How to Stop Bullying Before it Starts: The Math of Human Relationships

[Photo Credit: Photo modified from “India Black and White” by anthony kelly, used via Creative Commons License CC BY 2.0]

Much has been written about how to deal with bullying once it has been discovered. But what can adults do to actively prevent bullying from occurring in the first place? This post is a response to the inspiring example of one math teacher in a recent Reader’s Digest article. Here’s a link to the original story; it’s definitely worth a read:

This teacher’s strategy bears a striking resemblance to principles introduced by J. L. Moreno, the father of psychodrama, group therapy, and sociometry. His granddaughter, Miriam Zachariah, is an educator who has applied his theory to conflict resolution and the prevention of bullying. Here’s how you can apply similar principles to prevent bullying in your community.

1. Measure and monitor the connections within your group.

Adults need a way to figure out who is being isolated and who is wielding the social power within a group. Sociometry (the study of the interconnections within a group) gives us tools to think about relationships in new ways. Important questions to answer include the following:

  • Who chooses whom?
  • Who does not get chosen?
  • Is the choosing reciprocal?
  • How are the social dynamics within the group currently changing?
  • Why do some kids get chosen more frequently than others?

Every Friday, the teacher in the Reader’s Digest article asked kids to write down the names of four children they would like to sit next to the following week. The teacher used these regular check-ins as a way for her to keep tabs on the sociometry within her classroom and to detect people who might be isolated and disconnected from the group, or at risk of being bullied or bullying others.

Adults also need to be aware that the public act of choosing or being chosen often can bring up painful feelings, because the process clearly reveals each child’s sociometric status within the group–how desirable each child is to the group as a whole. It can make those who are already on the outskirts feel more rejected and alone. Many of us can still remember the acute discomfort of being chosen last in elementary school games. Thus, adult leaders who want to increase a sense of safety should only use public forms of choosing very carefully.

2. Build a sense of commonality and connection among group members.

Adults can reduce isolation and animosity among kids by finding ways to help the kids figure out similarities they have with others. These might include similar experiences and life stories, similar values, similar interests, or similar goals. As a leader, you can also build stronger connections within the group by planning memorable activities to create more shared experiences together as a group.

One simple game to build connection and highlight similarities is the “Circle of Similarities” game. The group stands in a circle, and members take turns asking the group personal questions. Members answer the question in the affirmative by stepping into the circle. Each has an opportunity to share about their answer if they desire to do so. For example, questions might include the following:

  • Who here likes to eat ice cream?
  • Who here hates snails?
  • Who here has a younger brother?

3. Help group members understand how it feels to walk in each others’ shoes.

Another way to help the outsiders build stronger ties within the group is to increase the sense of empathy and understanding among people who perceive each other as different.

Sociodrama and the psychodramatic technique of role reversal both are powerful tools to strengthen empathy and help kids experience others’ points of view.  Both are dramatic techniques that call for kids to pretend to be someone else and voice what they believe that other person might think or feel. For instance, a group might all imagine and take turns voicing the thoughts and feelings of someone who is bullied and then all take turns voicing the thoughts and feelings of someone who has bullied someone else.

A positive community with less imbalance of social power, more connection, more empathy, and more understanding is a community where bullying is a lot less likely to occur. When members feel connected to one another, they are more empowered to speak up when something feels wrong. When members empathize with one another, they are less likely to act aggressively toward one another. When members know that they can trust one another, the community becomes truly a safe place for everyone.


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