Intervene With Mean - Part Three

This post is part three of a three-part blog series that explores how to help students transform bullying behavior. The series mirrors the three levels of intervention outlined in Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). Level One applies to the 80 percent of students who are responsive when explicitly taught about acceptable behavior. Level Two addresses the 15 percent of students who need social skills training and tools to help them stop bullying. Level Three (the focus of this blog) addresses interventions for the 5 percent of students with persistent bullying problems who need intensive supports.

I hope that someday we will learn the terrible cost we all pay when we ignore or mismanage those people in society who most need our help.”

--The Honourable Judge Sandra Ann Hamilton, Provincial Court of Alberta, Calgary, Canada

Damon Smith was suspended more than 15 times for bullying. “You start thinking it’s cool,” he said. “You think you’re going to come back to school and catch up, but unless you’re a genius, you won’t. That made me want to mess up even more.”

This blog offers suggestions for how to help the 5 percent (PBIS Level Three) of youth who, like Damon, have serious, recurrent problems with bullying. Nearly 60 percent of boys classified as bullies in grades six through nine were convicted of at least one crime by the age of 24. Forty percent of them had three or more convictions by age 24. Clearly, these students need behavioral support—and these supports can positively affect both victims and perpetrators. By helping aggressive individuals change their patterns, we not only improve their lives—we prevent harm to others.

Transformation—Not for the Faint of Heart

Once a serious pattern of bullying has begun, the process of transformation is slow and requires a long-term commitment. Involve the family, school counselors and everyone who works with the student. Take time to review all documentation of the student’s bullying incidents, and get to know the student both by talking with and observing him. Are there patterns to the behavior? What antecedents and triggers do the student or staff notice before an incident occurs?

There is no one strategy that works for all students. Each strategy requires consistency and patience to find positive qualities in the student and to give the student a voice, helping her learn accountability without shaming her. But all effective strategies require planning and the belief that young people can change their behavior.

Effective Models for Change

Below are two different models designed to provide intensive and ongoing support for chronically aggressive students. Unlike many of the suggestions offered in Parts I and II, implementing these strategies requires training or even bringing in specialized staff members. It also requires significant time and coordination, often occurring in combination with weekly or biweekly meetings with a counselor and small-group, skill-building sessions coordinated with teachers.

1. Functional Behavioral Analysis (FBA) is a tool often used to gather relevant data about students who have chronic behavioral problems. The process includes observations, interviews and referral to school records to gather detailed data regarding notable triggers for student behavior, antecedents, reaction patterns and consequences for the behavior. The FBA also incorporates data on the student’s strengths, skills and past behaviors, and the effectiveness of previous interventions. This analysis is often done in collaboration with counselors, behaviorists and special education staff. The information is used to develop a Behavior Intervention Plan that is continually monitored and updated. This intensive model not only helps students stop unwanted behaviors but offers positive replacement behaviors.

The Functional Behavior Assessment Checklist is a template for organizing this complex data. It includes the specific information that needs to be gathered and an explanation of how to complete the plan. Because this process is complex, specialized training is necessary to implement it.

If your school doesn’t currently offer FBA as a means to intervene with youth who bully repeatedly, you can introduce the tool to your administration by sharing the complete process overview, as described by PBIS. The overview includes information about when and how to use an FBA.

2. Ross Greene’s book, Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges Are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them, outlines a process of Collaborative Problem Solving, a model written for schools to use with the most difficult pupils. Collaborative Problem Solving for schools adapts a model that has been effectively used in inpatient psychiatric units, residence facilities and juvenile detention centers. Greene’s approach involves very intensive work by a trained teacher or counselor working with the student over time to identify what he calls “lagging skills” and finding solutions and alternate ways of behaving. Lagging skills refer to behavioral weakness in very specific situations, such as difficulty handling unpredictable events and adopting inflexible or distorted interpretations of an incident (“everyone is out to get me,” “you always blame me”). In this model, the student is taught to identify which of the lagging skills is most significant and provided intensive support to help him change it. Once success is achieved with one skill, the support team tackles another, relying on the belief that success breeds more success. Greene encourages educators to remember, “Kids do well if they can.” 

Working with some of our most challenging students is likely to cause intense frustration, even for highly trained staff members. But the most powerful thing we can do is to help those who have the hardest time, and bringing evidence-based models like Functional Behavioral Analysis and Collaborative Problem Solving to your school is an important first step. Offering these services lets students know we have not given up on them. Building meaningful relationships with these students—not only when an incident occurs, but before, after and in between incidents—helps us find their positive qualities. The message these interventions send is, “I believe in you and I know you can do better, and I will be there to stand with you as you work through this.”

Cohn-Vargas is director of Not in Our School and coauthor of Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn.

International Day for the Eradication of Poverty

October 17 is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty—first observed in 1993. The United Nations has designated this year’s theme: Leave no one behind: think, decide and act together against extreme poverty.

Teachers regularly plan and deliver instruction to leave no one behind while knowing that wealth and poverty impact our families, our communities and our schools. We asked the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board (TTAB) to share with us how they teach their students about wealth and poverty. We want to share what they said and invite you to add tools and strategies from your classroom.

“What resources and strategies do you currently use to teach about wealth and poverty?”



  • Encourage young children to share solutions to the unfairness they observe.
  • Compare historical fiction excerpts about poverty to current fiction excerpts and ask students: What’s the same? What’s different?
  • List resources and organizations that support awareness around (in)equity and invite guest speakers to the classroom.
  • Encourage colleagues to explicitly discuss implicit bias related to wealth and poverty, specifically the difference between looking at those in poverty with empathy or scorn. 

“How do you include your community and families when teaching about wealth and poverty?” 

  • Use picture books that depict how communities have resisted and grown in poverty.
  • Invite speakers to discuss human rights violations with students.
  • Look for opportunities to engage in joint projects instead of community service with students.
  • Take students on a local labor history walking tour with labor organizers.
  • Ask families for input; build home-to-school connections.
  • Generate and maintain a dialogue between the student and his family around topics related to wealth and poverty.
  • Leverage community resources.
  • Offer service-learning that forges partnerships between students and members of the community.
  • Identify gaps in resources locally—and then examine economic systems of injustice more broadly.

As we continue to produce materials that help you reduce prejudice, improve intergroup relations and provide equitable school experiences for our country’s children, the topic of wealth and poverty remains one we must address. 

We want to hear from you!

How do you leave no one behind? Let’s think, decide and act against poverty together.

Wicht is the senior manager of teaching and learning for Teaching Tolerance.

A Plan for After Oct. 28

In two weeks’ time, Mix It Up at Lunch Day will finally be here, and your hard work will be rewarded!  

Right now, take some time and think about the days after your Mix It Up at Lunch Day. You and your core group of organizers put a lot of effort into this. Make sure you get the most value from your event all year long.

Over the 13 years we’ve been mixing it up, our research has shown that scheduling a couple of follow-up events promotes the Mix It Up “spirit” and allows Mix to have a deeper impact on your school.  
There’s no need to do too much detailed planning right now. You have plenty on your plate for the next two weeks. Just remember to talk with your key organizers and bring up some of these ideas later in the year:

  • A second lunch event in the winter or spring
  • A community-improvement project in the neighborhood with “mixed up” work teams 
  • A formal study of the social boundaries and divisions at your school
  • A mural capturing the spirit of Mix It Up at Lunch Day
  • A community showing of the Teaching Tolerance film Bullied

Taking a little time to discuss these ideas during a quick post-Mix meeting can help you get the most out of your event and lay the groundwork for future successful events.

Catch up on more Mix 2014 info here, and kudos on your hard work!

Help Students Respond With Empathy and Respect

This year, Teaching Tolerance teamed up with the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding to bring educators a webinar series called Religious Diversity in the Classroom.

The second webinar in the series, Fostering a Culture of Respect, offered ways for educators to help students feel safe, supported and respected when discussing religious and nonreligious belief systems. The webinar and after-session pack are available online if you have not had a chance to look at these resources yet.

Participants asked some great questions during and after Fostering a Culture of Respect, and we’d like to respond to a few we think are relevant to many educators. In this blog, we’ll address this question: How can I coach students to respond to others with empathy and respect?

Hearing these prompts from you can help students engage more empathetically and respectfully during conversations about religious and nonreligious beliefs.

1. “Find out more.” Cultivate an inquisitive attitude in students by encouraging them to seek out information from a variety of voices within a given belief system. Ask students to formulate and pose open-ended questions. Here are some examples of questions that can guide research and in-class discussions:

  • What is the origin of the religious or nonreligious belief system?
  • In what parts of the world is the belief system practiced?
  • What are some texts that describe or include the belief system?
  • What are the foundations of the belief system?
  • How is the belief system perceived around the world?
  • Do you know anyone who practices this belief system? What do they say about what they believe?

2. “Be aware of the pitfalls of easy comparisons.” When dealing with academic content related to religion, students will encounter ideas about deities, time, the purpose of life, who we are as individuals and who we are as members of our communities, among others. These ideas may be hard to grasp or may feel foreign to students because they have developed out of many traditions, which are sometimes very different from students’ individual traditions.

Students may attempt to contextualize these new ideas by comparing them to concepts from their own traditions or cultural practices. Although this is a helpful practice in gaining a better understanding of ourselves through the exploration of the world around us, it is important they understand and discuss religious and nonreligious views without distorting or oversimplifying them. Comparisons not given thoughtful inquiry can lead to stereotypes and stereotyping. That means not making hasty comparisons between belief systems or using comparisons as the go-to way to discuss another belief system.

 3. “Avoid generalized or simplified statements.” These types of statements imply easy answers such as “Islam is …” or “Hinduism means … ” or “Atheists think … ” Instead, when discussing religious and nonreligious beliefs with students, remind them that religions are internally diverse, dynamic and embedded in culture. Use sources that reflect and provide examples of these qualities. 

Students can practice being more nuanced in their thinking by articulating the subtleties they see. For example, they might say, “This text presents Islam as …” or “The author here indicates that … ” Many religious traditions use storytelling to illustrate central concepts, such as parables in Christianity or Native American oral histories. These can also be great sources for literacy instruction on imagery, symbolism and allusion—and help students to point to nuances in meaning, interpretation and practice.

4. “See religious and nonreligious traditions as diverse and dynamic.” If students are critical of all or part of a particular belief system because it contradicts their values, ask them to find out more about how different adherents of that belief system criticize or propose changing the religion or practices in question. Emphasize, too, that religious and nonreligious belief systems are internally diverse. In Hinduism, for example, some have a personal god and others deny the presence of a deity. Find diverse voices from within the belief system being explored.

5. “Be honest about the limits of our understanding.” Acknowledge and help students to accept that there are limits to our understanding about belief systems. While we can learn a lot about them, we cannot completely understand the lived experiences of people or how their belief system influences their identity and daily lives. It’s also important not to turn individual students into spokespersons of particular religious or nonreligious beliefs.

Stay tuned for additional follow-up blogs that address participants’ questions. The next one will answer this question: How can I respectfully ask questions about identities different from my own?

Wicht is the senior manager for teaching and learning at Teaching Tolerance. 

Intervene With Mean - Part Two

This post is part two of a three-part blog series that explores how to help students transform bullying behavior. The series mirrors the three levels of intervention outlined in Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS). Level One applies to the 80 percent of students who are responsive when explicitly taught about acceptable behavior. Level Two (the focus of this blog) addresses the 15 percent of students who need social skills training and tools to help them stop bullying. The third blog addresses Level Three, interventions for the 5 percent of students with persistent bullying problems who need intensive supports.

Ben was a hefty fourth-grader who loved to play touch football, but he kept ending up in the principal’s office because he bullied other kids during recess games. His usual target was Julio, a boy half his size. Ben blocked Julio, pushing him down on the ground and aggressively tackling him. This happened several times before Julio finally reported it.

Ben promised he would be more careful the next time. When it happened again, he came up with his own solution. “Why don’t I go to help out in the preschool during lunch?” he said. “That will keep me out of trouble.” At the preschool, Ben was like a big teddy bear, and the little kids loved him. After a few weeks, Ben said he was ready to go out in the schoolyard again, but once again he “forgot” and knocked Julio down, this time kicking him too.

Ben represents the 15 percent of kids (Level Two in the PBIS model) who need help to learn not to bully. Restorative justice and social emotional learning offer valuable tools to help these students transform their behavior.

Restorative Justice

Restorative justice (RJ) is an approach in which discipline becomes a learning opportunity rather than a punishment. It is based on the belief that those who harm others can change their behavior. In addition, RJ can help mitigate the negative impact on those they have harmed. The RJ framework shifts interventions away from blame and toward creating a safe and caring environment for all.

In the case of bullying, the RJ process involves the target and the perpetrator separately because the target often feels vulnerable and fears retaliation. One approach is to craft a set of agreements with the perpetrator and convey the agreements to the target. The following questions, adapted from The Little Book of Restorative Discipline for Schools, can guide your conversation with the student exhibiting bullying behavior:

1. What were you thinking at the time of the incident? What did you do? What did you want to happen when you did that?

2. Put yourself in the shoes of the person who was harmed. How do you think that person felt?

3. Think back to a time when someone hurt you. How did you feel?

4. Everyone makes mistakes and hurts others. Do you want to be someone who fixes your mistakes and makes things better? What do you think (the target) needs to make things better? What else might be good to do?

5. You’ve decided to address what happened by ______. How will you do that, and when will you do it? (Make some agreements and write them down.) What do you think you need to do to make things as right as possible? (Practice how things will be said.)

6. There may be a time in the future when you feel like bullying again. What will you do instead?

The agreements might include “I agree not to enter your personal space,” “I agree not to address you as anything but your real name,” or “I agree not to follow you when you walk away from me.” Once agreements are made, share them with the target.

This process encourages reflection and a thoughtful response from the perpetrators without putting them on the defensive. Assure them that they can learn from their mistakes and change. Doing so builds a positive relationship and lets students know they can trust you.

It is critical that you follow up all RJ interventions and conversations. Monitoring and regular support for both target and perpetrator are crucial. Check with the target to be sure the bullying has stopped. Meet often with the perpetrator to ensure the agreements are being followed.

Social Emotional Learning

Social emotional learning (SEL) is an approach that complements RJ and includes strategies to help students understand and transform their behavior.

It is important to consider what might be triggering the bullying behavior in the student. Some students need support with personal issues they are facing at home. Others need help learning empathy, social skills and impulse control.

Educators can work with individuals or small groups to strengthen SEL skills in the five areas described below and to help students transform themselves. The goal is to create a sense of identity safety so students—whatever their background—know they are valued and appreciated and that their identity is an asset. They need to feel that although they have made a mistake, they have agency to learn from it and to change.

Relationship skills: Having strong relationships with perpetrators is the most important factor in supporting the transformation of bullying behavior. The first step is listening to them and helping them feel compassion for themselves and others. Ben was learning how to relate to others when he started helping out in the preschool. He liked the way the younger students looked up to him, and he began to see himself differently. I visited him there and praised his gentleness with the younger students.

Self-awareness skills: Students can learn to identify their own triggers. Ask them to remember and identify how they felt at a given moment, and empower them to seek support instead of react. Once Ben learned to identify when he was getting upset, we could explore other ways to act when he was feeling angry or agitated.

Self-management skills: Ben, like many students who bully, lacked impulse control. He needed to learn to pause and think before he reacted. Along with tools to calm himself (breathing, counting, walking away, talking to an adult), he needed time to practice. He tried out the techniques during role-playing. Then he needed to go back out and learn how to use the skills in the schoolyard.

Decision-making skills: Students need to practice thinking a few steps ahead to make effective choices. Ben needed to talk through the impact of his decisions and behavior. He then practiced telling himself, “If I hurt this student, I may feel better for a moment, but then what?”

Social awareness skills: When Ben got involved in the preschool, he began to notice how other children treated one another. He chose to be part of our schoolwide anti-bullying efforts, and he proposed that he and his friends organize a special friendship fair for the kindergarteners—a big success for him!

Transforming a Pattern of Bullying

The process of changing behavior in the Level Two subset of the student population can and does work, but it requires strong relationships, empathy, social skill building and an expanded emotional tool kit. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”


Amstutz, Lorraine Stutzman, and Judy H. Mullet. The Little Book of Restorative Discipline for Schools: Teaching Responsibility, Creating Caring Environments. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2005.

Olweus, Dan, Sue Limber, and Sharon Mihalic. Bullying Prevention Program. Vol. 9 of Blueprints for Violence Prevention, ed. D. S. Elliott. Boulder, CO: Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, 1999.

Steele, Dorothy M., and Becki Cohn-Vargas. Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2013.

Cohn-Vargas is director of Not in Our School and coauthor of Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn.

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