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Other than the children themselves, teachers are a school's most valuable resource for combating bullying and victimization. Teachers lie just outside of the peer ecology and help shape, intentionally or unintentionally, the critical microsystems in which children at school interact. Successful teachers guide children toward higher levels of moral reasoning, show warmth, and anticipate interpersonal problems by knowing their students' social status, peer groups, friends, and enemies. Unfortunately, the little research that exists on the role of the teacher in bullying and victimization indicates that many teachers may not be realizing their potential in this area. Teachers often seem unaware of aggression among their students, or are overwhelmed by its prevalence. Many would benefit from assistance in helping to understand social dynamics among their students. Teachers who try to eradicate bullying without an appreciation of the complexity of peer ecologies invite resistance and defiance that may worsen existing problems.
Differences in aggression between classrooms. Even within the same school, classrooms differ widely in average aggression levels. Children in classrooms where aggression is normative tend to become more aggressive themselves, even in future years. Henry et al. (2000) reported that children in third-grade classrooms where social norms supported aggression became more aggressive themselves in fourth grade as compared to matched children in classrooms where norms did not support aggression. Kellam, Ling, Merisca, Brown, and Ialongo (1998) found that urban first-grade classrooms varied in their average levels of aggression, and that children in high-aggressive classrooms were at greater risk for long-term adjustment problems than matched children in low-aggressive classrooms.
Teacher practices and beliefs play a role in classroom differences in aggression. Teachers vary dramatically in classroom management skills (Roland & Galloway, 2002) that help shape the structure and values of peer ecologies. Chang (2003) studied over 4,600 seventh through ninth grade children and their 82 teachers in China, asking whether teachers' beliefs about aggression and overall warmth and caring were associated with how aggressive children viewed themselves and were accepted by others. When teachers were warm and caring to everybody, children were less rejecting of aggressive peers than when teachers had very negative beliefs about aggression. However, when teachers had very negative beliefs about aggression the aggressive children in their classrooms perceived themselves as socially competent and efficacious. Chang's (2003) findings are intriguing and suggest how teachers' best efforts at quashing aggression can unwittingly open the way for the creation of alternative authority structures conducive to the emergence of high status aggressors. Chang's (2003) findings on teacher warmth suggest a mechanism by which teachers can reduce stratification along the social status dimension.
Awareness of bullying and sexual harassment. Teachers need to be more aware of same- and cross-sex aggression among their students. Teachers underestimate the prevalence of bullying, too often fail to stop bullying when they see it, and sometimes exacerbate the problem by siding with perpetrators and blaming victims. Olweus (1993) notes that teachers' attitudes are of "major significance for the extent of bully/victim problems" (p. 26) but teachers intervene in only one-third of the bullying cases that come to their attention (see also Newman, Horne, & Webster, 1999; O'Moore, 2000; Rigby, 2001; Smith & Brain, 2000).
The situation is still more alarming when bullying involves negative relationships between boys and girls, implicating larger issues of peer sexual harassment. Bully-victim dyads can emerge from children who are enemies (see Question 2), and a substantial proportion of enemy relationships are between boys and girls. Rodkin, Pearl, Farmer, and Van Acker (in press) examined the enemies of children followed from the spring of third grade to the spring of fourth grade. They examined the proportion of enemy dyads that were composed of a boy and a girl, two boys, and two girls and found that 52% of enemy dyads in the spring of third grade were between boys and girls. Over the two fourth grade assessments, between 41% and 42% of enemy dyads were mixed sex (see also Abecassis et al., 2002; Hodges & Card, in press).
The prevalence of boy-girl enemies speaks to the climate of gender relations between children and is essential for teachers to detect. Similarly, enemy relationships between children of different ethnicities, or between children with and without special needs, can reflect deeper schisms within classroom cultures that require attention. Certainly, evidence on how school personnel deal with peer sexual harassment is disappointing. Pellegrini (2002) concludes that educators are often unaware of sexual harassment and can contribute to its acceptance among children. Rodkin and Fischer (in press) characterized the dynamic that too often emerges between boys and girls as a training ground for sexual harassment where "even well-meaning school service providers can unintentionally collaborate with peer culture dynamics that normalize or reinforce behaviors that to the rest of us clearly suggest harassment." Rodkin and Fischer (in press) review landmark legal cases where teachers and school officials adopted "head in the sand" approaches, punished victims, and failed to punish perpetrators appropriately.
Enforcing policies, avoiding resistance. Researchers have recommended that teachers closely monitor bullying, play an active part in its elimination, and enforce zero tolerance policies in an authoritative manner. Olweus (1993) calls for teachers to closely supervise children's relationships during break times; intervene "where there is only a suspicion that bullying is taking place" (p. 71); and have children internalize school rules that they not bully, aid children who are bullied, and include children who tend to be left out of peer activities. Olweus (1993) also recommends that teachers participate in social milieu development programs where problems concerning bullying and victimization are explored and discussed. A common theme of many antibullying programs is that teachers need to demonstrate complete nontolerance for bullying and get children to do likewise (e.g., Newman et al., 1999; O'Moore, 2000; Rigby, 2001).
Recommendations that stress school policies and active community responses demand high levels of involvement and shared consensus among a number of different parties (e.g., Limper, 2000). Newman et al. (1999; pp. 326, 328) caution that antibullying policies require that "staff, pupils, and parents are committed...everyone [must] believe in the policy" and assume a silent majority in the peer ecology whose antibullying attitudes need to be better vocalized, but not necessarily changed. Rigby's (2001) "whole school approach" is predicated upon broad agreement involving the active cooperation of all teachers, children, and parents. These interventions have proven helpful but school psychologists must determine whether their schools can meet the needed conditions. The American Association for University Women's (2001) report on sexual harassment in schools provides a note of caution: Relative to 1993, students are much more likely to report that their schools have policies regarding sexual harassment, but the prevalence of harassing behaviors has hardly decreased.
A related concern is how children react to adult-driven change. Antibullying curricula should account for opposition to school rules and some applications of teachers' authority. At times, efforts to vanquish aggression may have negative side effects (cf. Chang, 2003). Children's acceptance of adult-generated rules and prosocial traits (e.g., "I will not bully, I will include those usually left out") may not reflect private internalization. Teachers need to work with knowledge of the peer ecologies of their classrooms to head off resistance or ridicule. The challenge is not trivial. Hymel, Bonanno, Henderson, and McCreith (2002) report that too many students are morally disengaged about interpersonal aggression, with some reporting positive attitudes about bullying and blaming of the victim (see also Graham & Juvonen, 2001). McFarland's (2001) study of high schools concluded that "the struggle for identity and control is endemic to every classroom" (p. 665). Resistance may reach a peak during adolescence but can also be characteristic of elementary school children (Adler & Adler, 1998; Ferguson, 2000). Even in early childhood, Corsaro and Eder (1990) note that child societies often attempt to oppose the authority of the teacher.
Implications for psychologists. Whole school approaches are effective when schools have the material and social capital to implement them. In the current national climate of increasing demands and decreasing resources, our worry is that these superlative interventions will only be successful in schools where victimization has already reached crisis proportions, or when schools face legal liabilities from previous mistakes (Rodkin & Fischer, in press).
Well before a crisis, teachers have a vital role to play in preventing bullying and victimization. As Pellegrini (2002) notes, teacher awareness and concern is a necessary first step. Teachers who are attentive to interpersonal aggression among their students should help their fellow teachers become more aware. Teachers should be well-informed about the social dynamics operating among their students, including groups that support and oppose bullying, potential victims and appropriate friendships that can connect them to others, enemies that children have, and underlying hostilities between children in the same or different groups. In part, teachers acquire this information by being connected to all sectors of the peer ecology: bullies, victims, and other children (cf. Chang, 2003), but more objective sociometric assessments are also very helpful. In sum, accurate understanding of a peer ecology is the platform from which intelligent decisions can be made about restructuring children's groups, encouraging feasible social relationships, and anticipating possible conflict.
- Rodkin, Philip C., Hodges, Ernest V. E., Bullies and Victims in the Peer Ecology: Four Questions for Psychological and School Professionals. School Psychology Review, 2003, Vol. 32, Issue 3
Guide for Preventing and Respoding to School Violence
- International Association of Chiefs of Police. Guide for Preventing and Respoding to School Violence. Bureau of Justice Assistance.
Reflection Exercise #8