A Contract on Bullying

A Minnesota teacher challenges her students to face up to verbal and physical harassment.

Growing up a redhead and feeling like one of the tallest people in the world taught me early on that being different was not as favorable as I had previously thought.

Often targeted by bullying by other kids, I would complain to my teacher but I was told, "Eventually they'll grow out of it and leave you alone." Thankfully, I came from a strong family that reinforced my positives. I was able to laugh off some of the comments and ignore what was said.

Today I see too many children who don’t find that inner strength. The biggest challenge in dealing with bullies is stopping the cycle so that others do not have to suffer.

As a teacher, I am now the person who must confront the perpetrators in school as well as offer advice and condolence to victims of bullying. Unlike the adults around me when I was growing up, I refuse to utter the phrase, "Eventually they'll grow out of it and leave you alone." So I take information to the students before they come knocking. Early in the school year, I team-teach a mini-unit on bullying for our school’s 6th and 7th graders.

The mini-unit involves four steps:
I. Identifying the types of bullying
II. Defining the types of bullying
III. Putting their knowledge to the test
IV. Signing a contract

The activities I conduct help the students identify or name what they are seeing, feeling, hearing and experiencing. It is much easier to get to the root of individual problems if the students have a vocabulary in which to share what is going on.

I./II. Identifying and Defining Types of Bullying

Materials: butcher paper, markers
Time: 30-45 minutes

There are four types of bullying I discuss with my students: verbal, physical, social and intimidation. (Physical can leave marks, verbal can be heard, social bullying is heard by others. Intimidation can come in the form of a look, gesture, or a comment. Whether it is really bullying is up to the recipient.)

I divide the class into four groups and ask each to define one type of bullying. I ask them to think about what it looks like, feels like and sounds like. They brainstorm a list on butcher paper.

As a class we discuss what has been written and add any terms that may be missing that others find important. In my experience it is easy for the students to identify verbal and physical bullying, but they tend to struggle with social and intimidation. With some guiding questions the students are able to identify these forms of bullying. Many then take it a step further by stating social and intimidation as being the precursors to verbal and physical bullying.

A key part to these lessons is helping the student to understand the progression of bullying; if it is not stopped right away, bullying only escalates.

I use "just kidding" actions students experience as an example. We talk about these supposedly lighter comments made right after students insult or threaten a classmate that are intended to make bullying a joke and acceptable. "You are such an idiot ... just kidding." "I am going to kick your butt ... just kidding."

If a person hears this too often, they may begin to believe the threat or insult. We discuss the importance of recognizing that these comments are still bullying even if they are followed with "just kidding." Not doing so and therefore accepting the insult will only empower the bully to take the next step.

III. Bullying Knowledge

Video clips (see below)
"Bullies in the Media" handout

Time: 60-90 minutes (often over two periods)

Now that the students have some background vocabulary I ask them to put it to the test. I like using movies and stories to help my students identify some of the behaviors we have discussed or they have experienced.

I have assembled a videotape of ten movie clips ranging in time from 30 seconds to 10 minutes. All of the clips contain instances of bullying (useful films include "The Mighty," "Stand By Me," "Boyz ’n the Hood," "Devil’s Arithmetic," "Angus," "The Mighty Ducks" and "The Kid"). When pulled out of context, the movie clips help the students to better recognize and name the types of bullying. While watching the clips the students fill out the handout.

Following each clip we discuss what they were seeing, hearing, feeling and experiencing. The students share their ideas. This helps them to practice the vocabulary at a time when they are not emotionally involved personally with the situation.

IV. Contract

Materials: Contract
Time: 30 minutes

The final step of the mini-unit is an anti-bullying contract. The class brainstorms consequences for those who choose to engage in bullying. In previous years, these consequences have included things like peer mediation or lunch detention. After the class has reached consensus on consequences, each student signs a contract through which he or she agrees to be a positive leader in the classroom and also to abide by the consequences agreed upon. Every group is different, every year is different, but above all the students are able to empower themselves and each other.

The three activities I have shared do not encompass the whole mini-unit, but they are some of the more successful portions of it. We also identify traits of the bullies and victims, strategies for dealing with bullies and victims and surveys about school safety. I like to make my students aware of their options in hopes of avoiding future problems and struggles. I do not believe these lessons to be a cure-all for bullying, but the more knowledge a student has the more powerful they will be.

Allison LaBree-Whittlef is a teacher at the Forest Lake Area Learning Center in Forest Lake, Minnesota.