Dealing with Bullying: An effective approach

A Brief Story

I teach math and science at a small high school in southeast Alaska, and my classroom window looks out on the playground of a kindergarten-first grade school. I have a clear view every day of the back of the playground, a place that doesn’t always get the most supervision. My students and I watch little kids play there all day long. Most of the bullying we see is low-level shoving and name-calling, which appears to be self-regulated by peer groups.

Last week, I finally saw something that I needed to interrupt. I watched a kindergarten kid grab another kid by the collar, and shove him against a chain link fence with one hand. The bully made a gun out of his other hand, put it right up to the other kid’s face, and started saying something to the kid.

I walked over and cheerfully but assertively introduced myself. “Hi, I’m Eric, what’s your name?” The bully looked totally surprised, backed away from the other kid, and answered me honestly. As I listened to the bully, I remembered something I had learned about dealing with bullies effectively. The best approach is actually counter-intuitive: rather than giving in to the strong urge to confront the bully, it is much more effective to give your attention to the victim of the bullying. So I turned to the other kid and asked him his name. When he turned around to face me, my heart broke. He had snot running from both nostrils, and he just looked like a kid who got picked on a lot. But he answered me as well. I said to him, “It doesn’t look like you were being treated very well; I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with this today.” He agreed, and as I held a conversation with him for a moment I watched the five or six other kids who had been gathered around the scene from the beginning. They circled closer around the victim, but in a positive way. The bully continued to backpedal, but not in an attempt to get away. They had just all started to forget about him, and he seemed to have no place to be.

When the group dispersed, I called the bullying kid over again. I said to him, “Hey, you don’t really want to shoot anybody, do you?” “No!” he replied, and I suggested he might try to find other ways to play. He looked confused and thoughtful at the same time, as he wandered back to the school building.

A powerful model of bullying dynamics

I have been teaching for about 15 years now, and at this point I am very skeptical of commercial solutions to school-based issues. But a few years ago I attended a professional development workshop on the Olweus Bullying Prevention‘s approach to dealing with bullying. I was completely impressed with how well this organization had studied the dynamics of bullying, with how well they have modeled those dynamics, and with their concrete recommendations for dealing with bullying.

A clear definition of bullying

The Olweus organization offers a clear definition of bullying:

  • Bullying is negative behavior aimed at a person who will have difficulty defending themselves;
  • Bullying is repetitive in nature;
  • Bullying is carried out by someone with an imbalance of power over someone else.

A powerful model of the bullying dynamic

The Olweus model of bullying dynamics identifies eight roles that individuals typically play in a bullying situation. In the Olweus model, these roles are signified by letters. The following diagram of these roles is taken from an NPR feature about a school that has implemented the Olweus bullying and violence prevention model. The diagram itself was created by Hazelden publishing:

The main roles in a typical bullying scenario.  We want to minimize the number of individuals on the left, and teach people how to play the roles on the right.

The main roles in a typical bullying scenario. We want to minimize the number of individuals on the left, and teach people how to play the roles on the right.

  • A – The Bully. This is the person who leads the bullying. The bully is not necessarily the loudest person in the situation.
  • B – Followers. These are people who are actively engaged in the bullying, even though they are not leading it.
  • C – Supporters. These are the people who are outwardly supporting the bullying, without taking an active part in it. They are cheering on the bullying, laughing at it, and blocking access to help.
  • D – Passive Supporters. These people want the bullying to continue, but are not openly supporting it.
  • E – Disengaged Onlookers. These people don’t support the bullying, but don’t care to stop it either.
  • F – Possible Defenders. These people do not like what they see. They would like to stop the bullying and help the victim, but they do not know how to do so.
  • G – Defenders. These are the people who actively support the person who is being bullied, and who may confront the bully and the people who are supporting the bullying.
  • H – The person who is being bullied.

These roles provide a powerful framework for breaking down bullying situations. With a little training, it is fairly easy to spot which role each individual is playing in any given situation. It is important to recognize, however, that individuals can play multiple roles. We can easily have “supporters” who are outwardly laughing about the bullying, while feeling bad about it and wishing they could do something to stop it.

A clear recommendation for interrupting bullying

There is a lot to the Olweus model, so I will share what I took away from the training I attended. For most of us, our instinctive reaction when we want to interrupt a bullying situation is to focus on confronting the bully. But this is counterproductive; it only serves to give the bully more attention, and more power. It is actually much more effective to take the counterintuitive approach of focusing on the person who is being bullied. We can talk to them in a supportive way, or offer to leave the situation with them. When we do this, we take the focus off of the bully and give the victim some power back.

This approach also offers us some guidance in dealing effectively with bullying over the long term. If bullying is happening in our community, we need to focus our overall approach on supporting people who are being bullied. If we keep this mindset, we will develop effective ways of holding bullies accountable, and educating them. But that will be done to serve the goal of supporting victims, rather than with a focus on punishing people.  Punishment may be necessary, but that punishment should serve the end of making a safe space for victims, not as an end in itself.

We all recognize that nothing is easy about dealing with an entrenched culture of bullying. In our staff conversation, we differentiated between bullying and assault. If we try to support a person who is being bullied, and it doesn’t work because the bully is so aggressive that they are going to hurt two people instead of one now, then we may be dealing with a person who has moved on from bullying and is now committing assault.

We also need to recognize that we don’t just support the victim and walk away, leaving the bully to go find another victim. If we are in a position of authority in the situation, we need to follow up by dealing directly with the bully. I won’t go into ways to deal with bullies at this point; that is a separate discussion. For now, the bigger point is that the best way to interrupt a bullying situation is often to focus on supporting the victim.

Back to the story

We can look back at the kindergarten playground situation in a more structured way now. First of all, we should ask whether it was actually bullying. The answer is a pretty simple yes:

  • One person was acting aggressively toward another, and the victim appeared unlikely to defend himself.
  • I can’t say for sure that this was a repetitive situation, but I am comfortable guessing this was not the first time this person picked on this victim.
  • Finally, the bully was in a position of power by virtue of being stronger, more confident, and more approved of by his peers.

Even at the kindergarten level, these dynamics apply.

Looking around the small crowd of students, I could see clear roles being played. There was one main aggressor, but the other students were standing around the victim in a way that probably made him feel cut off from help. I did not let the situation play out long enough to see if anyone would come to his defense. I can say, however, that as soon as I interrupted the situation a number of these students seemed relieved. And that is our point – that if we understand the dynamics of bullying situations, we can help bystanders develop the skills to interrupt bullying when and where it happens.


I am a practical person, and I believe there will always be bullying. But that is human nature. What matters is, do we have a clear way recognizing bullying when it begins to happen, and do we have enough people around who know how to deal with bullying situations effectively? If we do, we can keep bullying from destroying people’s lives as it can so easily do when it goes unchecked.


About ehmatthes

Teacher, hacker, new dad, outdoor guy
This entry was posted in education and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Dealing with Bullying: An effective approach

  1. learle says:

    Thanks for your excellent post! Please follow up with ways to deal with bullies. I volunteer with a high school team, and want to be a more effective defender.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Great – thank you!

  3. Alfred Low says:

    I appreciate the advice and will put it to use when raising my children.

  4. Annette says:

    Hi, thanks for posting this bullying info (back in 2013). Interesting approach from a teacher’s perspective. As a parent I would be fearful of not dealing with the bully’s behaviour – can you recommend any readings/resources? Annette

    • ehmatthes says:

      Hi Annette,
      I don’t have any recent readings to offer, but I’ll share a quick perspective on this. It’s been 4 years since I posted this, and I still have the same mindset about bullying. This perspective has worked in every bullying situation I’ve dealt with since learning it. I like to point out that if this approach doesn’t work we’re not really dealing with bullying, we’re dealing with assault. If we try to make a connection with a person being bullied and help get them out of the situation and the bully prevents that from happening, they’re probably now threatening serious physical harm or actively engaging in physical violence. We need to name bullying for what it is and not call someone who’s physically violent a bully – we need to call them an assailant.

      As far as dealing with the bully’s behavior, taking their power away is the first step. Hopefully that can be done by focusing on the victim. It’s our job to help the victim first, and counsel the bully second.

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