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To end bullying requires a cultural change

February 2, 2011

I had an interesting experience last night, one that may serve to partly explain why we’re not making much headway on ending bullying in our schools.

I was speaking last night at a local school, for a group of parents and educators. The talk I was giving was advertised as one on “preventing” bullying (actual title is “7 Steps to Eliminating Bullying in Schools: An Inside-Out Approach“). The presentation goes into details about defining what bullying is, explaining the different types of bullying, who does the bullying and why…all as part of the setup to explain how to cure it.

I wasn’t more than 7 slides and 15 minutes into what was supposed to be a 1 hour and 15 minute talk when the first questions started. That wasn’t a problem; I had encouraged the group to ask questions during the talk. I wanted it to be interactive, to address the concerns and issues they had so I could be sure their issues were heard.

What I wasn’t prepared for was where the questions were going to go.

The parents immediately went to “my child has been bullied here at school — what do I do?”  They shared that in spite of the fact that their children had been participating in a “program” at the school for years, bullying was still happening so what was I recommending we do about that?  They also felt that their administration wasn’t doing as much as they could to fix the problem because bullies weren’t being held accountable. One parent wanted to know why the bully shouldn’t be expected to write a note to the victim explaining how sorry he/she was for bullying.

All good data and much of it may be true. But, as I explained they were missing the point — and it was one I was trying to make.

All of these actions are geared toward dealing with the problem after-the-fact.  It’s a “now that we have the problem, what do we do about it?” approach. It’s the same one we’ve been doing in schools all across this country, yet in spite of the hundreds of millions of dollars, in spite of all the programs and policies, bullying is an epidemic and children are being hurt, lives are being lost.

And it’s this approach that keeps us in the cycle.  As I explained yesterday in my presentation, we tend to think of “bullying” as something that occurs in isolation — what I mean is, it happens between an individual or a group (the “perpetrator(s)”) and the victim.  But, while the actual bullying may be between limited players, the reality is that it’s the culture that allows it to continue.

Author Barbara Coloroso, in her book “The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander,” describes the dynamics of bullying this way:

“The bully, the bullied, and the bystander are three characters in a tragic play performed daily in our homes, schools, playgrounds and streets.”

And she’s right.  We have to consider all the “actors” in the play and examine what role they have in the cycle of bullying if we are ever to have a shot at really solving it.

That’s where I talk about changing the culture — of the school, of the community.  That requires focusing on a model of prevention, not just one of mitigation and management, as so many typical anti-bullying approaches do.  Please don’t misunderstand; I am not suggesting that we drop our policies that set consequences for negative behavior or establish reasonable and effective punitive measures when the inevitable bullying incident occurs. But that should be the last resort, not the first response.

It’s natural for parents, educators, and administrators to want a quick fix — we all want the problem to go away. We want it handled, now.  But it’s not that simple. Bullying doesn’t just drop from the sky one day, with no warning.  It’s something that develops over time. While there are some pathological exceptions, bullies are made not born.  Many of the kids who bully do so because they don’t have any better way of dealing with their aggression and their insecurity. By focusing on developing positive cultures in school, where every child gets a chance to gain the social/emotional learning and character development they need to not only function in school, but succeed in life, we are taking steps to build the kind of environment where bullying isn’t tolerated and anti-social behavior is not supported.

I could go on — after all, my presentation is over an hour in length and that’s without the chance to ask questions.  But the point is that we cannot hope to solve this problem with a quick “one size fits all” snappy answer or a silver bullet.  We have to start looking at things differently because we know that what we have been doing for decades isn’t working the way we’d hoped.

To the parents from the group last night, I want to say that we do have a good shot at stopping bullying, but it won’t come from any quick fixes or handy “tips” I — or anyone else — have to give you. It’s a process and it starts with prevention, and the whole culture has to be in on it.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2011 2:54 pm

    Thanks for the informative post. I agree 100%. The solution has to come from changes in all aspects of our culture–entertainment, politics, sports, everything.

  2. Mickey Reid permalink
    March 19, 2011 3:59 pm

    Yes, this culture supports bullying. First, the freedom of speech is a handy excuse for saying nasty, hateful speeches against someone. I am not saying we should abolish freedom of speech, but it is creating a culture where people feel that they can say whatever they want to say regardless of who gets hurt. However, just because you can say it, it doesn’t mean you should. Many Americans don’t understand that.

    Second, this culture values performance above morals. A bully can be promoted. It doesn’t matter if s/he is belittling everyone at work. As long as s/he is doing a good job, he can get praised or even promoted. Same thing with sports. Remember that Brigham Young basketball star who was suspended more breaking a moral code. Many people thought it was a stupid punishment.

    Third, America likes retribution. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The problem is retribution borders on revenge. Revenge can fuel hatred. Remember Phoebe Prince. The mean girls were angry at her because Prince dated their ex boyfriends. So the mean girls bullied her death. Does the punishment fit the crime?

    Fourth, America thinks it’s ok to say nasty things if they’re true. Remember Natalie Munroe, a teacher who blogged about her frustrations with her students. She referred to her students as “loser” “dresses like a street walker” etc. A teacher committed name calling but people defended her. They said that it’s OK to call them names because it’s the truth!!!
    Other people defended her using the freedom of speech excuse.
    Everyone has flaws. Some people are gay, some are fat or ugly. Do these “truths” give anybody the right to call them names and harass them on a daily basis??

    Fifth, breakdown in parenting. When children are nasty and disrespectful, the parents do nothing. “All children do this, so it must be OK.” If a child yells, “Mary is a loser” the parent will say “it’s OK honey. That’s what she is.” Absolutely disgusting.

    Sixth, decline in the quality of education. Schools are breeding dumb children who don’t question ideas. They accept conformity. They accept whatever they hear or see. Schools are not doing enough to build character. In fact, schools are havens for bullying. Have people become really dumb that showing civility is no longer common sense?

    Seventh, the media is feeding people stupid TV shows. The media sells sex…. and hate. Respectful is boring. There has to be a nasty joke or people won’t watch it.

    It’s truly sad that the future of the country lies at the hands of poorly educated people who can’t show common sense of basic respect for fellow human beings.

  3. March 31, 2011 4:42 pm

    A thoughtful article. Thank you for writing and working on this important issue. As I read the news stories and watch videos about what is happening around the nation, I too believe an important part of the solution is to work on prevention. I loved the quote “The bully, the bullied, and the bystander are three characters in a tragic play performed daily in our homes, schools, playgrounds and streets.” If more of the bystanders (parents, teachers, friends, community leaders) played an active role to teach respect and love for others and intervene when appropriate we would make significant change in the lives of our children.

    • Corinne Gregory permalink*
      March 31, 2011 4:47 pm


      Thank you for your note. I appreciate your taking the time to read this as well as comment. I hope you’ll share this with anyone you feel could benefit; we all have to work together to stop the plague of bullying. Also, you may want to check out our FB page dedicated to social skills, character education, bullying prevention and values development at

  4. May 16, 2011 9:11 am

    Hi Corinne, thank you for pointing me to the link to your blog. I agree — wish I had more time to comment but I am at work so a quick acknowledgement will have to suffice (for now).

    I read recently a theory that teenage girls who bully are really trying to “learn” social skills that they somehow missed in the formative years. I don’ t know about that, but as you know from my blog I think they have to be responsible for the choices they make to use such destructive behavior via social media (and in person) but they also deserve the adults in their lives to not give up on them and to try to help them find a better way.

    • Corinne Gregory permalink*
      May 16, 2011 9:26 am

      Agree, Paula. I don’t think these kids are “bad kids” — they just don’t know any better and are just trying to fit in with the “norm.” Sadly, “norm” isn’t positive in too many cases…

  5. August 11, 2011 7:36 am

    Bullying is a very complicated topic, but I believe that bullying is an aggressive act, and we are all naturally aggressive – some more than others. It’s the rules and regulations that help us put a lid on the aggression. I also believe we can unlearn aggression – think of Skinner & Watson’s experiments & Operant Conditioning. Thanks for the post & hope we can find the exact science to get rid of bullying & cyber bullying


  1. The Bullying Conundrum « SocialSmarts Blog
  2. How accountable are schools for bullying? « SocialSmarts Blog
  3. “Congress Must Pass Law to Prevent Teenage Bullying in School” – Say WHAT?? « SocialSmarts Blog

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