Tackling Bullying in Schools

Antonio Buehler, founder of Abrome was invited to the Laura Bush Community Library to speak about how to tackle bullying in schools. This presentation leaned heavily on the bullying series we provided earlier this 'academic' year. Those posts are listed below. This video is shared courtesy of the library.

School Children Need Summer Camp, But Should Not Go

Now that the school year is winding down, many parents and their children are shifting their focus to a wide variety of camps to fill up the summer calendar. Some parents simply need daycare for their children when school is out. Others want their children to be able to finally relax and have fun around same-aged peers after a painful academic year. Other parents see summer camp as an opportunity to give children experiences that the schools do not provide, such as outdoor experiences. Many parents are eyeing up sports camps to give their children an edge on the athletic field. A growing faction of parents want the camps to provide their children with skills they deem valuable for the future, such as coding camps. And many parents see camps as opportunities for academic enrichment and training. We want to lay out some points of consideration for parents as they think through their options.[1]

The benefits of summer camp

Summer camps can be fun.  Climbing mountains, building go-carts, playing basketball, and creating art or music are experiences that can bring pleasure to one’s life. Further, being placed in a new environment allows young people the opportunity to meet others and begin building new relationships.

Summer camps can be vital recharging opportunities for young people who are enrolled in high pressure, coercive schools. Students who are academic overachievers or come from families who put a lot of pressure on them to excel face high levels of stress that lead to long-term chronic health issues, decreased intellectual vitality, and mental health challenges. Students who are academic underachievers often see schools as centers of torture. Summer camps can allow them to temporarily make a clean break from school so they can attempt to heal.

Summer camps can provide a release for young people who feel trapped in school. Traditional schools are authoritarian, hierarchical environments with restrictive rules and guidelines that strip students of autonomy. Students who have a high sense of autonomy respond to schools as if they were prisons.

Summer camps broaden young people’s horizons. In new environments, freed from the many restrictions of school, young people are more likely to dive into new experiences and to enjoy them, particularly without the assessment and grading that is associated with schooling.

Summer camps help get young people moving. In school, young people are mostly confined to a desk during the day. Occasional recess, physical education class, or after school activities cannot undo a sedentary lifestyle. Scaling rock faces, canoeing down rivers, swimming laps, and kicking around soccer balls are great ways to get children to do what they do naturally—move.

Summer camps can allow young people to build relationships with those who are younger and older than them. At school, young people are often segregated by age, and the only people they get to interact with who are not their age are authority figures. Because summer camps are often comprised of young people from a variety of age groups, as well as camp counselors, summer camps are good environments for young people to more appropriately develop their social skills.

Summer camps can provide enrichment experiences that allow young people to develop in ways that they are not able to at school, or they can position them for future success in school by giving them a head start. Additionally, select summer camp experiences may provide some resume bullets or essay fodder for those who plan to apply to highly competitive colleges and universities.

The downsides of summer camp

Summer camps limit opportunities for self-discovery. Summertime is often an escape from school, where young people can take the time necessary to focus on themselves, and to process their life experiences. However, young people cannot do so if they are being placed in camps that eat away the summer.

Human beings benefit tremendously from unstructured free play. Unstructured free play increases creativity, permits young people to seek out new learning experiences, improves problem solving, and improves mental health. The optimal amount of unstructured free play is unlimited unstructured free play. Summer camps infringe upon the opportunity for unlimited free play, and many camps are so regimented and structured that free play is not an option.

Summer camps continue to segregate young people from society. Students spend all year holed away in a school where they do not have the opportunity to regularly interact with people three or four years older or younger than them, much less with the rest of society. By placing young people in summer camps during the summer, they are still prevented from taking their rightful place in society and having the opportunity to interact with people of all ages.

Summer camps are often captive experiences that the young person cannot opt out of, or does not have the freedom or ability to restructure. This can inhibit their sense of autonomy in school- or prison-like ways.

Summer camps only run during the summer. Acknowledging the potential benefits of summer camp, they have a very short shelf life, and then young people are sent back to school.

A better alternative

The listed benefits of summer camp outpace the listed downsides of summer camp. However, the downsides are substantially heavier than the benefits. That is why young people should not be sent away to summer camp as some sort of medicine to offset the schooling experience, or as a supplement to schooling.

A temporary reprieve from the oppressive experiences of schooling is not sufficient for healing, nor does it allow young people to lead remarkable lives. A one- or two-month summer experience does not erase what happens during the schoolyear, and thinking of summer as a way to reset young people is a form of punting on the necessity of taking action to promote the health and welfare of children.

Young people need more than just an escape from school, or “better” enrichment activities than school offers; young people need to live lives of autonomy and freedom. Only when young people are freed from the burden of being subjected to schooling for 7 hours a day, 180 days a year, for 13 years of their lives will they have the opportunity to engage in and benefit from unlimited free play. And only when they have the opportunity to engage in unlimited free play will they also have the time to be with themselves to process, and to come to an understanding of themselves.

There are no shortcuts to leading a remarkable life. Free play and down time are not extracurricular activities. Being free from assessment, grading, and judgment some of the time does not undo the harm from being assessed, graded, and judged the rest of the time. Young people do not learn how to take control of their lives because they go to a summer camp, they learn how to take control of their lives when they are given the responsibility of making the decisions that are relevant to their lives. And that needs to be an all the time responsibility.

Summer camps can be beneficial, and worthwhile. But only as something that young people choose to engage in as a part of a broader self-directed lifestyle. Summer camps should be seen as learning experiences. But life is filled with learning experiences when one is not constrained to coercive schooling environments.

1.     We chose not to attempt to create an exhaustive list of benefits or downsides of summer camp. 

Five Steps to End School Bullying: Change the Context (Essay 6 of 6)

Bullying is not the only problem with schooling, but it is one that literally brings violence into children’s lives, and in worst case scenarios it ends lives. In this essay series we laid out five actionable steps that schools need to take to end school bullying. First, schools must incorporate age-mixing as a means to reduce hierarchy and competition, and increase empathy.[1] Age-mixing in three or four year batches is helpful but not sufficient. For maximum benefit, schools should consider age-mixing from Kindergarten through 12th grade, and perhaps even more broadly than that. Second, schools must eliminate competition, starting with grades.[2] Grades do not aid in the learning process, but they can shut it down, and they almost always create an unhealthy rank ordering of students. This ordering ultimately leads to various forms of bullying. Third, schools must give students full agency over their learning.[3] Allowing students to pick from some electives or to determine the sequence in which they learn something is not sufficient. The adults must be willing to step aside so that students feel as though they are in control of their lives, which lessens the likelihood that they will try to control the lives of others. Fourth, schools must respect their students.[4] This requires that schools commit to the principles of anti-oppression, trust students to take full control over their learning, and avoid manipulating student behavior through punishments and rewards. And fifth, schools must promote empathy in their communities.[5] They can promote empathy by embracing diversity, modeling empathetic behavior, and tearing down hierarchy within the schooling community.

In this series we have pointed out how these five steps promote superior learning and academic achievement, as well. That schools continue to reject the five steps to end bullying, when those steps would also improve the quality of education, raises some serious questions about the motives of the various stakeholders in the traditional schooling industry, both public and private. What could possibly be so important to traditional school administrators, school boards, politicians, accreditation agencies, and content providers that they would refuse to advocate for and take the steps necessary to build intellectually vibrant environments free of bullying? Part of the answer can be found in the realization that the bullying in schools does not come only from other students, it comes from the adults, as well.[6] Such bullying can range from a vice principal berating a student for violating a rule to a teacher embarrassing a student for not knowing the answer to a question, and in some of the more backward schools in America, to corporal punishment or the threat of criminal charges against students. 

So what is a parent to do when their children are trapped in schools where the adults bully the students and where peer bullying is promoted directly or indirectly through the practices and structures of schooling? Politicians, bureaucrats, and school administrators can talk about school reforms that will help reduce bullying over time, but parents do not have the luxury of waiting for years when their children are being subjected to environments of bullying in the here and now. Fortunately, parents can do for their children overnight in one simple step what tens of thousands of schools refuse to do by way of the steps we laid out. Parents can change the context.

If the waiters at your favorite restaurant made fun of the way you ate your food every time you went there for dinner, you would stop going to that restaurant. If you found out your trainer was telling everyone at the local gym what your weight is and how you are too lazy to get it down, you would stop using that trainer. If your neighbor’s dog attacked you every time you went over to their house, you would stop going to their house. We know that if something is hurting us that we should remove it from our lives.[7] We change the context. Yet when our children are being bullied at school, the idea of removing our children from school is unfortunately considered by too many to be an unnecessary overreaction that does more harm than good. Instead, society tells us to teach children how to cope with the bullying, to work with the school staff to find ways to limit the incidence of bullying, and to lobby the school board to address the problem of school bullying.  

Life is far too short and far too precious to leave children to suffer in schools, especially when we know that pulling them out of school will eliminate real harm from their lives. Change the context. Identify a local alternative school that has incorporated the five steps we have laid out. Change the context. If you don’t live near such a school, move. Change the context. If you cannot afford to attend an alternative school, downsize your life so that you can, or homeschool or unschool. Change the context. In doing so you will allow your children to recognize their personal worth, to feel in control their own lives, and to lead healthier and happier lives. As a bonus, your relationship with your children will improve considerably. They will recognize that you are on their side, proactively working to help them enjoy life. Change the context.







(6)   Unfortunately, the media and education schools largely restrict their focus on bullying to that committed by students, not by educators. However, the bullying that comes from adults, the ones young people are told to trust, can be far more pernicious. This has parallels to how the media and education schools often focus on students and their families to explain away academic shortcomings, instead of turning the focus on the adults who run the system. Here is a report from Australia that provides examples of how adults often bully children in schools:

(7)   We are not suggesting that standing up to bullies or trying to influence change in systems is not a worthwhile endeavor. In fact, the course we are suggesting in this essay will force schools to address bullying.

Five Steps to End School Bullying: Culture and Philosophy (Essay 4 of 6)

Nothing carries the day in education quite like culture. A great culture allows all members of a community to feel valued and loved, it promotes and contributes to learning, and serves as a bulwark against bullying. But in order to experience all of these benefits, a learning community and their culture must be built upon the foundation of a great educational philosophy.[1] Unfortunately, the structures and practices of traditional schooling corrupt even the most well-intentioned philosophies of education. 

At the core of a successful philosophy of education is respect for the learner. Most parents, administrators, and teachers demand respect from young people, but they rarely focus on respect in the other direction. When young people are not respected, the learning process is subverted, and the seeds of bullying are planted.

In order for learners to be respected, three conditions must be met.  First, a learning space must be committed to principles of anti-oppression and they must reject hierarchy. Second, learners must have full control of their learning. And third, learners must not be manipulated through punishments or rewards.

The easiest and most immediate action schools can take is to commit to principles of anti-oppression within the learning community. Whether adults want to admit it or not, schools were founded upon the basis of oppression. At the very minimum, traditional schools engage in an ongoing practice of demeaning and marginalizing students based on their age. Even if oppression was not built into the structure of schooling, which it is, it would be a natural outcropping to the assumption schools hold that young people are ignorant and incompetent, and therefore need to have their lives dictated to them by adults. But the oppression in schools extends beyond just ageism. It expands to ableism based on physical disability, and spreads beyond ableism and picks on young people based on their mental health, emotional state, and learning differences.

But going back to the history of schooling, there was a very clear objective by the architects of our modern day schooling system to tear down select communities and cultures (e.g, immigrants, indigenous people) for the purpose of assimilating young people into the dominant social order.[2] And this coercive effort to undermine communities and personal identity is not an archaic form of oppression, it continues to this day, although it is now wrapped in much more altruistic language. While oppression is part and parcel of schooling, it is amplified most aggressively against students of color, immigrants, and students of low socioeconomic status.[3] From a social justice perspective, we should demand that the institution of schooling acknowledges and addresses the ongoing oppression of young people. But even if one were uninterested about the broader social justice concerns of schooling, it should be apparent that oppressed students (even if it is only a small minority of students) are going to internalize the belief that power justifies bullying.

The second ingredient of an educational philosophy that schools must adopt in order to promote respect for the learner is to allow young people to take full control of their learning. We spoke at length in the prior essay in this series about learner agency, and how it is good for education and necessary to combat bullying.[4] Simply giving young people a few options in what, when, where, and how they learn is not the same as allowing them to have agency over their learning. Agency requires stepping back and allowing the learner to make all of the decisions related to their education, while recognizing that caring adults can certainly assist on the journey, when invited. It is also worth pointing out that giving respect to young people also requires allowing them to be full and equal partners in the community. It is not sufficient to simply give them a space to learn without giving them the opportunity to shape that space in accordance with their needs and resources, while balancing that with the needs of the other members of the space.

An educational philosophy that prioritizes learner control directly impacts and improves the self-confidence and self-awareness of students.[5] It allows them to experience at a young age the dignity that is often only afforded to well-educated, professionally successful, financially well-off members of society. Self-confidence and self-respect help undercut the drivers of bullying. Further, when learners are able to take their education in any direction they want, they find themselves avoiding the competition that often pits students against other students. When young people are able to learn for the sake of learning, their standing relative to their peers becomes a non-issue, and that also helps undermine bullying.[6]

The third condition that must be incorporated into an educational philosophy is the elimination of punishments and rewards. While some may consider this an extension of learner agency, it warrants additional attention as busybodies are so often eager to try to nudge students down preferred pathways, or to turn self-directed education into “learning opportunities.”

The most obvious form of punishments and rewards in schools are grades, which we have previously addressed in this series on bullying. But punishments and rewards also include compliments, verbal rebukes, praise, detention, honors status, and even criminal charges.[7][8] The author Alfie Kohn has written extensively about the effect of punishments and rewards on children.[9] In his writings he leans heavily on the work of Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan (who we talked about in the prior essay) to highlight how punishments and rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation. He also references dozens of studies that reaffirm Deci and Ryan’s claims that manipulative efforts to get students to engage in certain types of learning experiences are counterproductive, and that those efforts ultimately decrease interest and performance in the work that adults are most focused on.

If education was the goal, schools would immediately cease their use of punishments and rewards. Likewise, if reducing bullying was the goal, they would also cease the use of punishments and rewards. As Kohn points out, punishments and rewards can elicit temporary compliance, but that those efforts will ultimately “generate anger, defiance, and a desire for revenge.”[10] Since the revenge will rarely be directed directly at the adults who are manipulating the students, it will most likely be redirected toward other students. Kohn also points out that the focus on punishments and rewards illustrates for young people how one can bypass reason and rely on power to get one’s way. School teachers and administrators may not realize it, but they are providing the blueprint for schoolhouse bullying through their practices.

Bullying can be stopped in an environment with a great culture. A commitment to anti-oppression, a willingness to trust young people enough to give them agency over their learning, and a refusal to try to manipulate them through punishments and rewards are essential to building that culture.

I believe that our experience instructs us that the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained, and he only holds the key to his own secret. By tampering and thwarting and too much governing he may be hindered from his end and kept out of his own. Respect the child. Wait and see the new product of Nature. Nature loves analogies, but not repetitions. Respect the child.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson


(1)   A learning environment with a great educational philosophy but a bad culture is a miserable place to be. Countless democratic schools and self-directed learning environments, for example, have failed and shut down because of poor messaging, or conflict and miscommunication among families, guides, and learners. And while a good culture can help mitigate or hide some of the harm to children created by a poor philosophy, it cannot undo the harm.

(2)   To begin your investigation into the history of schooling I recommend the documentary Schooling the World, and the book The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto.  

(3)   A commitment to anti-oppression would also address cultural background, ethnicity, gender, immigration status, nationality, language, race, religion, physical appearance, self-expression, sexual orientation, parental education, and other factors. It would also recognize hierarchy within the learning environment and would work to deconstruct it. The list provided herein is not comprehensive, and organizations committed to anti-oppression would consider ongoing evaluation of their practices as necessary to minimize and prevent marginalization.  


(5)   Abrome’s educational philosophy is one that we would like to see other learning organizations replicate.


(7)   Shockingly, schools are even punishing the victims of bullying. Their reasoning is that the victims are partially to blame for being a party to incidents in which they were bullied!

(8)   The criminalization of schooling has only recently become a hot topic in the media, but it has already spurred a good amount of legislation to reduce the use of criminal charges to induce desired behavior in students. However, schools across the nation, particularly in the south, continue to station police officers on school grounds, and they continue to dole out criminal charges for classroom disruptions, truancy, and fighting.    

(9)   Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards is a must read for parents and educators.