We are becoming increasingly aware of the seriousness of depression, anxiety and stress in young people. More and more students are reporting feelings of inadequacy and loneliness, and bullying is a recurring theme. Whether bullying is a cause or simply an additional obstacle, its impact on our children’s well-being is undeniable.
So many education-reform efforts emphasize high-stakes testing rather than whole-child development, but an important part of any child’s development is the belief that he or she has a voice—and that should be reflected in the curriculum.
When we ask all kids to communicate about what really matters to them, we demonstrate how much we value their voices. And valuing their voices shows them they matter to us. I asked my students if they would be willing to write about why bullying hurts and what can be done about it. Some shared their pain; others talked about the path forward. (A number of kids used pseudonyms.)
“Most people instantly recognize bullying as a painful issue, but they are going off of assumption instead of experience. I’ve been bullied before, as a third grader, and it was the worst thing that has ever happened to me. Two people cut me off from my friends. I was left to wander the playground alone at recess. Finally, one friend (who’s my best friend today) joined me, and I was so extremely happy. She stayed by my side. The bullies then started spreading lies and rumors about us. It made us both feel very alone. Powerless. I didn’t look forward to school. I dreaded recess. Since my best friend had a different lunch, I ate alone and just sat watching my old friends playing with my bullies.” (The Traveler, grade 7)
Another student wrote, “Bullying hurts because it feels like no one cares about you, and you can’t tell anyone about it because kids will think you’re weak or overreacting, even though you know you’re not.” (Grace, grade 7)
A student who signed his name “Captain America” wrote: “Bullying hurts because you try to tell yourself that you’re awesome, and you try hard to please people, but they say nasty things about you, and you feel like you failed. I was bullied and the one thing that helped me was my dog. He was always happy to see me. For me, feeling appreciated is what really matters.”
And then Brandon, also in seventh grade, shared this: “I used to imagine myself on an island with only the people I care about and that care about me. It helped me block out the people who don’t care what happens to me.”
Carrera left me stunned with this: “When I’m with people who care about me, that feeling is what keeps me going. It’s why I even come to school. Why I have hope, why I am who I am. The saddest thing about bullying is that some kids never have that feeling.”
Along with their stories of pain, students also had some important words of wisdom.
“Every person is valuable and you can remind them of that. Be aware of those who are hurting. Reach out to them with compassion. Be brave, and don’t be afraid to stand up for others.” (Celia, grade 7)
“If you see someone getting bullied, stand up for them and, if you have to, get an adult involved. And remember, don’t fight back with fists. Fight back with kindness.” (Anazstazia, grade 6)
“We are not the labels others put on us. If all the people in this world were absolutely perfect and had no differences, not only would the world be dull, there would be almost no point in living. I believe we are here to become better people.” (Brianna, grade 7)
“Having someone with you who cares about you can cushion the fall and make bullying not so painful.” (E.S., grade 7)
“Sometimes, all you have to do is open your eyes, walk over to someone who is hurting and speak a single word: Hello. That one word can start a friendship for a lifetime.” (Madeleine, grade 7)
Many schools and districts are under tremendous pressure to focus on their students’ test scores. But helping our students succeed must include helping them have safer school experiences, and to do this, we must make sure our programming and practices include opportunities for them to share their voices and for us to really listen.
Donohue is a middle school English and social studies teacher in Monroe, Washington. He also teaches college courses in English, public speaking and education.