Why We Should Not Label Children as “Bullies”

Every day, children are labeled by their behaviors: as stupid, or failures, or bullies. Yet, throughout the day, children engage in a variety of different behaviors- what might make them seem a bully in one situation may make them a victim in another. When we observe a child exhibiting negative behaviors we must try to remember the behavior is the problem, not the child.

Negative labels indicate to an individual that that they are different from others; it shames them as people. We must remember that behavior and identity are not one and the same.

The following points are important to remember when addressing bullying behavior:

  • Labeling a child a “bully” will cause him or her to act to fit the label- one of the most important steps in becoming a bully is being labeled as one.
  • When we label a child we are assuming that the child can’t change. A label is fixed, but the truth is children can and often want to change.
  • A child may engage in bullying behavior in some environments or circumstances, but be a bystander or target in others. For example, someone may act like a bully to siblings, but be fearful of older children.
  • Labeling a child a bully distracts from focusing on the root causes behind the bullying behavior, such as environmental or social factors
  • Labeling a child a bully leads to an increase in the bullying behavior- having been labeled, the child then reacts to the label by acting out aggressively against others or him/herself.

This reaction and internalization of the ‘Bully’ label often leads to a dis-identification with school by the child; once a child is labeled a bully, teachers expect less from the child, so the child does not perform as well. Other children may stop playing with the ‘bully’.
Being rejected by peers and feeling disconnected from school can lead the child to identify with those who reward his or her behavior: other ‘bullies.’ This is how a subculture is formed.

So what should be done instead of labeling? The following five tactics help curb bullying behaviors:

  • The acknowledgment that bullying behavior CAN be changed.
  • Shame the behavior, not the child.
  • Tend to the needs of the victimized child, and acknowledge that harm has been done.
  • Consider the environmental and social factors that may be leading to bullying behaviors
  • Recognize that both those bullying and being victimized are valuable members of the school community. Both need support through participation in the community.

When addressing the bullying behavior, make it clear to the child who is bullying that the behavior is not okay. Make sure that the interaction is supportive and respectful while not condoning the behavior. Children must have a safe space to change their behavior in order for it to be successful.

About The Contributor: Allyshia Rheta is a facilitator for Girls Unlimited at the Peace Center. She is currently a graduate student at Arcadia University for International Peace and Conflict Resolution, with a focus in Education.


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