Bullying Be Gone The power of responsible bystanders is tremendous, and that’s where we—as role models and advocates for our often vulnerable clients—come in. But what, exactly, to do in cases of bullying isn’t always so clear. These pointers can help. Features
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Features  |   May 01, 2014
Bullying Be Gone
Author Notes
  • Gordon Blood, PhD, CCC-SLP
    is professor and head of the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at The Pennsylvania State University. He is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 4, Fluency and Fluency Disorders; and 16, School-Based Issues. ■f2x@psu.edu
Article Information
School-Based Settings / Features
Features   |   May 01, 2014
Bullying Be Gone
The ASHA Leader, May 2014, Vol. 19, 36-42. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR1.19052014.36
The ASHA Leader, May 2014, Vol. 19, 36-42. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR1.19052014.36

Daniel, a fourth-grader on your caseload, has an expressive language disability that is interfering with his reading skills. He is quiet and well-mannered but does not actively participate in class and appears to be introverted. He struggles with sentence formulation and processing. One day you see a popular, assertive classmate of Daniel’s, Jason, approach Daniel and ask him to read aloud. As Daniel reads, Jason mocks his halting, disjointed speech, calling him “stupid and weird.” As two other students join in the jeering, Daniel slumps down in his chair, trying to ignore them.

So what should a speech-language pathologist do?

Bullying is a public health and education crisis in U.S. schools. All children, especially those with communication and social disabilities, have the right to attend a safe school. Bullying is not conflict; it is a form of abuse. It is not inevitable. It is not a rite of passage for children. It does not go away because you ignore it. Bullying is an act of violence.
It has three major components:
  • An intention to do harm.

  • A power imbalance between the bully and the victim.

  • An act that is repeated. (Some question whether the act has to be repeated to qualify as bullying, pointing out that a single act can be dangerous or traumatic.)

The statistics on bullying in schools vary, but are staggering. At least a quarter to a third of all school-age children are involved in bullying as targets, perpetrators or bystanders, indicate data from academia and the federal government. Recently, researcher Sophie S. Gan and colleagues pegged its prevalence as high as 55 percent, with 18 percent of respondents to a survey reporting cyberbullying during high school. The results were reported this year in the International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health.
Who is at highest risk? The different, the vulnerable, the populations we serve: children with disabilities like autism, stuttering or specific language impairments, indicates research I and others have conducted. Students with hearing loss are also at risk (see sidebar below). And rates of bullying are likely much higher than reported, as research also shows that teachers see approximately one of every 25 episodes of bullying—and a large disparity exists between student and teacher reports. In part, this discrepancy is because the average bullying episode lasts only 37 seconds, and school personnel cannot be policing hallways, restrooms, cafeterias or buses while students are being ridiculed, demeaned, pushed, “lockered” or shunned.
On the upside, 50 percent of all bullying stops when someone, whether an adult or a peer, intervenes, report researchers Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon in Educational Leadership. The power of responsible bystanders is tremendous, and that’s where we—communication sciences and disorders professionals—come in.
When we see or hear about a bullying episode, like the one involving Daniel, questions flash through our minds. First, is this really my responsibility? The answer is an emphatic “yes!” As Arne Duncan, secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, said in 2010, “Every adult in the school from principals to custodians, cafeteria workers to teachers must intervene and act when they see bullying for whatever reason.” Absolutely true. But to do that effectively, we need first to understand what bullying actually is and second, to know what an appropriate response to bullying looks like.
Is it bullying?
There are basically four types of bullying. The first is physical bullying: being punched, pushed, shoved, “lockered” and the like. The second is verbal bullying: being joked about, criticized or ridiculed. The third is relational bullying: being ostracized through malicious rumors, gossip and exclusion. And the fourth is cyberbullying: malicious texting or postings about a person on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. This newest form of bullying is especially toxic, as it has the potential for continual abuse and humiliation as new bystanders can observe and participate anonymously on the Internet, minute-by-minute, over and over.
Relational bullying—the type described above with Daniel—has greater long-term negative health and psychosocial effects than physical bullying, according to recent studies (one of them published in JAMA Psychiatry last year). People who are bullied often report short-term and long-term psychological distress, adjustment problems, poor academic outcomes, negative self-evaluation, depression, social isolation and physical symptoms (see sources).
But how do we know when an incident we hear about or see actually qualifies as bullying? To help, my team and I developed a quick litmus test for bullying using the acronym HERO: H(arm), E(quality), R(elationship), O(ccurrence). Ask yourself the following questions:
  • (H)arm. Is there actual harm, threat or danger, or “perceived” harm, threat or danger (fearful and worried) by a targeted person? Intention by the person who bullies is trumped by the consequence or interpretation by the person who is bullied.

  • (E)quality. Are the two parties equal in power or is there an imbalance? Is there a physical or social power imbalance (for example, size, popularity, authority)?

  • (R)elationship. Is there an ongoing relationship between the two parties; are they friends? Do they hang out, play or socialize together?

  • (O)ccurrence. Has this happened before; is this the first time? Is this a repeated event?

What to do
Your reactions to a possible bullying incident may depend on your responses to the questions above. For example, teasing always involves an equal relationship—and bullying does not. Some studies actually say that teasing is useful in maintaining and building healthy relationships. Boys tend to use teasing for fostering hierarchy and showing respect in relationships. (“You couldn’t make that shot again if you tried.” Interpretation: “Great shot.”) Girls tend to use teasing to control tension among peers. (“Everyone looks so good in these photos—not!” Interpretation: “Let’s stop saying who looks better.”)
If, however, you decide that one student’s behavior toward another is threatening, intentional and repetitive, and a power imbalance exists—that it is, indeed, bullying—then you need to act quickly. Turn it into a teachable moment for all involved by stopping it, labeling it—and, of the utmost importance—modeling a good response. In short, STOP IT!:
  • (S)top the bullying immediately. Step in with short statements and questions like, “What’s going on?” “What are you doing?” “Hey, I saw that!”

  • (T)ag and identify the behavior at once. Label offenses with comments like, “You just pushed him.” “Why are you saying those bad things to him?” “Why did you call him those hurtful names?” “Why are you bullying him?”

  • (O)ffer assistance and social support to the victim. Reassure the targeted student, providing a sense of safety and support: “Are you OK?” “What just happened was wrong.” “How did those names make you feel?” “You did nothing wrong to be treated like that. No one should be treated like that.” “We don’t put up with that kind of thing in this school.”

  • (P)resent immediate/appropriate consequences for bullying. Let the person who is bullying know that what you observed was not acceptable behavior and that it will be reported. Point out any nearby anti-bullying posters or bulletin boards and reference relevant rules of conduct or civility that outline the consequences for bullying.

  • (I)nstruct witnesses and bystanders. Reiterate, “We don’t allow this in our school.” “If any of you see this type of thing, come tell me or your teacher.” “It isn’t tattling to tell me; you all have a right to be safe in this school.”

  • (T)each intervention strategies to students, personnel, parents and friends. Share them at meetings with other faculty and with parents. Build confidence-building pragmatic and social skills into students’ individualized education programs. Hang anti-bullying posters in your office and disseminate research findings about the particular vulnerability of children with communication and social disabilities.

Reject acceptance
One of the most challenging parts of fighting bullying is trying to teach new behavioral rules to students who bully: For example, Jason—the student who picked on Daniel—may come from a social environment in which bullying is acceptable. He needs to learn that school is different. So, how to intervene in this specific case? Point out how the behavior qualifies as bullying, then state that it isn’t acceptable in school and that you will report the incident to the classroom teacher, principal or adult in charge.
After stopping the bullying and modeling an appropriate response, our task is to inform others. It then becomes incumbent on the school, facility or unit personnel to investigate the matter completely and thoroughly. The perpetrator may need counseling, education or even some punitive action, which are outside our specific knowledge and competencies.
Note, also, that if children are bullied because of a disability, this may become a civil rights issue. Bullying can become discriminatory harassment, which is covered under federal civil rights laws. According to researchers John Maag and Anton Katsiyannis (in a 2012 article published in the journal Behavioral Disorders), when discussing bullying in terms of children with disabilities and legal aspects, schools are expected to be proactive. They must a) show prompt and decisive action, b) thoroughly and impartially investigate all allegations, c) have “well-publicized” policies prohibiting harassment, and d) have procedures for reporting and resolving harassment complaints. But having those the policies and procedures for dealing with discriminatory harassment is not enough: The school district is responsible for guaranteeing that all personnel follow them.
Aside from stopping bullying in the hallways when we see it, SLPs are in a unique position to support students who are targeted. We are often the only adults with whom these students spend one-on-one time. So if they are courageous enough to trust us and share this information, we must listen, thank them for being so brave, remind them they have done nothing wrong and explain we will help.
We might, for example, accompany a student who is bullied to the principal or teacher as a show of support. In doing so, we are not taking on the role of school counselor or hallway monitor. We are simply looking out for students on our caseloads and advocating for their safety.
Lastly, it’s important to check in with the student—privately—after the episode. Follow up with a few sentences like: “Are things going better since we dealt with the bullying problem?” “Just wanted to make sure everything was going all right?” Bullying does not go away overnight and knowing there is a support network with at least one concerned adult helps the targeted student to continue feeling safe. Such intervention may take a few minutes out of your week, yet it can make all the difference in that student’s life.

What Not to Do When Bullying Strikes

When you see a student being bullied, your gut instinct is you want to do something—and fast (see main story for tips). But as the responsible adult modeling acceptable behavior to students, there are also some actions you should avoid:

  • Don’t blame the targeted student or ask them to change their behavior. No one deserves to be bullied.

  • Don’t tell the student to fight back physically.

  • Don’t tell the student to be stronger or braver because “this happens to everyone.”

  • Don’t encourage “zero tolerance” or “three strikes and you’re out” policies, as they often result in greater retaliation by bullies and little change in creating a safe climate.

  • Don’t encourage any type of conflict resolution and peer mediation, as bullying—like child abuse or domestic violence—is not a conflict problem.

  • Don’t encourage short-term solutions, as bullying is really a systemic problem and is not going away in a few weeks. It takes time.

  • Don’t lend too much public support to the victim, as peer group pressure may make problems for the child increase. Be helpful and provide encouraging words and gestures in private.

  • Don’t force a meeting between the student who is bullied and the student who bullied him or her. These meetings may cause even more harm to the victim, and forced apologies don’t foster a climate of inclusion and acceptance and change.

Good Vibrations for Students with Hearing Loss

There is no magic solution to a social problem like bullying. But building resilience and self-advocacy skills among potentially targeted students—such as those with hearing loss—can help repel it.

That’s one of the goals of The Good Vibrations program, run by University of Toledo’s Graduate Studies Consortium for Listening and Spoken Language. The program offers high school students with hearing loss ongoing social support, education about hearing loss and technology, communication solutions and transition support. Participants learn, for example, about postsecondary and vocational education, employment, adult services and independent living.

Participants share stories, concerns and strategies to help with self-image and communication with others. Developed by graduate students and overseen by faculty supervisors, the program is led by college students who also have hearing loss.

In addition to holding meetings during the school year, Good Vibrations hosts a day-long summer camp on the University of Toledo campus. This event features music, a drum circle and interactive performances to talk about bullying and promote bullying prevention. Participants discuss challenging social situations such as defusing a potential bully or minimizing embarrassment or social concerns when mishearing. They work together to act out various solutions.

Camp surveys reveal that participants benefit and want more chances to interact with peers with hearing loss (since many don’t attend school with others who are deaf). Hence, the program’s ongoing meetings.

University of Toledo graduate student Emily Russell and visiting professor Amy Remer also contributed to this article.

Lori Pakulski, PhD, CCC-A, is professor and program director of the speech-language pathology program at the University of Toledo. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 9, Hearing and Hearing Disorders in Children.

lori.pakulski@utoledo.edu

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May 2014
Volume 19, Issue 5