October was National Bullying Prevention Month, and in my decade of teaching in high-poverty public elementary schools, I’ve seen strategy after strategy and initiative after initiative implemented to decrease bullying.
While every case is unique, having a general understanding of why a student chooses to bully can be helpful.
Kids usually bully for one of the following reasons: they are frustrated with life’s circumstances and don’t have the emotional tools to cope, they don’t have many friends and are lonely, they have issues with emotional regulation, or they feel powerless to control their life for any number of reasons.
Our school’s approach to bullying is simple, yet effective: Unstructured free play. Seriously? Yes. Stay with me.
In the years since my school began incorporating more and more unstructured free play into our school day (before school by opening up our playground, during school by adding an additional recess, and after school by adding a Play Club), our students are happier, kinder, have fewer behavior problems, have made more friends, feel more in control of their day and their life in general, and in some cases have dramatically changed course from bullying behaviors and frequent office referrals to no bullying behaviors and no office referrals.
When we understand the root causes of bullying behavior, we can see why unstructured free play is helping our students so dramatically.
Unstructured free play addresses–head-on–making friends, learning empathy, learning emotional regulation, learning interpersonal skills, and it greatly empowers students by helping them find a healthy place in their school community–all while teaching them life’s most important skills like creativity, innovation, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, self-direction, perseverance, and social skills.
It turns out the skills our students need most can’t be learned through direct instruction from a teacher, but instead are acquired through real life experiences with their peers. When my school stopped treating students just as empty brains to fill with knowledge but instead holistic people with a huge social-emotional component to nurture, adding more time with their peers in free play was a no-brainer. So what have we seen, and how does this help fight bullying?