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Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones AND Names WILL Hurt Me
13 ways to prevent peer cruelty by Thomas Lickona, Ph.D.

Of all the moral experiences the school can provide, none is more important than a child's experience of being accepted and valued by fellow students. Students learn to care about others when they feel cared about themselves. When a student feels rejected by peers, however, both academic learning and moral development are impeded. Moreover, students who exclude or persecute peers are damaging their own character development by their insensitive or cruel behavior.


How can schools address the growing problem of peer cruelty?


Adopt a school wide character education effort.

When Winkelman Elementary School (Glenview, IL) faced rising student disrespect toward peers and adults, it launched a character education initiative centered on courtesy and caring. In the school lobby, a giant display defined courtesy and caring in terms of behaviors that could be seen in the life of the school. Courtesy was defined as:

  • Saying please, thank you, you're welcome, and excuse me
  • Being a good listener
  • Waiting your turn
  • Acting politely everywhere
  • Discussing problems

Caring was defined as:

  • Sharing
  • Respecting others' feelings
  • Following rules
  • Working cooperatively
  • Being a good friend.

At every grade level, teachers continually discussed these virtues with their students. Different classes took turns conducting weekly school assemblies on the themes of courtesy and caring. All children were given opportunities to care for others through community service.


As a result of this effort, Winkelman's school climate improved, put-downs declined, and fights became rare. Three years after beginning its character education project, Winkelman was recognized in a Chicago-area competition for excellence in both academics and character education.



Establish a school wide effort focused on reducing bullying.

In some communities, school bullying has been cut in half by a program that combines four strategies: (a) clear rules against bullying behavior; (b) greater adult supervision; (c) classroom discussions of the problem; and (d) increased parent involvement. Parents are notified if their child is either the victim or the perpetrator of bullying, and parents are brought into the problem-solving process.



Create a classroom community.

Hal Urban teaches history and psychology at Woodside High School (Redwood City, CA). He takes about five minutes at the start of each class to do four things. First, he asks, "Who has good news?" After a few students share, he asks, "Is there someone in the class that you'd like to compliment?" Students become comfortable doing that. Then he asks, "What is something you are thankful for today?" Finally, he has students take a different seat and spend a minute getting to know their new neighbor. On the final exam, he asks, "What is something you will remember about this course 10 years from now?" Many say they will remember the way he began each class.



Allow children to help set rules.

A Skaneateles, New York, 6th-grade teacher begins the year by asking his students to respond in writing to this question: "How would you like to be treated in this class—by me as the teacher and by everyone else?" After students discuss their answers (being treated fairly, not being made fun of, not being left out, and so on), the teacher asks, "How do you think you should treat everyone else in the room?" Students can see it logically follows that they should treat others just as they themselves would like to be treated. The teacher then says: "That's called the Golden Rule: Treat others as you wish to be treated. This will be our most important rule."



Implement a lesson or curriculum on positive communication.

Some teachers work to prevent peer cruelty through a discussion of name-calling, teasing, and the like. They ask questions such as, "Who has ever been treated in this way?" "How did it make you feel?" "Why do people say unkind things to others?" "How can we prevent this from happening in our class?" "What is a fair and helpful consequence if someone does say something unkind to a classmate?"


"Children remind me of chickens, seeking out the weak and wounded and pecking them to death. They have discovered that my 9-year-old son, who is autistic, is bothered by loud noises, and they scream and whistle in his ear until he is crying."
—a concerned mother.


Some elementary schools have implemented a published curriculum called No Putdowns. This curriculum, designed to be used during the first five weeks of the school year, includes brief daily lessons in which students practice positive communication skills such as complimenting others and not retaliating when name-calling occurs. In schools using this program, name-calling and fights have significantly diminished.



Set and implement disciplinary consequences for peer cruelty.

In all too many schools, students treat schoolmates abusively, and nothing happens. Clear contracts can help to stop bullying: "I will not hit anyone. If I do, I will have to call my parents and report what I did." Have the student who has bullied sign the contract.


A Moravia, New York, 5th-grade teacher begins the school year by explaining to her students that courtesy is an important value in her classroom. If a student says something that hurts another child's feelings, she requires that the offending child write a letter of apology to the victim saying why the offender is sorry. We can also teach restitution by asking the perpetrator, "What can you do to make up for the hurt you caused?"



Teach empathy.

Students often need help in developing empathy. When 5-year-old Brian called a Jamaican classmate "tan man," the teacher took Brian aside and explained: "Brian, there are two kinds of hurts: outside hurts that you can see, like a cut or a bruise, and inside hurts that you can't see, like a hurt feeling. The inside hurts hurt more and last longer. When you call John 'tan man,' you are causing an inside hurt that makes him very sad. Do you wish to continue to cause this inside hurt?" Brian said that he didn't.


Preschool and primary-level teachers have also used puppets to portray the negative impact of unkind actions. Some children's books, such as Eleanor Estes' Hundred Dresses (Harcourt Brace, 1944), depict the hurtful effects of ridicule and exclusion and are another effective way to increase students' empathy.



Practice cooperative learning.

Since bullies are deficient in empathy, they can benefit a great deal from cooperative learning. Studies show that sustained cooperative learning can reduce prejudice and even foster friendships where hostility once prevailed. Two keys to successful cooperative learning are for the teacher and students to list the behaviors that facilitate effective cooperation and then to continually assess how well pairs or groups are working together and how they can improve.



Allow children of different ages to work together.

Students who are cruel need responsible roles that build their character. Having the responsibility to be a "big buddy" to a younger child and to help that child with schoolwork has the potential to change an older student's self-image and behavior. Many schools promote nurturing cross-age relationships through "class adoptions," in which an older class buddies up with a younger one.



Appeal to the bully's sense of responsibility. In his book Teacher and Child (Macmillan, 1972), Haim Ginott tells the story of 9-year-old Jay, who had been the ringleader of attacks on a 3rd-grade classmate, Andy. The teacher wrote Jay the following letter:


Dear Jay:

Andy's mother has told me that her son has been made very unhappy this year. Name-calling and ostracizing have left him sad and lonely. Your experience as a leader in our class makes you a likely person for me to turn to for advice. I value your ability to sympathize with those who suffer. Please write me your suggestions about how we can help Andy.

Mrs. Spaulding


Jay never replied, but his attacks on Andy ceased.



Teach social skills to end victimization.

Martin Fleming, author of For Kidsake, suggests training victims of bullying to be assertive: "Take a deep breath and think to yourself, 'I can handle this.' Look the bully in the eye and say, 'Stop bothering me. If you don't stop, I'll report you.'"


"The golden rule—treat others as you wish to be treated—is the most important rule in my classroom."
—a 6th-grade teacher


Sometimes a student who is a victim behaves in annoying ways that provoke peer abuse. Privately ask mature students why they think the victim is the object of peer mistreatment and what the student might do to change the situation. The teacher or counselor can then meet individually with the student to suggest changes. This effort should always be coupled with steps to stop abusive students from inflicting further cruelty. (For other strategies to help victims, see Kathy Noll's and Jay Carter's book Taking the Bully by the Horns and website: http://www.kathynoll.com.)



Empower the student government.

A student council, consisting of elected classroom delegates who meet weekly under the guidance of the principal or a teacher, can take a leadership role in addressing peer cruelty. First, every classroom discusses the problem: "How can we reduce peer cruelty in our school?" Then classroom delegates take their recommendations to the student council, which formulates a plan of action. Using this system, elementary students have been able to reduce problems in the cafeteria, on the playground, and on the school bus. Secondary schools have also used this kind of participatory student government to improve the moral environment.



Reach out to parents.

In his book, The Men They Will Become (Perseus Books, 1999), Harvard pediatrician Eli Newberger includes an excellent chapter on teasing and bullying that tells the story of Chip. Halfway through his 5th-grade year, Chip's family moved. One bedtime in late January, Chip said to his mother, "I don't like my new school. The kids don't like me. They call me names. They push me out."


At a parent-teacher conference in February, Chip's parents told Mrs. Lewis, his teacher, about the problem. She then spoke to the boys that playground aides said had been teasing and tripping Chip at recess. She told them she had lost a great deal of respect for them and that she expected everyone in the class to be an advocate for anyone subjected to teasing.

For a while, things seemed to be better. But then in April Chip told his mother, "The kids will never like me. I can't take it anymore."


Mrs. Lewis met with the school counselor to devise a plan. They decided to meet with the children who had led, cooperated with, or gone along with the teasing of Chip. In addition, they sent a letter to the parents of the guilty students apprising them of the circumstances and asking them to talk to their children about ceasing their intolerant behavior.


Parents need to know when children are treating a schoolmate cruelly. Most parents have little or no idea about the peer cruelty that goes on in school. If they know, they have the opportunity to help.


The peer culture is a powerful influence on student conduct and character. If teachers and schools do not take proactive steps to shape a positive peer culture, peer norms such as cruelty to those who are different will typically prevail. By contrast, when teachers and schools create a strong sense of community, children learn morality by living it. Respect and care begin to become habits—part of their developing character. And school becomes what it clearly must be: a place where all children feel welcomed and safe.



Thomas Lickona, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland where he directs the Center for the 4th and 5th RS (Respect and Responsibility). He is the author of several books on moral development and character education, including Raising Good Children and Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility. For more information on the center, access its website at http://www.cortland.edu/character/default.asp 

© 2000 National PTA®.  Reprinted with permission from National PTA. Article originally appeared in Our Children magazine, Vol. 26, No.1, September 2000, p. 20.