Fighting and Bullying in
Children and Schools

(c) copyright 2004 by Chuck T. Falcon. All rights reserved.

By Chuck Falcon
Children naturally argue and fight with their brothers and sisters.  In doing so, they practice assertiveness, negotiation skills, and conflict resolution.  Early teaching and training in kindness, sharing, love, sensitivity to the needs of other people, virtues, and problem solving is much easier than trying to train after the child has developed a poor self-image and poor habits of self-discipline.  Developing a wide variety of interests and activities in your children helps a great deal by keeping them busy and out of trouble.
Set a good example of politeness, helpfulness, and patience.  Parents who yell every day or many times a week teach their children by their own example to lack patience, yell frequently, and show disrespect.  Frequently noticing and praising good behaviors also helps.  Use polite reminders and commands, phrased in positive terms. For example, instead of angrily scolding ("Stop arguing!"), remain calm and politely ask your children to think of a fair way to solve the problem.

Be sure to stop problem behaviors early, before they escalate and get out of control.  Remind children to cooperate when a conflict grows louder.  Stop and punish any angry yelling among children, so these arguments don't escalate into physical aggression.  Although pleasant reminders can prevent a brewing problem, never use warnings for problem behaviors, such as angry yelling or insults.  Immediately enforce your consequences for any problem behaviors.  Giving even one warning weakens your authority by allowing children occasionally to get away with the misbehavior.

Some parents fail to enforce their rules consistently or soon enough because they try too hard to be understanding, loving, and tolerant.  Unfortunately, these parents often end up wondering why their children are so troublesome.  Parents of unruly children should follow the advice in this chapter and never say they don't know what to do with them or have lost control of them.  Whenever possible, parents should present a united stance on discipline to the children.  If you don't, your children will take your rules less seriously and play one parent against the other.

Time out is a good way to deal with angry yelling or fights among children.  In general, you should give time out to both the arguing children.  In this way, neither wins the argument and you motivate both to prevent further problems.  Sometimes a parent needs to intervene on behalf of one child, however.  If one child always bullies another, punish only the bullying child.  Use great care in this, because children often instigate problems and then make it look as if they were the victims.  Punish both unless you see that one child is clearly at fault.  After the time out, be sure to discuss the problem situation with the child, emphasizing appropriate responses to verbal teasing and insults, such as ignoring verbal attacks or leaving the room.  If your child won't discuss the problem in a mature way without any silliness, start the time out over again.

When children argue or fight over something, give them time out and take it away from them.  If they argue over a game, give time out, end the game, and put it away for the day.  If they argue over what channel to watch on TV, give time out and turn off the TV for half an hour.  If one child hits another or even tries to, punish with time out, require an apology, and make the child do something nice for the other child.  If the child really hurt the other, add the loss of a privilege, too.  Feel free to deny children privileges anytime they misbehave, especially on particularly bad days.  Don't worry too much about children's fights.  Despite bitter fighting, most siblings end up as good friends in adulthood.

When two children regularly argue or fight and these approaches don't work, set up a reward system.  A reward system is a complex contract that helps in disciplining children with behavior problems.  Psychologists have successfully used reward systems to train self-care, symptom improvement, social interaction, education, and job training in various patient populations, including psychiatric patients, mentally retarded people, juvenile delinquents, criminals, alcoholics, and drug addicts.  People have successfully used reward systems in homes, daycare centers, schools, and institutions.  Use reward systems to improve behaviors, and eliminate them when your children have developed better habits.  It is much better to develop pride and self-esteem in doing things right than to constantly bribe your children with rewards.

Reward systems generally involve a chart with areas for the days of the week, the expected behaviors, the criteria determining the rewards and penalties, and marking whether the person performs each behavior.  Emphasize the privileges the child can earn by putting them in the title.  Make sure you reward and penalize your child consistently.  Reward systems for children under seven years old should involve only one or two behaviors for change.  Draw a smiling face or a star on the chart for successful times and use minus signs or zeros for failures.  When young children are frequently troublesome, divide the day into morning, afternoon, and evening in order to count many successes. 

Be sure to define aggression as "aggressive gestures or trying to hit or physically hurt anyone" and destructiveness as "trying to damage or break anything."  These definitions wisely forbid even attempts at aggression or destructiveness and such things as threatening someone or karate kicks that come close to someone.  If karate kicks are a regular problem, you should define a karate kick within three feet as an aggressive gesture. 

Some reward systems assign different privileges to each of their tasks and others assign various points to specific behaviors and tally the points to determine the privileges.  Reward systems work best when you carefully tailor them to fit the child and the circumstances.  It is essential you make the reward system easy enough so your child can succeed more often than not.  If you make it too difficult, the child may refuse to cooperate or give up.  Require some effort and improvement but don't overdo it.  You can always make the terms of the reward system more strict later when you see some improvement.  The best way to tailor a reward system is to observe your child's behaviors carefully for a few weeks before making it.  Without telling the child, count how often problem behaviors and desired behaviors occur.  This helps you in planning realistic goals.  You can find a more detailed explanation of reward systems, with examples, in the book featured on this site, Family Desk Reference to Psychology.

Contrary to stereotypes, isolated and rejected children are normally no more aggressive than their peers, aggressive children are often very popular with both peers and teachers, and aggressive children often have unrealistically high self-esteem.  (Many violent criminals, spouse abusers, rapists, and gang members also have unrealistically high self-esteem.)  Aggressive children often see themselves as less aggressive, more popular, smarter, more friendly, and more socially competent than other people rate them.  Boys bully by taunting, threatening, and using physical violence, but girls more often spread rumors or use social rejection.

The best time to get help for angry children or bullies is as early as possible.  Early elementary school children are much more workable than late elementary school children, and adolescents in trouble are notoriously difficult to change.  Many children from problem families may be difficult to change by third grade, which highlights the importance of high quality child care and early childhood educational programs for disadvantaged children.

Schools should offer preventive mental health services instead of using counselors to treat children with serious problems after the fact.  Early childhood patterns of impulsiveness, annoying social behaviors such as interrupting conversations, negative and defiant behavior, and aggressiveness such as poking, pushing, or bullying are high-risk behaviors that can reliably predict later aggression and antisocial behavior.

Children with excessive anger are at higher risk for limited social skills, peer rejection, academic problems, and later truancy, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, school dropout, theft, serious violence, crime, becoming a physically or sexually abusive parent, and mental problems.  Hostile behaviors in school predict these serious problems better than do race or social class.  Victims of bullying often become adults with depression and low self-esteem.

Four states (NY, CA, WA, and CT) have taken the lead in preventive mental health services.  A mental health professional or school counselor selects, trains, and supervises nonprofessional child associates, who establish a warm, trusting relationship with the child and use play to gently explore feelings and teach improved behaviors.  This cheap, effective program reduces problem behaviors in school and increases social, emotional, and academic competence, which can prevent many severe problems later.  It has even helped many children improve in Harlem, despite its very high rates of poverty, unemployment, health problems, infant mortality, teenage pregnancy, and drug use.

Most of the cost of the program is simply paying the nonprofessional child associate.  In 1995, the estimated average cost of seeing a child through the school year was less than $500, but the program saves huge amounts of money by avoiding special education placements and long-term residential placements.  For a description of these programs and how to start them in your school, please refer to the 1996 book School-Based Prevention for Children at Risk: The Primary Mental Health Project, by Emery L. Cowen, A. Dirk Hightower, JoAnne L. Pedro-Carroll, William C. Work, Peter A. Wyman, and William G. Haffe.

Research shows an early lack of certain skills leads to later violence.  These important skills are empathy (recognizing other people's feelings, taking their perspective, and expressing concern), impulse control, problem solving, and anger management.  Early intervention with comprehensive long-term programs training social skills prevents delinquency, crime, and substance abuse.  Learning empathy is particularly important for impulsive children in preventing aggressive behavior and learning problem solving.

Teachers should use roleplays and literature for children, model skills by thinking out loud, and provide prompts, cues, suggestions, feedback, and praise.  Encourage children to stop, look, listen, think, notice cues, make suggestions, take time brainstorming and evaluating alternatives before choosing a solution, give feedback, and praise each other.  If you don't use the skills in real life as everyday problems arise in the classroom, you lose most of the benefits of the program.  High-risk children can receive extra training in pull-out groups.  The best programs teach concepts over multiple years, repeating previously learned skills and expanding on them with more depth and complexity as the children mature.

A large study shows one in three students between 6th and 10th grades are either bullies or victimized by bullies.  Another study found by high school, 25% of students fear victimization by their peers.  Several states now require schools to have policies against bullying.  Unfortunately, many of these policies are just stated rules and zero-tolerance policies for violence.  Instead of allowing students to spend time on the streets or with gangs by getting themselves suspended, whenever the student is not dangerous, in-school suspensions and community service make better alternatives.

One of the best programs for reducing delinquency is Dan Olweus' program for bullying.  It reduced bullying by 50% or more, improved order, discipline, and student satisfaction, and reduced other antisocial behaviors such as vandalism, fighting, theft, drunkenness, and truancy in 42 schools.  It uses readings and roleplays to focus on violence and the related problem of social rejection by peers.  All the teachers outlaw bullying, discuss episodes so problem children can get special attention, and intervene quickly and consistently whenever they suspect bullying.  Teachers reject assurances, even from the victim, the whole thing was just for fun, and follow this with careful attention to the children involved.  Children learn that failing to intervene or report bullying is being an accomplice by passive participation.  Teachers encourage friendliness and including isolated children and ask popular students to disapprove of bullying, help victims, and help include everyone.

Olweus' program consistently punishes bullying by taking away privileges, making the student stay close to the teacher, sit outside the principal's office during breaks, or go to a class of younger students (to emphasize their immature actions) to work for a while.  Coordinating privileges and punishments at home based on bullying at school helps, too, but don't use corporal punishment.  Sometimes after consulting with parents, the school splits up a gang or group of aggressive children into different classes or schools.  The possibility of moving an aggressive child can pressure a child to improve.  The program also gives special attention to supervision on the playground, at lunch, and in restrooms, noting that the greater the number of teachers supervising, the less bullying occurs.  If possible, the school eliminates secluded areas on the playground.  Because older children often bully younger ones, arranging separate lunch and break times and physical locations or areas helps.  For detailed information about this program, please refer to the book Bullying at School: What We Know and What We Can Do by Dan Olweus.

Tutoring programs are surprisingly important.  School failure is a very important risk factor for alcohol and drug abuse, teen pregnancy, delinquency, violence, and crime.  Each year in the United States, 1 million or 25% of children enrolled in grade school or high school drop out, with males dropping out more than females.  In many inner city schools, over half the students drop out.  About 75% of all dropouts are white and 62% live in the suburbs.  Because success in school often prevents problems in at-risk youth, all schools should use early intervention with plenty of tutoring by volunteer or paid tutors, with summer school programs when necessary.  Even relatively small doses of tutoring have led to academic improvements.  Some studies show aggressive approaches to truancy, whether by police working with social service agencies or by outreach workers tracking truants and offering services to their families, helps reduce crime.

Smaller class sizes help reduce discipline problems and give teachers more time for each student.  A government study showed reducing class sizes to less than 20 students improves student behavior and increases the average student's academic performance from the 50th percentile to above the 60th percentile.  Most good private schools have 15 to 18 students per class.  Smaller schools help, too.  Smaller schools allow students and teachers to know each other better, give more children opportunities to express themselves in sports, band, student council, and other extracurricular activities, and are associated with better grades, better attendance, lower dropout rates, and less fights and gangs.  Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles have recently opened high schools with 500 or less students, sometimes splitting one large school into several schools within a school.  A recent study of 33 middle schools nationwide where students keep the same teachers for two or three years found not only that this arrangement reduces discipline problems and fosters better learning, but that most students and teachers preferred their longer-lasting bonds.

Studies show when high-risk children from problem families become very productive adults, strong, warm, trusting connections with one or more responsible adult role models, often teachers or coaches, play an important part.  This adult encourages them and constantly challenges them to set goals.  The message is "Don't mess up your life.  I believe in you."  Many schools set up mentoring programs matching at-risk youth with school or community adults who play this role.

Mentors should meet with a child once a week or more, for at least several hours each time.  One study of 959 high-risk youngsters in Big Brothers/ Big Sisters of America's excellent program found youth with volunteer mentors were 45% less likely to start using drugs, 27% less likely to start using alcohol, 32% less likely to commit assault, and skipped 52% fewer days of school.  This program recruits and carefully screens, trains, and matches mentors and youth and costs only $1,000 per match.  Unfortunately, Big Brothers/ Big Sisters desperately needs more volunteers.  Federal support of this program would probably be very cost-effective in preventing problems.

Group counseling is popular in many prevention programs for youths at risk or in trouble, but studies show it is ineffective and can cause more delinquency and crime, especially in teenagers.  Putting troubled youths together often encourages negative behaviors, and frequent talk in these groups about problems with parents may weaken respect for parents and family closeness.  Peer mediation programs teaching troubled youth to intervene with anger management and conflict resolution skills can lead to increased violence.  Individual counseling doesn't improve delinquency, but behavioral family counseling can.  Arresting juveniles for minor offenses increases future delinquency, compared to simply police giving warnings.

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