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Bullying is nothing new. From the infamous Phoebe Prince case a decade ago to the recent news that mega-producer Scott Rudin is stepping back from Broadway due to allegations of workplace harassment, bullying extends from the schoolyard to the office.

The question is, why does bullying continue to plague our society? For years, schools have hosted anti-bullying assemblies and teacher trainings. The news cycle is filled with stories of children who were bullied to death, actors and directors who mistreated their colleagues, and managers who created toxic work environments. Everyone knows that bullying is bad and it seems to be getting worse.

So, why hasn’t it ended? The war on bullying started when the first shots rang out at Columbine High School in 1999. Now 22 years later, people are well-aware of the problem but still vague about the solution.

Social aggression expert and youth motivational speaker Jeff Veley has some ideas about why we’re stuck — and how to move forward.

Why is bullying still a problem when there are so many anti-bullying programs and laws?

Because an “anti” bullying programs tell people what we already know: bullying is bad. It’s not providing any framework to actually stop bullying or help victims negotiate the situation.  Furthermore, these tend to label aggressive people rather than the behavior as bad.  Painting children with this broad brush based on a few incidents is both unhelpful and hypocritical.

Most of the time, these initiatives are started by wonderful people who want to make a difference but aren’t aware of how to solve the core problem. That’s why these movements can gain traction quickly but die out or turn negative on social media. We see it after every tragic case of a kid who commits suicide after being bullied. In some cases laws are passed but they are rarely psychologically sound.

So, there’s an anti-bullying initiative that gets people fired up — but it keeps the focus on stopping the bullying rather than empowering the child who feels like a victim.  Some actions expose and humiliate those who are exhibiting aggressive behaviors.   This perpetuates the behavior and results in additional victims.

This is happening right now in Dayton, Ohio. A young man just attempted suicide after years of being bullied, so the school made an anti-bullying task force. Which raises two questions: what was the school doing before, and why are they using anti-bullying strategies, which are proven to fail?  We’ve seen so many of these initiatives launched, and yet children feel ill-equipped to respond to mean kids and manage emotions.  A different approach is needed.

Many schools and workplaces have zero tolerance for bullying. Is that a more effective option?

Not at all. People who create those programs and policies are often mis-educated or misinformed. That old anti-bullying methodology, the zero-tolerance approach, has been proven to make things worse. It’s not as simple as telling people to “stop bullying.”

Yet I meet parents and educators every day who claim zero tolerance is the best path. We have years of research to prove that this only raises hostility and decreases trust between students and grownups. It’s simply not effective. And often, it ends up punishing targets who attempt to fight back. Other times, the behavior moves off campus and online, causing a cyberbullying problem that can be nearly impossible to track or control.  Once again, we haven’t solved the core issue.

Are bullying awareness programs effective?

You may think that If kids and adults learn to recognize bullying behavior and the harmful impacts, that it would stop.  When it comes to bullying, we don’t need awareness. We need solutions. But well-meaning people who want to stop bullying don’t really know how to fix it. We can tell people to just not bully others, but ultimately that doesn’t work. Aggressors know that they’re bullying others.

Those that don’t have a solution to bullying find creative ways to re-communicate a known problem. They’re hoping that by making workshops, or documentaries, or theatre plays, or whatever about bullying, that they’ll strike the right chord — and maybe convince someone not to be a bully.  While we’re wasting time scolding aggressors and marching through communities, the targets are wondering what they can do to actually make it stop.

Why it it hard to stop bullying?

By definition, bullying is social aggression. It’s an imbalance of power where one person gets pleasure from having power over another. It’s a game.  The school’s mean girl isn’t going to stop as long as she’s winning just like a gambler won’t pull their bucket away when they hit a jackpot. There’s an emotional payoff that keeps the cycle going.  It can be addictive. Until the reward stops, the behavior continues.  So how can we empower the target to respond?  What is the best approach to stop bullying?

We need to stop focusing on awareness and “anti-bullying.” Awareness and bystanders doesn’t stop victimization. Empowering targets with the right skills does. Bullying doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s social aggression. There’s a reason the person is continued to be targeted. It’s not their fault, but they are the one who can turn off the reward for their enemy.  When they do, the game is over.

Empowering targets corrects the power imbalance.  It allows them to keep their power, instead of it being taken from them.  As a result, they grow in confidence and learn how to resolve their own social conflicts.  This moves them from victim to victor.  They become the hero of their own story and can even use their experience to help others.  Through skills training, a multiplication effect can take place where students educate their peers, and a group (or school culture) grows in resilience.

Research shows that strategies like The Peace Sign Approach are the most promising solutions to social aggression. These approaches show kids — and adults — how to manage their emotions, navigate social challenges, and respond to adversity in a healthy way.  It’s all based on social and emotional learning and resilience education.

SOURCES USED:

https://dayton247now.com/news/local/sidney-community-gathers-at-anti-bullying-rally-after- middle-schooler-attempts-suicide https://www.npr.org/2021/04/17/988409413/producer-scott-rudin-steps-back-from-broadway- following-allegations-of-bullying

About Jeff & The Approach