12. Teachable Moments

Every day, children’s interactions present many opportunities for teachers to intervene “in the moment” in ways that support helpful behaviors, stop hurtful behaviors, and guide children to act in alternative ways. Teachers can take advantage of teachable moments to help children learn how to prevent and stop bullying.

Catch Them Doing Good

Increasing cooperative behaviors is one of the best strategies for preventing bullying. Teachers can intervene when they see or hear children acting in cooperative ways, such as helping a classmate, sharing a toy, and inviting someone to join their play group. When teachers pay attention to and encourage these desirable behaviors, children will increase their cooperative behaviors and reduce their bullying behaviors.

Distinguish Between Conflict and Bullying

Conflict and bullying require different intervention strategies. Conflict involves disagreements between children with nearly equal power but different self-interests (e.g., disagreements over possession of a toy or who was first in line). Teachers can mediate mutually acceptable resolutions or coach the children to use their own negotiation skills to resolve conflicts in a mutually agreeable way.

However, conflict can turn into pre-bullying or bullying behavior when one child involved in conflict uses greater power to intentionally and repeatedly hurt another child. Observing children’s actions, words, body language, and facial expressions will help determine if bullying is occurring.

Immediate Intervention: Stop, Coach, Engage

Bullying requires immediate intervention to stop the bullying. With effective guidance and intervention, teachers can use these teachable moments to shape and change children’s actions and responses during bullying, using the strategy stop, coach, and engage:

  • Teachers need to immediately stop the bullying by saying “Stop” and paying minimal attention to the child who is bullying. Surprisingly, giving attention in the moment, even if intended to stop or deter a negative behavior, can actually increase the negative behavior. Even attention such as scolding, lecturing, or giving extensive explanations about why bullying is not permitted can be rewarding for a child who is bullying. For this reason, teachers should talk to the bullying child separately at a later time.
  • Teachers need to coach the child who is being victimized by standing behind him or her and helping the child respond assertively (e.g., by standing tall and speaking up).
  • Teachers need to engage the children who are bystanders to support the child who is being bullied (e.g., by making her or him feel better and including the child in activities).

In one teachable moment, this intervention strategy can stop the child who is bullying, coach the child who is being bullied, and engage bystanders to help the situation.

Tips for Successful Intervention

On a daily basis, it is important to attend carefully and respond consistently to children’s interactions. Teachers should be especially alert to pre-bullying behaviors that, if not stopped, may turn into bullying. Following are some tips for turning bullying situations into teachable moments.

During intervention:

  • Stop the bullying by saying “Stop.”
  • Separate the victim and bully if necessary.
  • Respond firmly and calmly.
  • Firmly state the “No bullying” rule.
  • Briefly describe the behavior you observed and why it is not allowed.
  • Stand behind the victim and coach the victim to stand up and speak up.
  • Praise helpful bystanders and encourage other kids to help.

There are also things that are important not to do:

  • Don’t respond aggressively.
  • Don’t reward or give extensive attention to the child who is bullying.
  • Don’t lecture, scold, or attempt to reason with the child who is bullying.
  • Don’t impose immediate consequences.
  • Don’t ask children to “work things out” for themselves.
  • Don’t label individual children as a “bully” or “victim.”

After the incident, teachers should follow up with each of the children separately. Rely on your relationships and connections with the children to talk openly and productively about the bullying incident and its effects and consequences:

  • Children who bully must understand that bullying is not acceptable and will not be allowed. Help them understand your group’s expectations and rules about bullying, realize that bullying hurts, and practice positive social behaviors.
  • Children who are victims must know that adults care and support them, that they do not deserve to be bullied, and that they can ask adults and peers to help them. They need help and practice responding assertively to bullying.
  • Children who are bystanders must understand that they have the power to cool down the situation by asking the bully to stop, helping the victim walk away, getting support from other bystanders, asking an adult for help, and/or reporting the bullying incident. Talk with them about what they did or did not do to help.

After the incident, inform all staff who work with the children, and the children’s parents, as warranted. Keep a detailed record of the incident, including who was involved, what type of bullying was involved, where the incident occurred, whether it has happened before, and strategies used to address the problem. This record will reveal any patterns and help teachers see which interventions are most successful.