Walk into any elementary school and you’ll see ubiquitous posters proclaiming “respect” and “safety” for a school community and “zero tolerance” for bullying. Yet these age-old behaviors persist in the face of anti-bullying programs and strongly worded warnings from school administrators. To find out why, I went to the source – the kids themselves.

Why Don’t We Talk About It?

I asked my upper grade elementary students if bullying is a problem and many of them said, “Yes, it is”. I could tell that they were uncomfortable talking about this topic so I put my PowerPoint presentation aside and decided to get to the heart of the matter. “What makes it so hard to talk about bullying?” I asked. Silence. After several more attempts, I understood that they didn’t feel helpful reporting bullying.  In fact, the data from www.stopbullying.gov indicates only 20 to 30 % of students who are bullied notify adults about the incidents. 

And it makes a lot of sense, when kids do put themselves on the line and report the problem, often the problem is not solved and the person who got bullied is not better off and in some instances might be even worse, if the bully retaliates. When a problem remains unsolved it breeds an attitude of, “Why bother? It’s not going to help.” It made me think if the students don’t see reporting as a durable solution to stop bullying or are too afraid to report, how can teachers, counselors and administrators help? I wondered if anyone had figured out an answer to this intractable problem.

Do Any Programs Work?

The data indicates that while there are many anti-bullying prevention programs that have been piloted in schools, many had only modest results with others being ineffective.

I turned to a trusted colleague who’s been working as an elementary school counselor for many years. She told me that the most important factor in her school is the school’s culture. On the surface, many of the anti-bullying activities may look the same as those in other schools - for example, she does your traditional classroom visits where she talks about how to deal with bullying, leads “Kindness for All” week, reads specially selected anti bullying books and shows cool videos – but at her school kids feel safe reporting any type of bullying. And because they are willing to share the details of these situations, the adults in the school can intervene and the bullying stops.  Students see the difference in their lives. The school where my colleague works takes this intervention very seriously. Of course, it didn’t happen overnight, and it took years to create “we’re-all-in-this-together” culture. The teachers reinforce the concepts that the counselor presents in the classroom. They also encourage children to report and are willing to release students who are affected by bullying for investigation to take place. The school counselor may put aside her other commitments so she can interview the students. The administrators are supportive and may also conduct the investigation themselves.

Support for Reporting


Although my colleague hasn’t gathered any data, the best proof she finds is from children who moved into her school from other districts.  These kids share that reporting never happened in their previous schools and in general they’re surprised to learn that it works. And when my colleague asks students at her school, “What happens if Johnny calls you unkind words over and over again?” The answer she gets from kids, “You’ll get to the bottom of it!”