August 21, 2013

Five Ways to Prevent Bullying on the School Playground

Across most of the United States students and teachers are returning to school from summer break. That makes this a good time to start discussing issues that affect school playgrounds.

The social structure of the school playground is a study of dominance and acceptance. Dominant personalities emerge in settings where children are encouraged to be active and "burn off" excess energy. These children take charge of play activities and games and are the de facto leaders of the pack. Children with less dominant personalities shuffle into relevant follower roles and attempt to fit in and not upset the balance of power. This is not unlike the social structure of animals in the wild wherein order is maintained by a reasonable show of force or confidence by the alpha animal. Order breaks down, however, when a predator enters the community. In the wild, the predator may be a large canine or feline animal that feeds on the weaker species. On the playground, this predator has another name: bully.

Bullying is based upon feelings of fear and inadequacy. Bullies are often dissatisfied with their own lives and seek to improve their station in society or their feelings of self-worth by dominating other people. The iconic image of the typical playground bully, however, is not always so easy to spot. Bullying takes on many forms, including taunting and name calling, shunning and preventing someone from joining in, and other non-violent activities that still impose dominance upon a weaker child. The effects of bullying on victims can include poor performance in school, low self-esteem, disengagement from social play and activities, and, in extreme cases, self-harming behavior.

The Global Children's Fund is a nonprofit organization that specializes in the research and development of child safety and abuse prevention. They work with parents and educators to identify and prevent instances of bullying. Here are some of their recommendations on how teachers can prevent bullying on the playground:

1. Get teachers onto the playground

We understand that recess serves as invaluable set-up time for teachers, but if you can manage to rotate turns so that at least one teacher is on the playground interacting with the kids each recess, it can accomplish a lot. Anyone who’s ever worked with kids this age and watched their heated arguments about who's the boss of who knows that having the children's authority is a key part of proper supervision. If the children don't respect you as someone with authority, they'll never listen to you.


The problem with classroom aides on the playground is that with the exception of a few who are highly effective, most fail to earn this authoritative respect among their charges. Students tend to view them in the same light as rent-a-cops; not a real teacher who commands real authority or deserves their respect. When children get in scuffles and disregard what an aide says, as they often do, you tend to get a lot of "wait until your teacher finds out that you're not listening." The kids rightly see this as passing the buck, which only undermines the authority of all aides in general. Their job duties are more akin to security guards: they stay relatively disinvolved with the kids and focus on maintaining the perimeter. So if you have 200 kids on the playground with 4 or 5 aides standing next to the building watching, the kids are essentially unsupervised. Sure, they'll handle bloody knees and keep them from running off, but they are otherwise left to their own devices, and without an authority figure who the more difficult or aggressive kids consider someone commanding of respect. This allows bullying to occur.

Having at least one teacher amidst the kids provides an authority presence. Problems can be dealt with as they arise by someone the kids view as a respectable authority, and the more aggressive kids are not given a free pass to do whatever they want so long as it doesn't draw blood.

2. Keep age groups separated

Try to avoid mixing age groups. This allows for a large power differential to exist among the kids, and power differentials tend to open the door for bullying behavior. If you do mix a whole range of ages together, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with this, so long as you accommodate for it with excellent supervision.

3. Organize around conflict avoidance

Organize playground activities so that they are not conflicting with each other. Many conflicts start with an accidental bump or shove or because kids run into each other. This is a safety concern as well. On the same token, make sure you have plenty of supplies - scarcity results in conflict, and can lead to bullying behaviors when kids fight over limited resources. So one way to diminish conflict is simply to make sure you have plenty of balls and other supplies to go around. You also might try having each grade create a set of playground rules and post these on the door so that all students are aware of them.

4. Have a simple plan to address bullying

Make sure all playground staff know what problem signs to look for, such as:

A) A student who is consistently off by themselves,
B) A group of kids restricting other children from playing in a certain area,
C) Pointing & laughing at someone,
D) A child who seems withdrawn and depressed but is reluctant to give you a reason.

Create a clear and easy way for playground supervisors to report problem incidents they see. The more complicated the system, the less likely it is to work. One of the best methods is to keep a playground log for each grade on a clipboard, so that suspect behaviors can be quickly recorded. This allows teachers and aides to identify common culprits or instigators who might have gone unnoticed before. Deal with all incidents of bullying or intimidation swiftly. Never tell kids to sort it out on their own. This will either lead to a fight, or it will hand victory to the bully while teaching the victim that adults will do nothing to protect them.

5. Bust out the camera

This may seem a bit Orwellian, but it often works. Simply having a camera or video recorder around can alter the children's behavior. No child wants a photo proving they were causing trouble, and it can eliminate problems before they start. This is an especially powerful tool if your school has had problems with playground bullying in the past. Just be sure to use the device both ways: try to catch kids displaying positive behaviors towards each other as well, and share these among the class.

(Source: Global Children's Fund)


Kent Callison
categories Schools