When a student seeks help from a teacher to deal with bullying, the teacher’s response is a critical factor in determining how the situation will unfold.
Bullying is abuse resulting from a power imbalance, leading to a person’s loss of the right to be safe, strong and free. Recognizing that a student who has been bullied has lost a sense of personal power, teachers can seek to enable that student to regain that personal power, an approach known as “empowerment.” Partly, the student will be empowered through engaging with an adult in a problem-solving process which recognizes and reinforces the student’s internal and external resources.
This can be accomplished by exploring the student’s choices and options, identifying effective strategies, building her or his skills and abilities, and generally finding ways to build confidence, self-esteem, a support base, and autonomy. However, an empowering response can begin well before the teacher and the student begin the search for strategies. Simply by being fully present, by providing the student with a respectful and nonjudgmental environment, and the space and time to express whatever is needed, teachers can offer those who have been bullied something which is precious and valuable.
Empowerment listening helps to create such an environment. When responding to a student who has disclosed a bullying situation, teachers can:
- Try to stay calm (steady, deep breathing can help).
- Believe the student. For example, if there are inconsistencies in the student’s story, trust that these will become clear as the student’s story unfolds.
- Respect the student’s rhythm of telling the story. (For example: avoid interrogating the student by asking a series of questions; tolerate periods of silence if it seems natural and comfortable).
- Ask open-ended questions as much as possible when you need to seek information; that is, questions which do not require “yes” or “no” as an answer. For example: “How long has this been going on?” will elicit more information than “Has this been going on for a long time?”
- Avoid making assumptions or projecting your own feelings onto the child or teen. Check out your understanding of what has been shared with you. For example, you can paraphrase what you think you have heard: “So you’re saying that this all started last year, but that it’s gotten worse this year?” or ask for clarification: “It sounds as though you’re feeling pretty lonely, and that you wish you’d never moved to this school. Have I got that right?”
- Help the student identify and name her or his feelings. If you think you can help name the feelings, you can check it out. For example: “You look like you’re feeling pretty sad right now.” Or “That must be so scary.”
- Make sure that the student’s needs and feelings have priority. For example, if the student’s experiences are triggering difficult feelings for you, it is important that your feelings do not become the focus.
- Avoid making promises (for example, promising that everything will be OK, that the bullying will stop, or that you will not tell anyone--you might need to tell someone to get help).
- Make a clear statement that assigns responsibility to the student who is doing the bullying and makes it clear that the bullying is unacceptable. For example, “That’s not OK. No one has the right to treat someone else like that.” Or, “You don’t deserve to be treated like that. No one does.”
- Affirm and validate the courage it took for the student to come and talk to you, and let the student know you are pleased with that courage. For example, “You know, it’s not easy to ask for help in a situation like this. I’m really glad you came to talk to me – it was really brave of you.”
The positive impact teachers can have on the lives of students who are in distress cannot be overestimated. Some students may experience few such moments in their lives.
But teachers, simply by their willingness and ability to be present, to be respectful and to listen without judging, offer this solace.