When Teachers or Coaches Bully Students

When Teachers or Coaches Bully Students

By Dru Ahlborg, Bullying Recovery Resource Center

Before I delve into this topic, let me first state that the vast majority of teachers, coaches and educators are wonderful people.  Individuals who choose this profession generally do so because they have a vested interest in educating the next generation and are drawn to working with young people in helpful and formative ways.  Teaching is a noble profession whose perks strike at the heartstrings versus the checkbook.

Most of the time, when bullying is discussed about children, it is assumed to be child on child bullying.  Very little research has been conducted on teachers bullying students.  Unfortunately, some adult teachers and coaches engage in bullying behavior with their students or athletes.  Alan McEvoy, professor of sociology at Northern Michigan University and author of topics such as bullying and violence in schools defines teacher bullying as “a pattern of conduct, rooted in a power differential, that threatens, harms, humiliates, induces fear in or causes students emotional stress.”  Examples of adults bullying children can include humiliating students in front of their peers, singling out students who do poorly on a test, choosing to give athletes more aggressive workouts for no apparent reason, and verbal abuse.

Teacher bullying has special circumstances that can make it incredibly difficult for the target.  Bullied students oftentimes feel shock, shame and report feeling powerless.  Being bullied by an adult can cause other students to jump on the bandwagon and join in the abuse.  Furthermore, when young people or other adults confront adult bullies such as teachers or coaches the results can garner more humiliation, being given unfairly low grades, loss of playing time or less involvement in special activities.

When a child reports being bullied by an adult in a position of authority caring adults have a responsibility to take the situations seriously and to intervene carefully.  Several strategies can be helpful.  Janet Olsen of Michigan State University offers the following suggestions:

  • Listen deeply and probe for more information. It is important to respond in a way that shows your care for the child’s safety and well-being.  It is a time to ask thoughtful questions and start to create a written account of what has happened with dates, times and potential witnesses.
  • Stay calm. This is an opportunity to model thoughtful action for the child involved.  Reacting quickly and out of anger can cause greater harm.
  • Ask the child’s opinion before taking action. Remember, the child is the most at risk for further consequences and it is important to balance their concerns and have them be part of the solution going forward.
  • Meet with the adult and their supervisor. Be prepared, respectful and clear. It is important to prepare ahead of the meeting.  The school handbook should be consulted to see if there is policy or code of conduct related to adult behaviors at school.  At the meeting, share what your child has reported to you.  Describe how the situation is affecting their ability to learn or participate fully.  Report how the behaviors relate to the school policy.  If the teacher/coach seems concerned, regretful and apologetic, ask how they plan to follow up with your child.  If your conversation and concerns are dismissed or not taken seriously be prepared to take your concerns to the next level such as the school board or consider contacting an attorney or Bullying Recovery Resource Center.
  • After taking action, follow-up with your child. Your child needs to know what to expect going forward.  They may also need additional support from a counselor.

Experts agree that with any bullying, and especially bullying involving an authority figure it should not remain silent.  Letting teacher or coach bullying “blow over” allows the cycle of harassment to continue and silence ultimately enables the bully.  The adult who engages in unabated bullying behavior may feel that their behavior is acceptable and label it as “discipline” or “motivation”.   If the bullying continues after reporting it, the child should be removed from the classroom or the team.

As a charity, we have worked with many families whose children have been targets of bullying by a teacher and/or a coach.  It is a phenomenon that is generally not properly addressed by the education profession.  In general, bullying by educators is:

  • Rationalized by offenders
  • Normalized by students
  • Minimized or ignored by collogues who remain silent
  • Enabled by inaction of school systems
  • Undetected by outsiders in many cases

Bullying Recovery Resource Center believes it is always the responsibility of adults to STOP bullying.  It is no less important when a teacher or coach is the aggressor.    We feel it is the duty of school officials to care for their students and take appropriate action when a trusted adult is bullying children.  This very likely requires policies that directly address teacher conduct, procedures that address how complaints are handled and investigated, proper training of all school staff about bullying and proper student discipline procedures, formal tracking of all bullying complaints, a process for parents to address grievances, and policies in place to reprimand educators in positions of power who bully children.

If your child has been the target of adult bullying and the school has not properly addressed the problem, please contact us.  No child ever deserves to be bullied.

Upstander trait: Empathy

Upstander trait: Empathy

(it’s a skill we can all work on, especially now!)

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus Finch quote in To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.

An upstander is someone who recognizes when something is wrong and takes action. It’s a person who stands up for others and has the courage and empathy to make a difference.

We as a charity talk a lot about upstanders and how their actions can drastically help a bullied child.  Two traits are highlighted in the definition above: courage and empathy.  Empathy is the ability to understand and experience the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another person.  It involves being able to think in someone else’s shoes and share those same emotions.  Research tells us that empathy is not a fixed trait and it can be fostered.  Empathy is a set of skills that are cultivated over time and the more we practice, the better we are.

In her book, Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World,  Michele Borba shares, “Empathy can be instilled, and it is composed of teachable habits that can be developed, practiced, and lived. Empathy is what lays the foundation for helping children live one essential truth: We are all humans who share the same fears and concerns and deserve to be treated with dignity.”

Cultivating empathy in our children is incredibly valuable not only for becoming an upstander, but for living a life rich with relationships and experiencing other’s journeys with a genuine understanding.  Learning empathy as a child enables them to grow up and become caring, responsible adults who shift from a “me” mindset to an “us” mindset.

Here are some ideas to help our children, and possibly for ourselves to become more empathetic and caring, especially in this time of political unrest coupled with a world-wide pandemic.

  1. Learn to Listen: Learn to listen intently when people are speaking with you, especially during heated topics.  Recognize if you, as the listener, are forming your response before the other person has completed their thought.  (Hint: That is not intently listening). Becoming a good listener might mean to slow down, and to truly consider the speaker’s motivation behind his or her words.  Asking follow-up questions can aid in better understanding the speaker’s intention.  Being an active listener and repeating back key ideas of what you heard will also help that the message they are delivering is clear and understood.  You don’t have to agree with the speaker but listening intently opens the door for empathy.
  2. Model how to value feelings: This is an area I believe many adults need to work on.  Our behavior as parents is being watched by our children constantly.  Modeling empathy involves acknowledging and valuing other’s feelings (even if we don’t agree with them).  It involves showing understanding and sympathy when another is sad, upset, frustrated or in need of help.  Modeling empathetic behavior is a 24/7 endeavor and needs to be expressed at home, in public and also online.
  3. Teach children to identify their own feelings: Labeling and discussing feelings allows children to recognize emotions in others and connect with them.
  4. Respect and validate the feelings of our children: Identifying feelings is the first step and validating those feelings in your child is just as important. Some feelings can be troublesome for a parent to hear however by providing a safe space for a child to express their discomfort helps foster compassion and trust. The more that we as adults empathize with our children, the more they can learn to show empathy to others.
  5. Encourage different viewpoints: Here again, I think this is an area that many of us can work on. Children can begin to learn at a young age that the world is not always black and white, but rather multi-faceted.  It should be encouraged at times to seek differing opinions and discussions to see issues and opinions from different angles.
  6. Expose children to people and experiences different from theirs: Challenging our children and ourselves to actively pursue different experiences can require courage and often times takes us out of our comfort zones. Volunteering is a great way to fulfill this idea and ultimately foster empathy for others.

Educational psychologist Michele Borba recommends brainstorming empathetic ideas with you child, even if it is after the event.  These brainstorming sessions provide great teaching moments to learn how to validate and care for another person.  She also recommends offering examples when you did not offer empathy or were not an upstander for another person and discuss how you would handle to situation differently now.

In Caroline Bologna’s article “How to Raise an Upstander”, she encourages parents working with their children to see where they feel comfortable being an upstander.  There are many different ways to be an upstander and understanding your child’s temperament level will allow you as a parent to better understand, role-play and recommend ways to intervene on behalf of a target of bullying.  Some children will feel more comfortable befriending the target and offering comfort and support.  Other children will be better equipped to create a distraction that removes the focus from the bully, and some will be empowered to intervene during the bullying event and speak directly to the bully and tell him or her to stop.

Another key piece of advice Bologna suggests is to teach children to be the first.  Social science research tells us that when even one person is willing to speak up about something that is wrong, others will often follow.  If no one is willing to say something or confront the perpetrator, the bullying will very likely continue.  Being the first can entail stepping in and saying something directly to the bully.  Being first can also be the child who reports the event to a trusted adult or the first child to come to the aid of the target.

Becoming an upstander is a learned behavior.  Discussing and validating feelings, learning to listen more intently, modeling compassionate behavior and stepping outside of our viewpoint and comfort zones allows us to foster empathy and raise children who are empathetic, compassionate and upstanders.


Gaslighting and Bullying

Gaslighting and Bullying

“Don’t let someone who did you wrong make you think there’s something wrong with you.” –Trent Shelton.

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or group covertly sews the seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or group, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgement. It often evokes in them cognitive dissonance and other changes including low self-esteem.  Gaslighting involves a pattern of abusive behaviors with the intent not just to influence someone, but to control them.

As bullying is an exploitation of a power imbalance with the intent to harm, gaslighting is a method the aggressor can choose to bully someone else. These tactics are sometimes difficult to identify, especially in relation to a bully and his or her target.  Highly successful bullies are crafty at manipulating and can be masters of gaslighting.  Additionally, gaslighting can be employed not only by the bully and his or her henchmen, but also by school officials who want to deny bullying.

Gaslighting techniques and examples of them are as follows:

Withholding – The abuser feigns a lack of understanding or refuses to listen or share their emotions.  Bullies will use this as negative peer pressure and bait the target into believing they are a friend and asking the target to do things they don’t feel comfortable doing.  The target will refuse to listen to rational thoughts or reason why the target is unwilling to do the act for their friendship.

  • “I’m not going to listen to that.”
  • “You’re trying to confuse me!”

Countering – The bully will call into question the target’s memory in spite of them having remembered it correctly.  Countering also includes blaming or scapegoating. The tormentor will twist the words of the target and can actually change the narrative so that they now become the wronged party.

  • “You said that last time and you were wrong.”
  • “That’s not what happened.”
  • “You remember that wrong.”

Blocking and Diverting – The perpetrator changes the conversation from the subject matter to questioning the target’s thoughts and controlling the conversation.  Many times, the bully will belittle the target, especially in front of others.

  • “Quit complaining.”
  • “Where did you get a dumb idea like that?”
  • “You’re paranoid!”

Trivializing – The bully attempts to make the target believe that his or her thoughts aren’t important.  Name calling and shaming in front of others often occurs as well.

  • “It’s not a big deal!”
  • “You’re a crybaby!”
  • “You’re too sensitive!”

Forgetting and denial – This is when the bully pretends to forget things that really occurred.

  • “You’re making that up.”
  • “I don’t remember that.”
  • “That’s not what happened.”
  • “Where did you get that idea? You’re lying.”

Gaslighting is emotional abuse and can create deep and lasting scars.  It can cause the bullying target to begin to doubt their own thoughts, memories and actions.  Gaslighting left unabated can cause children to feel confused, hopeless, second-guess themselves constantly and have their sense of self-esteem torn down.

This form of manipulation can ultimately blame the target of bullying for the actual act.  When gaslighting is perfected, especially by a high-status, social bully, the target can be the child who is ultimately punished for being bullied.  A child who has high-status in the school with his or her peers and also with teachers and administrators can gaslight their target and ultimately have others believing that the bullying was caused by the target, or even worse, that somehow, they deserved to be bullied.

This form of bullying is not just dispensed by children in schools, but also by adult school officials and administrators.  Putting a stop to bullying takes much work, effort, and time.  When schools don’t want the stigma of bullying identified with them or the trouble and work of dealing with it, they will often turn bullying into conflict to avoid issuing effective consequences.  Conflict occurs with two equal parties where bullying always involves in imbalance of power and is dealt with entirely differently. Schools that don’t properly investigate, issue effective consequences and blame the target are in actuality gaslighting the target.  Furthermore, school officials and administration can also do this to families of bullied children as well.  We have witnessed school officials and administration relying on their credentials and experience in lieu of proper investigation and putting a stop to the bullying.

Gaslighting is insidious and was implemented by the children and the school administrators that bullied my son and our family years ago.  Being gaslit by a group of people with more power and status caused almost an entire community to turn on our family.  We are not the only ones.  Many of our families that we have helped over the years through BRRC have been subjected to gaslighting as well.  This type of psychological warfare can further harm the bullied child and tear a family apart.

Another group who are frequently gaslit are upstanders to bullying.  (An upstander is a person who speaks or acts in support of a person being bullied.)  Upstanders are frequently told that they don’t understand what they witnessed and are making a bid deal out of nothing.  One of the children who defended my son and attempted to report the bullying was later told he was mis-informed and what had happened to my son wasn’t what he thought it was.

Gaslighting can be extinguished and recovered from.  If a target realizes they are being manipulated in this way and that they are not misinformed or crazy, that can begin the healing as the manipulation will no longer have the same effect on them.  It is important to note that bullies who employ gaslighting techniques successfully will likely not change their behavior.  Putting time and distance between the bully and the target will help as well as working on self-esteem and finding a safe, trustworthy adult and friend.  Sometimes professional help is warranted.  When gaslighting has torn away a strong sense of self and brought on feelings of hopelessness and depression, a professional is needed to help rebuild and rebound.

Understanding and realizing that you or your child has been subject from this form of manipulation by a bully is the first step at getting away from it.  When a child realizes they didn’t deserve to be bullied, and they have been harmed, they are not wrong or crazy then they can begin to heal.  Bullying of children in any form should not be tolerated and needs to be stopped by adults.

Does Your Child’s School Take Bullying Seriously?

Does Your Child’s School Take Bullying Seriously?

Look for the three P’s

“Prepare and prevent, don’t repair and repent.” – author unknown

There are several pieces of information that I share immediately with almost any parent who contacts BRRC.  One of my recommendations is that parents read the student handbook cover to cover and pay special attention to information regarding harassment and bullying. A treasure trove of information is contained in those pages as well as what is missing from the handbook.  A school that takes bullying seriously will lean on a community-based approach in regard to bullying and will include policies, procedures and programs embedded in the school culture and curriculum.

Three important pieces need to be present at your child’s school in relation to bullying.  The three P’s are: Anti-Bullying Policy, Procedures and Programs.  The following information is adapted from Barbara Coloroso’s book, “The Bully, The Bullied and the Not so Innocent Bystander.”  The descriptions of the three Ps follow, and why they are so darn important to you, your child, and your child’s school.

Anti-Bullying Policy:
Having a bullying policy is absolutely necessary.  It must have depth and not simply an inspirational saying or a “we don’t tolerate bullying” statement.  The policy must be clearly articulated, consistently enforced and broadly communicated.  The entire staff, (custodians, teachers, receptionists, administrations, etc.), should have a clear understanding of the anti-bullying policy.  It must include a clear definition of bullying, the ways bullying occurs and an understanding of the impact of bullying on the school environment.  The policy should include a statement of responsibility of those who are witnesses to bullying incidents and try to stop it by intervening, helping the targeted student escape and a way to make it safe to tell a caring adult.

In my opinion, this is where the rubber meets the road.  Having a written policy has absolutely no teeth unless there are specific procedures in place to deal with bullying.  As with so much in life, the procedures to deal with school bullying should have some latitude and common sense in play.  A one size fits all approach is not optimal and lacks common sense.

Consequences for the bully and any active bystanders who played a role in the bullying event should be clearly outlined.  Procedures should include measures that hold the perpetrators accountable for their actions.  Ideally, some form of restorative justice is ideal that involves restitution, resolution, and if possible, an attempt at reconciliation (only if the targeted student is agreeable to that). Lastly, the parents or guardians of the bully need to be notified of the bullying and asked to take measures at home to aid in the restorative justice process.

Procedures also need to include what measures will be taken to keep targeted students safe at school.  These procedures should include tools to aid them in standing up to the perpetrators, offering support, and tools to effectively deal with any new bullying situations they may face.  Safe, caring and trustworthy adults at school should be identified to whom they can safely report any further bullying to.  You, as a parent or guardian should be told of this plan and offered the appropriate protocol to follow up and also to report any further targeting of your child.  A school that takes action, comes up with an appropriate plan to end the bullying, and follows up with you and your child is a school that takes bullying seriously.

An appropriate program for a school that takes bullying seriously is one that back’s up and reinforces the anti-bullying policy and works to create a safe, caring, and welcoming environment for all students.

A program that will have the greatest success is one that is embedded in the curriculum and culture of the school.  The once a year anti-bullying rally, or posters that claim this is a “no-bully zone” that does not reinforce those ideals the entire school year will not succeed.  Bullying and becoming an upstander can be taught through literature and character education lessons.  Empathy and feelings can be part of writing assignments.  Some schools offer mentorship programs to aid students new to a school or new to a grade, so they have a companion to turn to.  A “no one sits alone” lunch policy will curb bullying behavior and create a caring environment.  There are many creative ideas that the staff and students can come up with to create a culture of inclusivity and caring.

Every member of the school staff needs to be properly trained in bullying.  They need to know what bullying is and what it isn’t. They need to know the definition of bullying and what measures they should take when they witness it or when it is reported to them.   Conflict-resolution tactics will not work with bullying and can cause even greater harm. It is the adult’s job to STOP bullying.  Finally, there should be a standard way communicated to all the school’s stakeholders of how to report bullying, and what the target and their caregivers can expect with the school following up with them.

Vigilance and knowledge are key.  Here are some questions you may want to ask your child’s school:

  • What is your school’s definition of bullying?
  • How does bullying get reported at your school?
  • What is the best way to report bullying?
  • How quickly does the school respond after bullying has been reported?
  • If a child has been found to be a perpetrator of bullying, what kinds of consequences can he or she be subject to?
  • What types of programs does the school offer to teach the students about bullying?
  • How is bullying taught/discussed in the classroom? How often?
  • How long are your school employees trained about bullying? Is there a special program they participate in?

And, my personal favorite question:

  • Does bullying happen at this school?

If the answer is “no”, you may need to pull up a chair and prepare for a long conversation with the school employee.  Unfortunately, bullying happens at every school and the real key is how effectively and quickly it is dealt with.  If a school has proper policies, procedures and programs in place, and adheres to those, the bullying can be stopped, and the target can be properly cared for.

Bullying Recovery Resource Center can also help you navigate the bullying your child is enduring.  We provide education, materials and advocacy services to help stop bullying.  If you have any questions, or if your child’s school fails to stop the bullying of your child, we are here to help.

Covid-19 and Cyberbullying

Covid-19 and Cyberbullying

As an Executive Director for a bullying advocacy and recovery charity, I have read article after article about the increase in cyberbullying.  As our children switched their schooling to exclusively online learning, the bullying left the schoolyards and became more rampant on their screens.  With autumn approaching and much uncertainty about schooling as our country is still weathering the pandemic, cyberbullying needs to be addressed.

Cyberbullying is defined as: “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.”  It can include name calling, abusive comments, spreading rumors, threats of physical harm, being ignored or excluded, having opinions slammed, online impersonation, being sent rude or upsetting images, or having personal information or images sent or shared with others.  This type of bullying does not have a time out.  It does not end when the school day is complete and furthermore, the impacts can be devastating.

Any bullying by its very nature involves two things: intent of harm and an imbalance of power.  Cyberbullying is not limited to just our children.  Open up almost any social media platform, blog or news article and there is a litany of responses from adults.  Opinions shared by adults are quite often abusive, demeaning and unkind.  How can we expect more from our children?  Social media is not the problem, it lies in human behavior and acceptable communication.

According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, almost 40% of all middle-school and high-school students have experienced cyberbullying.  Currently, 95% of US teens are online.  Taking cyberbullying seriously has been an uphill battle when compared to traditional bullying.  Some people feel that there are more serious acts of aggression and bullying to focus attention on.  Cyberbullying if ignored will only get worse. The fact is that cyberbullying can be just as or more devastating for the target for the following reasons:

  • The victim may not know who is targeting them or why
  • The information may go viral where a large number of people can see and participate in it very quickly
  • It is often easier for the aggressor to be more cruel hiding behind technology
  • Many adults don’t have the technological know-how or time to accurately keep track of their child’s online activity

So, parents, what can we do if we learn that our child is a target of a cyberbully?  The first and most important thing we can do for a child who is a target of any bullying is to make them feel safe and offer unconditional support.  It is important to not be dismissive and to validate their feelings and perspective.  A rational, logical approach with your child is imperative and will build trust as you talk about next steps together.  Meeting with the school administrator (if applicable) is a logical next step.  Capturing any evidence either by screen shots, photos or working with an ISP, cell phone service or content provider may also become necessary.  The police should be contacted when physical threats are involved or a crime has been committed (extortion, stalking, blackmail or sexual exploitation). Parents need to educate their kids about appropriate online behaviors and monitor online activity especially when children are starting their journey into the cyberworld.

Sometimes children are embarrassed or ashamed they are targeted on social media or in texts.  They are often very reluctant to tell a parent or an adult of their dilemma.  Signs that they may be cyberbullied can include:

  • Unexpectantly stops using their device(s)
  • Appears nervous or jumpy when using a screen device
  • Is uneasy about being at school or outside
  • They are angry, depressed or frustrated after texting, chatting, using social media or gaming
  • Are abnormally withdrawn
  • Avoid discussions about their online activities

Children can also be coached to not be a bystander to cyberbullying whether they or someone else is the target.  Many times, someone does not want to get involved due to the hassle it can cause or fear that they may be retaliated against.  Doing nothing and being a bystander actually passively encourages the aggressor and their behavior.  Standing up to the cyberbully, calling the situation what it is, offering the target encouragement, collecting evidence and reporting the incident can stop the behavior in its tracks.  Even just one of these acts sends the message that this behavior will not be accepted.

Lastly, when working with and reporting to a child’s school about cyberbullying, there are things that should be apparent:

  • There should be a school-wide cyberbullying policy that includes specific disciplinary policies when there is an infraction
  • A positive school climate that encourages kindness and respect has been shown to be a deterrent to bullying and aggressive behavior
  • Schools should include education about responsible use of digital devices as part of their regular curriculum


Slow Your Roll – Minimizing Rumors and Gossip

Slow Your Roll – Minimizing Rumors and Gossip

Gossip and rumors are forms of bullying and fall under the category of relational bullying.  In my opinion, this type of bullying can become the most devastating of all.  It is the most difficult to prove and detect and can leave damage that can last much longer than physical bullying.  Gossip and rumors are mean-spirited, can be used in retaliation and are a negative form of communication.  According to the dictionary they include “doubtful truth” and “typically involves details that are not confirmed as being true.”

“Gossiping and lying go hand in hand.” – Proverb

Minimizing rumors and gossip can be an incredibly valuable skill for kids especially during middle school when this behavior peaks. The strategies discussed below should be followed in order for them to be most effective.  The following is adapted from the PEERS® social skills training intervention program curriculum.

Don’t try to disprove the rumor

This can be quite difficult as our natural instinct is to deny a rumor about ourselves.  Disproving or arguing about the rumor could actually start a new rumor about us being upset.

Don’t appear upset

This again can be quite difficult as it is logical that we would be upset and that emotion could add fuel to rumor.

Don’t confront the person spreading the gossip

Once again, confronting the person starting the rumor could cause more damage and enable them to feel justified to spread even more rumors.

Avoid the person spreading the gossip

Being around the person spreading the gossip can start additional rumors of how you couldn’t look them in the eye or how you gave them the evil eye.

Act amazed anyone cares or believes the gossip

Your peers are watching to see your reaction.  Let them know you really don’t care whether the gossip is true or not.

If it is true, you could say:

  • Why would anyone care about that?”
  • “People need to get a life!”

If it is not true, you could say:

  • “Who would believe that?”
  • “People are so gullible.”

Spread the rumor about yourself

This requires you to be proactive and not wait for your peers to ask you about the rumor.  This requires three steps:

Acknowledge the rumor exists

  • “Have you heard this about me?”

Discredit and make fun of the rumor

  • “How lame!”
  •  “How stupid is that one?”

Act amazed anyone would believe or care about the rumor

  • “Can you believe anyone cares about that?”
  •  “People need to seriously get a life and find something else to talk about.”
  • “It’s amazing what some people will believe.”


Practicing these steps can help a teen navigate and minimize the effects of rumors and gossip.  For more information about PEERS® and their evidence-based social skills programs and bootcamps, go to their website.