6 steps for preventing bullying in the online era

Educators must anticipate how students might misuse new digital learning tools
By: | October 7, 2020
Committee for Children's Captain Compassion comic strip is designed to help students and educators better prevent and respond to race-based bullying.Committee for Childre
Jasmine Williams, Committee for Children

Jasmine Williams, Committee for Children

The large-scale shift to online learning has opened new avenues for bullying while a renewed focus on social justice has educators paying special attention to race-based harassment.

The move to remote instruction requires that teachers and administrators to anticipate how students might misuse new digital tools, says Jasmine Williams, a bullying prevention expert and researcher at Committee for Children, a nonprofit provider of social-emotional learning and bullying prevention programs.

For example, there has been at least one case of students using Google docs to bully each other, Williams says

“Kids are smart, and they will find ways to get around things,” she says. “Educators have to take the time to learn the new platforms they’re using.”

Here are some guidelines for preventing bullying during a school year that is being disrupted by COVID and reshaped by a reinvigorated social justice movement:

1. Administrators must set the tone: District and building leaders must develop and share a vision for respectful and inclusive school culture.

While schools are operating in-person, leaders can visit classrooms to spread the message and observe teachers. During remote instruction, administrators should visit online classrooms regularly to reinforce school culture, Williams says.

2. Establish standards for student engagement in the virtual world: Just as teachers would start the year in a physical classroom by developing a class charter, they need to work with administrators to establish norms for student behavior in the virtual world.

These standards should include standards for safe behavior and how to disagree respectfully, among other guidelines, Williams says.

3. Include student voice: Students are more likely to follow rules when they’ve had a role in creating them.

“It’s really important that kids feel like they are driving what their learning community is going to look like,” Williams says.

4. Pay special attention to race-based bullying: Students of color, particularly Black children, are likely experiencing heightened levels of trauma due to COVID’s disproportionate impacts in their communities.

And over the last several months, they have also seen images of Black people being mistreated in the media, Williams says.

This requires administrators to provide training for teachers in leading potentially difficult conversations about race.

“You have to be really open in your conversations, you have to be authentic and acknowledge to yourself and students that you might not have all the answers,” Williams says.”And you have to have continuous conversations, not just during Bullying Prevention Month in October but all school year, to create diverse and equitable communities.”

5. Adopt restorative practices: Restorative practices that focus on repairing harm, rather than punishment, can be a more effective response to bullying.

These practices—which include group and one-one-discussions rather than detentions and suspensions—can help build community because they require students to reflect on bullying behavior, apologize, and take responsibility for their actions, she says.

“When it comes to bullying, everyone—those who are victimized, those who witness it and those who engage in bullying behavior—can suffer long-term mental health consequences,” Williams says.  “Bullying prevention is about ensuring children and youth can go to school and live in a community where they can thrive, where they feel safe and where they feel valued.”

6. Reach out when we’re remote: Teachers and educators must carve out extra time to check in on students’ social-emotional wellbeing and provide extra support when necessary.

“This is even more important in a remote environment where people feel isolated,” Williams says. “Even though they’re connecting online, Zoom meetings can feel impersonal.”