Intervening With Students Who Bully


It is important to understand that students who engage in bullying behaviour need support just as much as those who are bullied. This can sometimes mean moving from a punishment approach to a problem-solving approach. In the problem-solving approach, the student becomes part of the solution. Instead of punishing negative behaviour, the goal is for the student to learn a better way to behave.

The punishment approach focuses on mistakes, while the problem-solving approach focuses on making things right. It helps students take responsibility for their own behaviour while being treated with respect and dignity. It moves from retaliation to forgiveness and reconciliation.

Students who engage in bullying behaviour may have one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Impulsive behaviour
  • Hypersensitivity and a tendency to misinterpret actions of others as hostile
  • An inability to empathize with or be compassionate toward others
  • A tendency to use power rather than social skills to get what they need
  • A troubled home life

When intervening with a student who engages in bullying behaviour:

  • Take each reported incident seriously and act on it. When bullying behaviour is reported, talk to the student who is engaging in bullying behaviour alone.
  • Get all the facts – the names of the people involved, the sequence of events, etc. Be sure to document the information, keeping emotional responses and unsupported conclusions out of the documentation.
  • Find out why the bullying behaviour occurred. Look for the underlying reason. What purpose did the bullying behaviour serve? Be aware that it is common for those engaging in bullying behaviour to minimize or deny actions or responsibility for actions.
  • Be firm and set limits. Agree on logical consequences or assign consequences that offer help and alternative behaviours.

A range of logical consequences that could be applied should meet the following criteria.

o   Reasonable: the consequences fit the inappropriate behaviour.

o   Related: the consequences teach a skill or attitude that will prevent future inappropriate behaviour.

o   Respectful: the consequences must respect the dignity of both the student who is bullied and the student who engages in bullying behaviour.

o   Responsible: the consequences ensure that the student who engages in bullying behaviour is the one who is held accountable for his or her actions.

  • Ensure that other school staff members share an understanding of the situation.
  • Build skills – the student who is aggressive toward others needs to learn to recognize and correct negative behaviours.
  • Aid reconciliation – discuss how the student can make amends to those he or she has harmed.
  • Monitor behaviour and follow up with both the student and parents.
  • Students who engage in bullying behaviour need help developing problem-solving skills that don’t involve aggression. Offer to help the student practice positive, productive, alternate behaviours for similar situations.

Use a problem-solving mindset

Adults need to respond to students’ inappropriate behaviour with a problem-solving mindset. In the problem-solving approach the student becomes part of the solution. Instead of punishing bad behaviour, the goal is for the student to learn a better way to behave.

To help achieve this goal, teachers can consider the contrast between a punishment approach, which allows students to abdicate responsibility for anti-social behaviour and imposes an external set of rules on them, and the problem-solving approach which, while treating misbehaving students with dignity, seeks to instill a sense of personal responsibility and desire to behave better.

In the problem-solving approach, students are expected to fix the wrongs they commit. A problem-solving approach to dealing with anti-social behaviour is aimed at preventing a recurrence of the violent or harassing behaviour.

However, modelling and teaching pro-social skills are also vital to reducing bullying behaviour. Students need support to practice and learn positive, productive alternate behaviours for similar situations.

Re-examine any philosophy in which the incorporation of one-size-fits-all when it comes to assigned consequences. Unfortunately, zero tolerance has been reframed as a simplistic justification for treating every problem with one solution. Zero tolerance is too often an excuse to punish without thought, to remove students causing the trouble without taking responsibility, or to sound tough without doing the tough work of finding real solutions.