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Ending Bullying Requires Cultural Change

I had an interesting experience recently, 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.


Corinne Gregory, President and Founder of SocialSmarts®, based in Bellevue, WA is an education expert, author and speaker. More about SocialSmarts and its positive impacts on school discipline, morale and academic achievement can be found at To contact Corinne directly for speaking engagements or media appearances email her at 

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