Breaking the Cycle of Bullying with Mindfulness

When we think about bullying in a school setting or a team setting or maybe a choir or a performance group, there’s really four players. There’s the bully, there’s the victim, there’s the bystanders who are also potential upstanders and then there’s the adult or adults in charge. So when we look at mindfulness and compassion in that setting, mindfulness can help any one of those players be aware of what’s happening internally that they’re feeling insecure or they’re feeling angry or they’re feeling threatened. And just knowing that and then being able to make wise choices, knowing that rather than acting out of that behavior can be helpful.

Mindfulness can actually just help us be aware of when these behaviors are occurring among me and someone else, my peers or if I’m the adult in charge of my students or my players or my performers. I think that a lot of bullying actually comes from kids feeling stressed and threatened and insecure and then the data shows that they’re actually just trying to make themselves feel better. So if we can teach them skills for feeling better without having to bully, which they don’t really feel better anyways, they just kind of think they do, then they have less need to bully.

And then if the victims feel better about themselves, they’re more likely to stand up for themselves. If the bystanders feel good about themselves and safe, then they’re likely to intervene. But when the cycle starts, it kind of spirals downward and often unfortunately the cycle starts because the adults at the top are creating environment where people don’t feel, seen, heard and connected.

Creating an Intentional Culture

So the first thing is there’s practices about creating an intentional culture, which we won’t go over right now. But another practice that can be done with classroom or a team or, again, a performance troupe is to simply have the students make two lines facing each other. And then you can either have a series of phrases or one particular phrase. So if we’re using a classroom, it might be that we’re standing across from each other and then the teacher’s saying, “Look at the person in front of you. I’m going to say a phrase. I want you to notice your thoughts and feelings as I say this phrase when you look at this person.”

The phrase can be something really simple like, just like me, this person is here to learn and to grow. And if I’m looking at you and you happen to be my best friend, I might be like, oh yeah, she’s here to learn and grow and that makes me happy. I’d have a certain set of thoughts and feelings arise in my body. But then everybody rotates one person to the left or the right depending on which line you’re in, and I might be faced with someone who’s dating my ex-boyfriend or who took my spot on the basketball team. The teacher repeats the phrase and I notice, I don’t know. Yeah, she’s here to learn and to grow but I’m not … like, I noticed that my body’s closed, like my heart’s closed and that it’s much more difficult for me to send kindness and compassion to you.

By doing this exercise as a teacher with your students, then first they know that you know and that you’re paying attention to how they’re interacting. Second, they have information about, this person is actually much harder for me to partner with, to be in a group with, to be in the classroom with. And then the teacher can support them in, how do you work with people that you find difficult? Can you stretch and grow in how you’re communicating with them?

My general rule of thumb with students is kind of their longest practices are however many years they are old. So the practice for a five-year-old, probably the longest practices are at least in the beginning kind of five minutes. You might be able to get them to 10 if you have like a whole school year with them. For adults also, you can definitely start with shorter practices and get a feel for it and then you want to be stretching and extending your time and building up your ability to sit and be with yourself.

Another really useful practice is thought watching. Often, I’ll do thought watching by giving kids a challenge and then letting them notice what the thoughts are that come up with it, whether it’s a math problem or the nine dots. I like nine dots because there’s a lot of other teaching that you can do around it. But just noticing the thoughts when they’re faced with the challenge like, I can’t do this, I’m stupid, it’s hopeless and really starting to explore those. And bring our kind and curious attention to them, then the kids learn A, that they don’t need to necessarily believe their thoughts or take them personally, that they can just kind of let them float by.

Then again expanding more into like the social interactions and the bullying. If I don’t need to believe my own thoughts or take my own thoughts personally, then if you’re saying something nasty to me, I don’t need to believe your thoughts or take them personally either. If advertising is telling me that I need to look a certain way and weigh a certain amount and have my skin be a certain way and my clothes be a certain way, I don’t need to believe that or take that personally either. So there’s a lot of freedom in being able to watch my thoughts and the other thoughts that feed in to my system. Whether it’s peers or parents or teachers or media and not having to act out of those.

I think my definition of mindfulness is paying attention here and now, which I think is self-explanatory with kindness and curiosity. I use those words with kids because the word non-judgmental awareness to a fourth grader doesn’t mean anything, but they can understand what’s kind and what’s curious so that we can choose our behaviors. So if I’m teaching mindfulness to a group of children and a child’s doing something that I find particularly challenging or difficult, then I will take a deep breath and I will notice my thoughts. Like, I wish you would just cut that out and I will let that feeling … Like that thinking, feeling combination be there and kind of pass.

Because I know if I speak in the middle of that wave that I’m not going to be particularly skillful, so I’ll let it pass. And then usually, the useful thing to say comes mostly by waiting and making space for the reaction to subside and then I can respond. It works in your kitchen at 5:37 with your own children and with your spouse and, again, with your colleagues and it’s pretty broadly applicable.