Care and Feeding

Who Helps When a Child Is Bullied Outside the Classroom?

A boy looks out the door of a school bus.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Our son is 5 and started kindergarten two months ago. Almost immediately he started to have problems with a boy “Billy” that he had played with a few times over the summer. It began with issues like Billy taking his hat repeatedly and throwing it on the ground. Then Billy began slapping him regularly and eventually punched him a few times. All of these things were unprovoked. Our kid is quite gentle and a bit naïve, so at first we had trouble convincing him to avoid this boy. We have had several incidents of name calling and egging on other children to say they don’t like our son.

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More recently the child has prevented our son from getting out of his seat on the bus or taken and thrown his possessions when he is leaving the bus. We have contacted the teacher several times about the boy’s behavior. Much of it is taking place outside the classroom, so she says there isn’t much she can do. She also doesn’t think his behavior is very serious. We have also heard stories from other parents about even more violent behavior to their children. It seems like this kid needs help with his behavior. We are doing all we can at home to encourage our son to stay away from the bully, ask for help from grownups, and generally encouraging him to stand up for himself appropriately. We have also contacted the boy’s parents (to no avail) and plan to try that one more time. But I think we need the school to be more active in dealing with the bully’s behavior. What should we do?

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—Being Bullied

Dear BB,

Principals do a lot of disciplinary work in elementary schools, especially in places where the teacher isn’t there in person (buses, the playground, lunchtime), which seems to be the case here. The bus ride can be particularly challenging when it comes to behavior management because it is a little bit of a no-man’s-land. It’s doesn’t happen on school property, so it’s not quite the purview of the principal, but it’s not during a time when kids are under the disciplinary eyes of their parents. The bus driver is in charge of the bus, but their primary job is driving safely, so closely monitoring the behavior of children is not a very safe choice. Not all school districts employ bus aides on every bus, so there isn’t necessarily another adult on the bus to monitor behavior. While some schools employ student safety patrols (typically fifth or sixth graders), it’s not really feasible to expect these students to closely monitor or reprimand students.

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So who is in charge of the bus? At my school, if there is an issue on the bus, we typically manage up to the principal. And if it’s an issue consistently on a particular bus, she is the person who would be expected to talk to the transportation department or the bus driver to address student concerns.

Based on your situation, your principal is where I’d go next, especially if there are multiple parents with the same concern. You can encourage all the parents to send the principal an email explaining that your child has had the following issues with “Billy,” and that you’ve tried the following solutions (including asking the teacher and asking Billy’s parents). Even just one email to the principal about repeated incidents—especially unsafe incidents—should trigger at least some sort of investigation into what’s happening with this child. If multiple kids are having problems, and some of them are violent, that should create more urgency in the administration to address the issue.

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If the principal cannot help you, my next suggestion would be to go to the head of transportation, or the superintendent’s office, depending on the size of your district. Write either of them an email, again explaining the situation and what you have tried so far. Eventually you should be able to land on an adult who can help you work through how to keep your child safe. Good luck.

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—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)

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My son is in the seventh grade, and he has told me that some of his teachers have said comments to him along the lines of, “You’re acting like a five-year-old.” I don’t deny that he was probably fooling around in class, but am I wrong in thinking that that is an inappropriate way to handle it?

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—Not Five

Dear Not Five,

It’s not great… but… Especially given that you said “some of his teachers,” i.e., more than one, what it probably means is that (a) he’s exceptionally immature, (b) the teachers have tried the other tools in their toolbox, and they’re not working, or (c) both.

I would first speak to your son and ask exactly what he was doing when the teachers said it. And then take his response with a grain of salt. He may not remember; he may lie; he may truly not understand what he was doing.

After you get his story, contact his teachers and ask about his behavior. If they mention that he’s immature, ask for specifics. What is he doing? When and/or in what settings does he cause a problem? Have they found any strategies that help him correct it? Tell them, if true, that he works best knowing exactly what behaviors are expected. For example, “You regularly horse around in line for lunch. I expect you to face forward with your hands at your sides and be quiet until you’re seated in the cafeteria. If you can’t do that, we’ll have to make a plan to help you.” Or “I’ve noticed when you don’t get your way, you tend to make a lot of noise and disrupt the class. It’s OK to feel disappointed, but I expect you to handle your feelings in a mature way and not take away your classmates’ opportunity to learn. If you need help, we can set up an appointment with the guidance counselor because she knows a lot about that kind of thing.”

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Assure them that you expect him to behave himself and you’ll relay to him what you heard. Ask them to get in contact if there’s a problem in the future. Then, send an email periodically to check his progress. Hopefully, that will do the trick.

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—Ms. Scott (high school teacher, North Carolina)

I have a 7-year-old autistic child who is non-verbal. He goes to school in a typical district school, and he attends class in a self-contained classroom with 3 other students, a teacher, and 3 paraprofessionals including a 1:1 aide for him. He is the only non-verbal child in the classroom and has been using Augmentative or Alternative Communication

(AAC) for 3 years, but he is far from being able to express his concerns or feelings (mainly, he can ask for toys and food).

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He has been physically aggressive in the classroom mainly to the adults (occasionally another child) and every day we get a report that says he had a bad day and was aggressive again. Every. Day. (As a parent, hearing this so frequently is starting to take a mental toll on me.) We had some aggression issues at home as well, but called in extra help from our therapy company and have eliminated them using visual reminders and consistent routines now that school is back in session. Private therapy is going great with maybe one “hit” a week. Home behavior is typical. Even getting to school in the morning has become a pleasant 5-minute stroll for all parties.

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We have reached out and tried to schedule a meeting with the staff, but they state they are still too busy with the start of the school year and collecting data on his behavior to meet with us. They have had a behavioral specialist in, and the teacher states the specialist thinks they are doing all they can to support him already, although I haven’t seen any official report.

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We have no idea what is causing this kind of aggression in the classroom, but I am not getting any answers from the school, despite my asking. The teacher seems to be looking outside of her classroom for answers. She asks questions like: Is the extra help we are getting with transitions causing the increase in behavior at school?  Is he getting enough “good sleep”? She also managed to meet with our private therapy company but did not include us. (When I asked about it, she said, “Sorry.”) She also lets us know that his teeth seem to be bothering him and that may be what is causing the behaviors. (He’s 7. He’s losing teeth.)

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While she has never outright said so, her lack of interest in getting us involved in problem-solving makes my husband and me feel like she doesn’t trust us. (She “absolutely LOVES” our child per her emails). Our IEP is coming up, so our questions are: Is it typical for schools to reach out to private therapy companies without including the parents (we signed a waiver, but assumed we’d be included)? What are our next steps to get our kid to a place where he can have an “ok” day at school for once? And maybe most importantly: What is a nice way to tell the teacher that we do not believe “outside factors” (including our parenting) are influencing in-classroom behaviors?

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—My Parenting is Not the Problem

Dear MPiNtP,

There definitely seems to be a breakdown in communication norms here. While it is common for schools to reach out directly to private therapy companies, it is not usually in lieu of communication with families. However, I don’t get the feeling that his teacher is intentionally blocking communication with your family or doesn’t trust you. I can speak from experience that the last couple of years have been incredibly challenging for teachers, but none more so than special education teachers. His teacher is likely exhausted, and it’s possible that reaching out directly to the private therapy company may have been to get support in the quickest way possible. You mentioned that it’s draining to hear negative reporting about your child; it is just as draining to give those reports. I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt here, but her lack of communication beyond the daily reports she sends and the questions she’s asking could stem from wanting to avoid burdening your family, as she seeks to try to best help your child?

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First, I’d review the language in the waiver you signed. I haven’t heard of many families signing a waiver that would prevent or supersede contact with your family. Gaining clarity there could be helpful. Next, I would show up after school one day and ask to speak with the teacher if they aren’t available to make an appointment. During the meeting lay out how you are feeling and make it clear that you want to play a more active role in finding sustainable solutions for your son. Your teacher is right about the process of collecting data and calling in the behavioral specialist—they must collect consistent data for at least 6 weeks before they can recommend any additional supports. Considering it’s only November, it’s likely they are just wrapping up their data collection.

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I would also start to document attempts to communicate with the school and educator. It is important to give space and grace, but you also want to be prepared if you need to escalate the issue. Documenting everything will give you the materials and context needed in the event you need to advocate for your son to receive additional supports or services. At this moment, I would take a deep breath and take stock of the issue as it stands. It appears your son has made significant progress at home, that is something to be very proud of. It also means similar progress is possible at school.

—Mr. Hersey (elementary school teacher, Washington)

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