives each school year really are just that: kids. They are developing. Learning. Growing. The way they watch the leaders in their lives handle problems among them will shape their actions in the future.


Yes, it would be great if everybody in the classroom would just get along with each other. Yes, teaching empathy is super important. But it’s also important to teach students how to deal with people they don’t get along with in a healthy and non-harming way. Show them how to share space, and you will see the benefits.


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