Students returned to classrooms this fall amid a pandemic and increasingly contentious debate surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine, masks and mandates. Pair that with a year lacking in face-to-face interactions, and you’ve got an environment ripe for bullying, according to Sara Goldstein, professor of Family Science and Human Development at Montclair State University and expert on bullying and developmental psychology.
In recognition of World Bullying Prevention Month in October, Goldstein shares advice on how to best implement prevention and intervention training for educators, nurture and emphasize mental health in the classrooms and how to tackle instances of bullying.
Identify and discuss bullying “triggers”
With students back in classrooms, some level of school-based bullying will inevitably return – and it will more than likely involve the issues adults are currently struggling with, as well.
“Bullying in the 2021-2022 school year will likely include themes that have wreaked havoc on adults’ worlds this past year, such as the ongoing vaccination and mask wearing controversies surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic,” Goldstein says.
“School districts should enact efforts to make masks normalized and uncontroversial. If masks are not mandatory per state or district guidelines, the district must take pains to ensure that no child who wears a mask is in any way stigmatized or bullied.”
Like any other year, schools are urged to adopt an evidence-based anti-bullying/school safety program that is employed district wide and covers all forms of bullying:
- Relational – A type of “social” bullying common among youths where the bully intentionally damages the victim’s reputation and/or social standing
- Physical – Using physical violence to hurt, intimidate or control a victim
- Cyber – Using digital platforms to send, post and share content to harass or intimidate a victim
- Sexual harassment –Repeated unwanted sexual or romantic advances or displays, using crude or inappropriate language, behavior and/or nonconsensual touching to intimidate, control or take advantage of a victim
Focus on rebuilding social skills
Missing more than a year of in-person learning has the potential to negatively impact the development of children from preschool through college, Goldstein says. “These face-to-face social interactions are critical for positive social and emotional growth.”
Given that, Goldstein suggests that educators, mental health professionals, and parents help rebuild children’s social competence and psychosocial resources during the 2021-2022 school year. “Districts should do everything possible to keep full-time, face-to-face school available to children in all grades.” She adds that in-person extracurricular activities for youth should also continue so that they can build positive, healthy skills and peer relationships.
Offer mental-health training to staff
Teacher and staff training in mental health and suicide prevention would be extremely beneficial, Goldstein says.
Students of all grade levels should have access to meet with a school-based mental health professional, and for the 2021-2022 school year specifically, an increased amount of structured socializing breaks (e.g., games, team-building activities) should also be offered in part to address the peer socialization gap from which many students will be attempting to rebound.
“This is important even at the secondary school level – older students still need the extra time and the increased opportunities for face-to-face socialization.”
Create and support safe spaces
For all students to feel welcome and included, Goldstein says, districts must ensure that curricula offer racial, gender and intersectional representation. Outside of the classroom, safe spaces and mental health resources should also be easily available and accessible for LGBTQIA+ youth and others who feel marginalized.
“Further, the last year has brought significant unrest with regard to social issues around race,” says Goldstein. “Districts should be sensitive to this and should be proactive in regard to providing a safe and just environment for all.”
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