B is for Bullies (and the Bullied)

Massachusetts is in the national news again, this time not because of our new U.S. Senator but rather because of the more sobering topic of bullying. This is due, in large part, to the tragic recent deaths of 15-year old Phoebe Prince and 11-year old Carl Walker-Hoover, two kids who were apparently on the receiving end of bullying from other kids at school and ended up taking their own lives as a result (click here).

It goes without saying that suicide isn’t the only tragic consequence of bullying, just one of the outcomes unfortunate and alarming enough to make the headlines, get people to focus on the problem, and –- in Massachusetts at the moment -- energize efforts to pass legislation mandating that schools train staff to be vigilant about bullying and intervene actively and effectively in instances in which it occurs. My reading of the legislation in Massachusetts is that it compels educators to do something about bullying but isn’t specific about what that something should be. So I thought I’d devote this The Real World post to thinking about that a little.

Phoebe Prince’s very unfortunate death prompted calls for the bullies to be severely punished. A parent in the community in which the bullying took place was quoted thusly in the Boston Herald: “There needs to be some punishment for (the bullies). They need to be held accountable. If nothing is done, nothing will change.” Charges were indeed subsequently filed against numerous of those alleged to have done the bullying in Phoebe’s case.

With all due respect, I doubt that punishment is going get the job done, and I'm certain that punishment isn't the best or only way to "hold kids accountable" (though the two terms are often used interchangeably). To go down that route is to make the same mistake we’ve made before (in the form of failed zero tolerance policies) in response to other highly undesirable behaviors we wish kids wouldn't exhibit at school but often do. However, it’s quite true that if nothing is done nothing will change. Kids have disagreements, get mad at each other, notice each others’ differences, and sometimes just plain don’t get along very well, and they need continuous guidance and oversight in handling these situations adaptively rather than treating each other cruelly or ganging up on each other.

The good news is that there are data to suggest that the rates of kids who report being bullied have actually declined, possibly suggesting that, in places where something is being done, the efforts may actually be paying off. But the suicides of Phoebe Prince and Carl Walker-Hoover –- and those that have occurred elsewhere, under similar circumstance, in many places -– tell us we still have quite a ways to go.

Of course, if you really want to do something about bullying, you need to understand it first. And, like everything else in mental health, diverse explanations have been offered. One very popular explanation is that kids who bully (1) have a strong need for power and negative dominance, and/or; (2) find satisfaction in causing injury and suffering to other students, and/or (3) are often rewarded in some way for their behavior. I've seen this very conceptualization invoked to justify interventions aimed at teaching bullies that they’re not as powerful as they might think and at helping them think twice about whether bullying is satisfying and rewarding...in other words, interventions that have punishment as a hallmark ingredient.

I’ve also heard it said and seen it written that some bullies come from circumstances that make “backing down” simply inconceivable. In such instances, bullying is said to function as an act of self-preservation. For example, in a recent article in the Boston Globe, reporter Lylah Alphonse wrote that some kids become bullies because it may be their only way to assert themselves after years of feeling like victims themselves, either at home or at school.

So, how would bullying be understood within the framework of the Collaborative & Proactive Solutions (CPS) approach? Might the CPS model offer some useful alternative intervention options beyond punishment?

In the CPS model, bullying would be viewed through the same lenses as other challenging behaviors: as the byproduct of lagging skills and specific unsolved problems.

Bullies are lacking crucial cognitive skills? Yes, indeed. If they had those skills, they wouldn’t be bullying.

What skills do bullies lack? It's always helpful to refer to the Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems (you can find it in The Paperwork section of this website) as our guide. I’ve worked with bullies who had difficulty considering the likely outcomes or consequences of their actions, had difficulty considering a range of solutions to a problem, and had difficulty “using their words” to solve problems. I’ve worked with bullies who interpreted social information in an inflexible, inaccurate manner or had cognitive distortions or biases. Still other bullies I’ve known had difficulty with some basic social skills (starting conversations, entering groups, connecting with people), difficulty seeking attention in appropriate ways, and difficulty appreciating how their behavior was affecting other people. And I’ve crossed paths with many bullies who had difficulty empathizing with others and appreciating another person’s perspective or point-of-view.

What’s the goal of intervention? Collaboratively solve the problems setting the stage for bullying. Of course, to do that we’d need to be more specific. Those familiar with the CPS model would recognize that the term “bully” is too vague to be of much use. If all I know about a kid is that he’s a “bully”, then I really don’t understand the conditions in which “bullying” is occurring, might have a lot of trouble gathering the information I need to truly understand “bullying episodes", and would certainly have trouble making sure the concerns of the “bully” (and the “bullied”) were addressed. In this respect, “bullying” falls into the same bucket as other similarly vague descriptions, like “aggressive", “defiant", “antisocial", “sociopathic", “conduct disordered", and “psychopathic”...all too vague to know what it is that we’re actually working on. I must admit to some confusion about where the category of “bullying” ends and where similarly vague descriptors -- “mean", “bossy", “controlling", and “cruel” -- begin, though I’m pretty certain they all emanate from lagging skills and unsolved problems. I also know that when adults aren’t exactly sure what it is that they’re working on, punishment tends to be the default intervention.

And what specific unsolved problems set “bullying” in motion? Way too many to count. But here are some of those I’ve come across lately: chronic disagreements on the playground or school bus; unresolved anger over a perceived slight; the ongoing perception that one’s peers are more (or less) popular; ethnic differences and misperceptions; unresolved issues and jealousies that can arise in dating relationships.

Why should we solve the problems setting the stage for bullying collaboratively? Because if we simply impose our will on bullies (Plan A)...if we don’t hear their concerns and make sure the solutions take those concerns into account...then, like other unsolved problems to which Plan A is applied, the solution won’t be durable, the problems won’t be solved, and the lagging skills won’t be taught (and we'll run the risk of bullying the bullies and driving the problem further underground). When we apply Plan B – Collaborative Problem Solving -- to the unsolved problems of bullies and the bullied, then we come to a much clearer understanding of the factors setting the stage for their problematic interactions, ensure that the concerns of both parties are addressed, and have a much better shot at solving the problems durably.

If, in our schools, we’re applying community-building programs – like Tribes or Responsive Classroom – then we’re continuously teaching, modeling, and practicing (for all students) how to get along with each other, handle individual differences, and function as a community (what the Response to Intervention folks would call Tier 1). And we're also helping kids recognize that it’s not just the adults who are on the hook for taking action if bullying is occurring. If we’re routinely using Plan B to understand concerns and perspectives, resolve disputes, and solve problems (still Tier 1 here), then we’re continuously modeling and practicing those crucial skills as well, and keeping the lines of communication wide open. If we’re routinely using Plan B at Tier 2 to help kids solve the problems that survive beyond Tier 1, then we have a “safety net” to catch the kids who slip through the Tier 1 cracks. And if we recognize that Plan B isn’t a one-shot-deal, carefully track unsolved problems over the course of a school year, and conceive of CPS as a staff development project, then we stay on top of things over time and foster a disciplinary culture oriented toward problem-solving rather than punitive methods of intervention.

If we feel that we don’t have time to do these things, then nothing changes. And if we – and our legislators -- continue to focus almost exclusively on high-stakes testing, then we’ll make it that much harder for teachers and school leaders to remember that there are stakes that are even higher than academics.

By the way, some kids I know who were on the receiving end of bullying committed violent acts toward others instead of turning the violence on themselves. Interesting how we view the two outcomes so differently. In fact, they’re just two different indicators of problems that were never solved and skills that were never taught.

Ross Greene
April 6, 2010