Stop that Bully

Skippy was the biggest bully in my grammar school. From a troubled home, Skippy was very unhappy, prone to fits of anger, and very, very mean to kids smaller than him.

I thought about Skippy when I read the headlines about the verdicts in the tragic bullying of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old from Ireland who hanged herself after being hounded by a small group of classmates—especially Kayla Narey, the girlfriend of Sean Mulveyhill, a popular senior Phoebe had briefly been romantically involved with.

There are three general types of bullying: troubled kids like Skippy, “mean girls” (and, of course, boys) in teen cliques like the one that victimized poor Phoebe Prince, and the garden variety of teasing and put-downs that pass among most all kids.

From another perspective, bullying falls into a broader category of impulsive, ill-conceived actions children and teens are vulnerable to because of a quirk in how their brains develop.

The brain is the last organ of the body to become anatomically mature, not reaching its final form until the mid-20s. And the circuits for emotional and social skills, including impulse control, are the very last to mature.

During the ages that bullying is frequent, the brain’s circuitry for emotional impulse outstrips the development of the “executive centers” where good sense, patience, and maturity reside. Most critically, the strip of circuits that can stop, think through consequences, and “just say no” to impulse are still immature.

In general, bullying is most prevalent in grammar school and declines as children grow. Still, a report from the Institute of Education Sciences found that about two-thirds of middle and high school students report being bullied at least once or twice over the year; ten percent reported being bullied once or twice a week, and 7 percent were bullied daily.

The advent of Facebook, Twitter, and texting plays right in to the development gap for impulse control. Research finds that in the online world the combination of anonymity and a lack of direct feedback of suffering from victims unleashes cruel impulse more freely. And so the surge in cyber-bullying.

The fact that a youngster’s impulse-control circuitry has not ripened does not give a “pass” for bullying or any other misbehavior. But it does mean that adults need to play a more active role in helping youngsters learn how to do the right thing.

Brain science tells us that a child’s brain is designed to absorb these lessons, and that when they are repeated, they actually shape the child’s brain. The more a child learns to delay acting on impulse or to stop and think before acting, the stronger the underlying circuitry for becomes. So bullying, or any other misbehavior, presents a potential teachable moment, a chance for the child to learn to get it right next time.

The good news: remedies for bullying of all kinds are known and have been proven to work. These teach children the neural lessons they need to make good decisions in life, to get along better, to empathize, and to manage their own inner world in an effective way. The best programs focus at many levels, including teaching kids emotional and social skills, and fostering a caring school climate. These programs are called “social-emotional learning,” or SEL.

A recent mega-study of 270,000 students found that SEL programs increase cooperation and good behavior and decrease misbehavior like bullying an average of 10% (more in the schools that need it the most)—and increase academic achievement scores by 11%!

The SEL programs that have the most powerful impact on bullying:

  • Train parents, as well as teachers and students
  • Increase adult alertness and supervision
  • Make explicit school rules against bullying
  • Change the culture, e.g., through school assemblies about bullying
  • Encourage students to include peers easily left out
  • Teach students how to intervene effectively and tell an adult.

Bystanders play a pivotal role in a bullying episode. If they do nothing, they tacitly support the bullying. But research finds that if a bystander says something that makes the bullying seem “not cool” or otherwise intervenes, in half the cases the incident ends within 10 seconds (this does not guarantee an end to the bullying, of course, which makes the intervener all the more courageous).

In SEL anti-bullying lessons, students role-play what they might do if they saw someone being bullied, or were bullied themselves. Such rehearsals make it far more likely that a kid will react effectively.

What does not work might be a surprise: harsh, zero-tolerance policies, added security equipment and patrolmen—in the absence of the other interventions like changing the school climate and getting kids to practice positive interventions—do little or nothing, and sometimes actually increase rates of bullying.

I recently heard that at a well-known, posh private school in Manhattan, some middle-school girls had become “mean girl” bullies under the leadership of one particularly angry girl. She would boss the others around, write on them with felt pen, scribble on their homework. And her special target was Eleanor: the bully would tell the girls where to sit in class, being sure to isolate Eleanor in a dead zone.

Bella, one of the other girls, had known Eleanor since first grade. One day as the girls were coming into class, when the bully bossily told Bella not to sit near Eleanor, Bella said evenly, “You can’t tell me where to sit.”

Then Bella went over and sat next to Eleanor. And she repeated that act of defiance the next day and the next.

A few days later, the bully ordered this clique of seventh grade girls to come into the bathroom so they could rate each other on their looks—inevitably a humiliating exercise for some.

When one of these girls told Bella she should come into the bathroom, Bella said, “Are you going to rate each other? I’m not into that.”

At that, the other girl, usually cowed by the bully, said in a low voice, “I’m not either,” and they both walked off together.