In Expert Interviews

Jim Dillon on Bullying Education

Jim Dillon is an educational consultant specialising in leadership and school bullying. He has been an elementary principal in one school for 17 years and a total of 20 years as a school administrator. Prior to that, Jim Dillon also worked as a special education teacher. He talks to NoBullying.com about Bullying Education and Cyber Bullying and changing the approach to bullying.

The interview on Bullying Education can also be found here and here.

Below is a transcript of the interview with NoBullying.com Founder Ciaran Connolly on Bullying Education:

Jim Dillon: Right now I am doing educational consulting and professional development for a company and I consult with them on doing professional development based on leadership and school bullying and just the whole change process. Prior to that, I was an elementary principal in one school for 17 years and probably a total of 20 years as a school administrator. Prior to that, I was a special education teacher. So, that’s pretty much my education and career for all about 35 years but during the time I was elementary principal, our school had some problems with the school bus. It is a very difficult problem when you are principal to think you can control all students’ behaviour on a bus when they are miles away. We were at a very strong school, community, teachers, parents and we had a sure decision-making team and we decided to address the problem by developing a program we called ‘The Peaceful School Bus’, which was based on the principal of getting the kids to form a sense of community on the bus.

We had great success with that so much so that I was approached by a publisher to write a book, we were doing a book which I did which is called ‘The Peaceful School Bus’ which is a facilitator’s guide and I sold about 2800 copies primarily in the US and Canada I think. So, it is being used in school districts across the US and then I retired in 2010 and I discovered that really the critical difference between schools that were making progress of bullying prevention wasn’t so much the program that they used even though there are some programs versus programs are not really that great but I found the critical variable are really the people there and the people with the leadership that came to the people and when I looked around, I didn’t see a lot of resources there for school leaders who really wanted to look at their school culture and climate and change it  that bullying became more than a rare occurrence than a common occurrence and that led me to do some research and I put out a book proposal to Corwin Press (http://www.corwin.com/) and they accepted it and it is called ‘No Place for Bullying’.

So, it’s a guide for school administrators to approach bullying prevention from a more holistic comprehensive approach where you are not just trying to stop bullying, you are trying to do something positive which is changing the cultural norms and the climate by building and empowering students to be responsible bystanders and I go through a step by steps ways of ways of doing that. So now a lot of my work is trying to present this approach through professional development that I do for workshops for administrators. That sums up what I am doing.

Bullying Education: Is the Bullying Situation Improving?

Ciaran Connolly: So, basically, your experience is at schools and looking at the bullying. You are the perfect person for me to be talking to today and we will definitely go back and talk through each of those points if we have time. With bullying, of course you have been in schools and you have researched and written a book or some books on it as well as lecturing and training, do you think it’s declining or improving or the same?

Jim Dillon: Well, from the research and I try to keep up with the current research, the US government just put out some statistics and I think this is interesting to note that right now in the US, bullying is a very prominent issue. Go on CNN, go on the internet. I do a thing called -Google alerts- where I get news stories about bullying and I get five or six stories a day about bullying. Plus, there is now a lot of research done in the US on bullying. There are some university chairs that have research focused just on bullying and there’s a lot of free resources, your website and a lot of other ones, so that people have access to information but the troubling thing is that with all those three, and there are now laws in 49 states, think bullying is not sort of making bullying illegal on the school so to speak. Just the laws and legislations. So, you would think all of those things put together will decrease the amount of bullying but the statistics from the Federal Government shows that the rates of bullying have been unchanged over the last five years. So, they are not going up but they are not going down either. So, that’s a lot of what I write about and I do have an idea for a new book that I am writing sort of exploring why is that because I think we need to change some of our approach to bullying prevention and some of our current ways of approaching the problem I think may be counter-productive but I probably think I will get to that in some of my answers of some of the question we are going to be exploring.

Bullying Education: Is Bullying Different?

Ciaran Connolly: Do you see, again in your time span, do you see bullying happening in a different ways today maybe than five or ten years ago?

Jim Dillon: Yes. I do know with social media it’s another vehicle for bullying but the most research and I’ve heard some people speak on this, and a one very good writer her name is Nancy Willard has written some good stuff on cyber bullying and what she points out is that, and the statistics sort of show this, it’s that it’s not creating a new class of victim. Basically the students who’ve been bullied in school or in person verbally or physically, they are the same ones being bullied online which is disturbing because those kids don’t get a break now. Maybe before we had such strong presence of social media, everywhere kids could go home and get a break from the bullying. So, I am concerned that these kids, the duration and the frequency of bullying for that population can have more of a negative impact now, but it’s not creating a whole new group of kids who are bullied and I also think inadvertently it can lead to people thinking that maybe it’s a lot worse. Probably if you went to most people they would probably say that cyber bullying has exploded and everybody is experiencing it but most recent research said about maybe 20% of kids report being bullied via social media.

Ciaran Connolly: So it’s the same people and probably the same level. They just got a new vehicle a new method of bullying that they are using. Of course you are right. Everyone is on social media now and the real downside is that there is of course there’s no escape. It is 24/7. There is no switch off.

Jim Dillon: I guess we need to be concerned about that.

Bullying Education: Cyber Bullying and Social Media

Ciaran Connolly: You are right. Exactly. I know from my own experience. I got off a school bus and I was the happiest person in the world but there is no getting off the school bus any more all the time. Very interesting and do you think, again backing up your point, that with the cyber bullying on social media, is it getting a lot more press at the moment so people maybe more aware of it? So the perception is that it’s a massive issue but actually it’s probably pretty constant?

Jim Dillon: Yes. I think it’s funny when I read a research about it is and, you know, the media tends to gravitate towards negative stories. We hear about the tragedy of kids. One of the things I think we forget is that most kids, the great majority of kids, don’t bully and a great majority of kids pretty much handle social media responsibly and those are kids who have the greatest influence in stopping bullying. Much more or so than we adults do. Unfortunately, you want those kids who don’t bully to be recognized and affirmed and sometimes when you sort of do too much about hard stories, it leads to the false impression that there are more kids bullying than really are and it’s like anything I’d say. If there is something you don’t do but yet you feel bombarded by messages telling you not to do it already. So, if I don’t drink and drive but all I hear are messages “Don’t drink and drive”, after a while you tune it out and one of the concerns I have is that all the kids who are responsible and don’t bully, unless we acknowledge an affirm that and sort of spread the word that most kids don’t bully, it can have the opposite effect.

It can make those kids tune out the message and it can make them think that more kids are bullying than really are and kids tend to want to do what they think the majority are doing. So, we have to almost really communicate the fact that most kids don’t bully and that will have more of a likelihood of empowering the kids. Also, saying to kids you are a responsible user, we need your help in preventing the bullying for the kids who are bullied. Instead of viewing kids as maybe the source of the problem I guess we have to view students as really the solution and let them know that and tell them that we need their help because as an adult and as an administrator, I knew that I had to have the students at my side. I had to have them feel like they were part of our team and kids respond to those positive affirming messages like you are important, you have a lot of influence and we as adults need you to help us.  I think if we can turn some of the bullying prevention around and have it via a more positive message like that, we’ll get a lot more of those kids who don’t bully but maybe are reluctant to be helpful bystanders. We’ll to get them to come forward.

Bullying Education: Bystanders 

Ciaran Connolly: Of course. So, you are focusing here on the bystanders. Actually, you’re right. If it’s 80% of the student population, that is a massive movement and if we can educate them and encourage them to be good citizens and reward or thank them or ensure they know what they’re doing is a good thing. It is a challenge for any child that is seeing bullying to not ignore it?

Jim Dillon: Yes. In the US, and these are good public service announcements on TV, they are very good and they will show a child being bullied and they’ll show a bystander standing there sort of watching and the message is stand up to bullying and that’s a good message but what I find in schools here, and I don’t know how it is in other places, it’s one thing to say to kids stand up to bullying but it is not an easy thing to do. If you start to really look at a kid who doesn’t bully who is a bystander, very often the kid who is being bullied is not a popular kid. So, if you stand up for that kid, you are in a way almost making yourself vulnerable and you’re sort of saying “Are you friends with that kid who is being bullied?” because most of the kids who bully tend to be high on the popularity on the social scale than kids who are victims.

So, when we say to kids to stand up to bullying, I think most of them in their heart want to but we need to give them skills and we need to give them strategies so that they know what to do when they face those situations because you just can’t say to somebody do it. You have to, as I was saying to a kid, we wouldn’t say to a kid who is struggling with reading read. We give them the skills and we coach them and sometimes I think we forget that kids need more help and support in learning ways to stand up to bullying.

Ciaran Connolly: Of course and if we did solve the bystanders issue, then maybe things can be a lot better. I can imagine myself, and even as adults, I’ve seen it myself on Facebook. People see things maybe that aren’t the right things to be seen or politically correct or even nice but I choose to ignore. I don’t actually go and type and say “Look. This isn’t the right thing to say. Maybe you shouldn’t be posting this on Facebook. It is going to be hurting”. I don’t even have the courage or skill set. I have often, when I think of that now you’re shaming me, but I guess I wonder how many other people are the same but you are right. We do need to get the skills to do that because we need to not ignore it but take action.

Jim Dillon: One of the interesting things was that I have been doing a research on bystanders’ behaviour not just bullying. As you said, as an adult what makes somebody help somebody whose maybe car broke down the road or something and what they find is the perception of difference. That we tend to want to help people who would be viewed as being similar to us and if someone appears to be different from us, the more different they are from us, the less likely we are to help them and if you look in a school setting there’s a lot of kids who are what they call ‘bully victims’ and these are kids who may be or not that popular or they may have poor social skills. They may be impulsive, they may have certain habits that make them not popular. So, if I am a bystander, the more different I see that student is from me, the less likely I am going to help that student. So, one of the things I think we need to do more in school is have kids discover things that they may have in common. They can’t leave that to chance. So, we have to really build communities with kids so that kids have opportunities to discover that they may have something in common because if I see this one kid who is being picked on and I think he is very different from me but if in school the teacher structure the activities where I find that this student maybe likes the same sports team that I like or even have the same birthday that I have, that student becomes less different, and the research said, then this student is more likely  to be helped by someone. So, I think we can find a lot of really good answers to the issue if we look a little bit into the research about why people either help or don’t help and sometimes the difference between helping and not helping can be a little thing and if you can find that little thing and just provide them with experience like that, you can really start to make a difference.

Schools and Bystanders

Ciaran Connolly: Very interesting and you talked about schools. Of course, since you have been heavily involved and as a parent myself, we often see scapegoats in the press. I know some schools do an amazing job of educating our young people and again the pressure that is upon teachers for grades, attendance, social skills and everything and now to give care and around this is well to give to twenty or thirty people sitting in front of them. Things aren’t easy for educators in any country. How do we help our schools or to educate our children to be good bystanders and avoid the bullying issue?

Jim Dillon: Yes, that is a very good question and I think you are absolutely right. Teachers have a really difficult job and they need a lot of support. At least in the US recently, a lot of the faults in education in general have been now sort of pointed at teachers as if the teachers are the reason why schools aren’t good. So, there’s a lot of even more negative staff falling on teachers so it is hard just to say that teachers. So now on the top of everything else you have to do, you have to then get kids to be bystanders. So, one of the things I try to say in my book, and I think it is important, is help teachers see that bullying intervention isn’t like adding another program or getting something else they have to do. That really if you create a strong classroom community and you make school safer, you’re not just stopping a negative. You are really sort of enhancing the learning so that if I help kids develop some social skills or build a strong community and I see it as not just stopping bullying but improving the quality of education. Even teachers are more likely to respond to a positive message. You know, rather than just saying stopping the negative. So what I try to help school leaders do is to integrate the message of school bullying with a larger message of school improvement which means building on the successes you already have. You can’t criticize teachers but you need to find things that they are already doing that are successful and say “OK. Let’s put our heads together and see how we can even get a little bit better” because people respond better to more of a growth approach than a fixed approach.

Bullying Education: Teachers and Bullying

Ciaran Connolly: And are teachers, at the moment generally, would they have the skills that they are dealing with bullies and victims in the right way? Because I know, again I am going to my own experience and history, maybe the victim was transferred to another school or the bully was transferred to another school. It was the quick fix and things changed.

Jim Dillon: That’s another good point and really the first chapter of my book, I called it ‘The Blind Spot of Bullying Prevention’, I think this is a real difficult thing. Here again, if you look at statics, maybe adults in the school see about 5% of the bullying that happened. That means most of it happens under the radar. So, I think teachers in a sense probably do OK with the bullying that they see. The problem is they don’t see most of it and sometimes they might start to wonder how much of a problem it is because they don’t see it. So, to me, that’s why I put it as my first chapter. The first task of a school leader is that they get their staff to realize that there is stuff going on that they don’t see. That bullying goes under the radar and really not so much telling them that they are the ones to have to stop bullying but to get them to see when they build the skills of students and build trust between teachers and students, students then will be either more confident in intervening or more confident and report it because unless those two things happens, bullying is going to pretty much keep  going the way it goes because all the research over and over again students have the biggest influence. So, we have to almost work indirectly as teachers through the students and the other part is getting students to trust us, to tell us. Some students when you interview them and say “Why don’t you tell adults when you see bullying?” it’s funny some of them say “Because I think the adult will make it worse or won’t do any good” or “They are too busy to listen to me”. So, we have to sort of remove those doubts in kids’ heads so that they see that telling us is going to not just lead to the kid who is bullying to get punished, that they are going to see it being resolved more successfully. That’s why zero tolerance policies here in the US had been proven to be ineffective because a lot of times if I am a bystander, I want to stop the bullying. That’s one thing but do I want to get the kid who is bullying who maybe a popular kid suspended from school? So, in a way, harsh penalties for kids who bully really depresses the number of kids who are more likely to report it.

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