When Is It Bullying?

“What’s the difference between bullying and just being unkind?”

I get asked this question every year, in part because I teach a four part unit on bullying to our Fourth Grade students. Children in the upper elementary grades naturally undergo important developmental shifts in how they interact with their friends and classmates. The tools and strategies they used as younger children often no longer work, so they need guidance in developing new ways of having healthy and successful friendships.

The unit begins by anonymously polling students about who has been treated unkindly, who has been unkind to others, who has seen someone be unkind to another person, and similar other questions. I am proud and impressed by the children’s honesty: almost every student will privately acknowledge that not only have they had others be unkind, they have been mean as well.

To help decide what’s bullying and what’s simply mean behavior, we take the time to define bullying, drawing on sources such as stopbullying.gov. Bullying is physical, social or emotional aggression that is intended to hurt (not simply an angry reaction to events); it only occurs in a recognizable power dynamic, and it is intended to reinforce the power dynamic; and it is repeated (or could become repeated).

This introduces several complicated ideas for us we explore. Our conversations cover the ideas of hierarchy and power, and what it means to have power over another, or to have power within ourselves. We look at the idea of integrity, which we define as behaving in line with our values, and why it can be a challenge to act with integrity in the face of peers.  We consider many reasons that people may choose to engage in bullying, and we examine the roles that happen in a bullying dynamic, including bullying, assisting with bullying, bystanding, and being victimized.

Most importantly, we practice becoming “upstanders” who confidently interrupt these situations through words and actions. We do this by coming up with words or phrase we can say in different situations, rehearsing these, and then practicing them — and by being explicit about our commitment to a culture of kindness and communication. And through it all we hold compassion in our hearts for people engaged in bullying and assisting (we describe the behaviors, not label the individuals), because we understand that anger is like carrying a hot coal – it hurts the person who carries it most.

Unkindness occurs everywhere and every day. Some examples may be unintentional reactions not meant to hurt another’s feelings (or body), such as laughing when another child mispronounces a word or answers a questions incorrectly in class. Others are deliberately hurtful and meant to create exclusion and distance, such as eye-rolling, hair-flipping, and other body language. By identifying these and many other behaviors in the group, we eliminate the “I didn’t mean it” excuse, and other ways that children may try to defend their unkindness or take those behaviors underground.

As both a professional educator and a human being, there are few things that make me more passionate than when children are unkind to each other. At Gateway, we practice “zero indifference”, which means we will always slow down and address issues of conflict as they arise. Even more importantly, we are always looking for opportunities to teach children the understandings and skills they will each need to successfully navigate the inevitable unkindness and conflicts that are part of growing up. This is why mindfulness and the development of compassion, conflict resolution and speaking skills, and emotional intelligence are essential parts of our program.

If you’re interested in learning more, we invite you to speak with your child’s teacher, Sherri Helvie, or myself. In the meantime, here are some suggested readings on the topic:

Best Friends, Worst Enemies (Michael Thompson)
Odd Girl Out (Rachel Simmons)
Raising Cain (Dan Kindlon)
Lasting effects of childhood bullying (Slate)
The pitfalls of talking to teens (NPR)


Dr. Zachary Roberts
Head of School