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Virginia Journal of Education

Clamping Down on Bullying

Two tactics that schools can use to reduce bullying incidents.


by Horacio Sanchez

It's not surprising that bullying usually happens during the least structured parts of the school day. Those times are when young people are exposed to the most stimuli (and often the least supervision), which triggers a reaction in the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls personal behavioral responses. As a result, all the major daily transitions-arriving at school in the morning, traveling between classes, lunchtime and dismissal-become consistent times for threatening behaviors to escalate.

Since many children encounter so many stressors in their lives, it's not uncommon for incidents that take place outside of school to be the source of heightened levels of anxiety that produce inappropriate responses to in-school stimuli. Students under stress are more susceptible to becoming chemically overwhelmed and impulsive, and thus more prone to bullying behaviors. So it should be a goal of schools to reduce the stress related to times of transition. There are two basic methods for doing this: reducing stimuli or ritualizing practices.

Reducing stimuli is easy to explain: By reducing what the brain has to process, you reduce its amount of chemical activity. Schools use various methods to reduce stimuli. Because many school buildings have numerous entrances and exits, some attempt to improve supervision by funneling all students through one entrance or exit point. It would be better to have all students assigned different entry points, if it can reduce how far they will travel and the number of other students they will encounter. This approach requires the ability to supervise more locations; however, schools find that it dramatically reduces the time that morning entry and afternoon dismissal take. In addition, by selecting the appropriate entry for every student, schools can contain student movement to just one portion of the school building, reducing school-wide traffic. In addition, schools can stagger transitions throughout the day and drastically reduce the stimuli in the hallways. By having different groups of students leave and arrive at their classes at staggered five-minute intervals, a school can reduce the number of students moving at any one time. This type of scheduling takes additional planning, but the investment in time is well worth the reduction of incidents throughout the school year.

Many transitions during the school day are initiated by a loud school bell or buzzer. The amygdala is alerted by loud, startling sounds. Thus, schools are stimulating the part of the brain responsible for emotional behavior and impulsive actions. Instead, they should seek to trigger transitions with more rhythmic tones; then the amygdala will not be alerted every time. In addition, schools can determine the rhythmic pattern they want students to transition to and incorporate the appropriate music to influence the body's heart rate. By doing so, one essentially can slow or speed up the rate of physical movement. Schools could seek to play music that's 60 beats per measure in the background throughout the transition. The music can denote the beginning of the class change and a change in tone could signal that there are only 60 seconds before students will be late.

Schools can also attempt to ritualize transitions: By having certain elements happen consistently every day, the brain will grow accustomed to the process, lowering the alertness of the amygdala. Many schools think that because they have a set schedule, transition rituals are already in place. However, the human brain requires that other elements be part of a transition in order that it not dramatically increase chemical activity.

Standard transition procedures can help. For example, students can be taught to always transition on the right side of the halls, always walk, and always keep their hands and feet to themselves. Tell students consistently that just achieving these three steps means that their school days will all go better. The additional sensory component of playing music in the background to influence the pace of the transition adds to the ability of the brain to recognize the pattern. Schools should also provide adequate supervision during all transitions. Transitions should have only a few identified rules, but insist that all the adults in the school consistently model and reinforce these practices.

To break the cycle of bullying, schools need to establish predictable routines and rituals that aid in lowering the bully's level of anxiety. In addition, schools that help students feel successful and wanted lower the arousal level of the amygdala, thereby reducing impulsivity. The old adage that bullies are the ones who are afraid is clinically true.

Sanchez is president of Resiliency Inc. ( ), which provides training, consultation and assessment programs designed to serve children, school staff members and agencies.


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