Marc des Landes

I regularly receive expressions of concern from teachers and parents about the ways that young people talk to each other and the adults in their lives. It is almost as if the youngsters are modelling themselves on the American sitcom characters where it is seen to be smart to put people down in order to get a laugh. Humour, it seems, has to have a victim in order to be funny,so young people rehearse the "skill" of the wise-crack at someone else's expense.

Comments from teachers suggest to me that there is a whole social hierarchy among adolescents which is based on the snappy come-back, staying at the top by putting down everyone else in the group and those outside it. The person who is best at this unpleasant form of stratification is the leader of the group, because everyone else is scared of becoming the focus of his/her embarrassing, nasty "jokes". Similarly, less articulate young people find themselves joining such groups simply as a form of self defence. You are less likely to be the victim of this "humour", if you are a member of the group.

It is clear to many adult observers that, as a form of bullying, the put down is not as easy to prove or deal with as a deliberate attempt to "hurt" someone. It is equally clear to the young people who are on the receiving end of it, that it is not always possible to discuss the problem with an adult, or anyone else, because of the "fact" that it is "just a joke".

Having worked with young people for many years, I am very clear that this form of humour is,without doubt, not only bullying, but also verbal abuse. It is not a joke, but a nasty, sometimes vicious attempt to make someone embarrassed, unhappy or notOK. It is often perpetuated by others in the group in an unhappy attempt to draw the focus away from themselves. The way to gain and maintain status in a group is to learn how to be more unpleasant than anyone else.

In talking with young people themselves, I find that there is an equal level of discomfort for them,but they feel powerless to do any thing about it. There is concern, also, that if they say anything they will become the brunt of more of the "humour", because "they can't take a joke".

I believe that any school that is prepared to take a stand on this issue will both be doing their students a favour, and will make things easier for the staff and the parents as well. Other benefits could well be gained by all concerned as the tone of the school lifts and becomes more positive,and as the resulting cooperative attitudes influence many other aspects of the community's life.

What follows contains a series of suggestions for confronting and changing this culture among our young people. The extent to which all of the suggestions are followed naturally depends on the amount of time those involved wish to commit to the programme. Also, some suggestions may appeal more than others. Finally, I see these suggestions as starting points only that teachers and others can use to stimulate their own creative abilities and arrive at more interesting or exciting ideas.

This approach aims to deal with the issue as a whole, concentrating on a class or school, rather than on individuals. My experience is that there is less chance of reprisals from groups imagining that the move is the result of a complaint from a student. I also find that the resulting discussions in classrooms, often end up generalising to deal with other types of bullying, for example, those involving intimidation or physical violence.


Note: Each of these suggestions stands alone as a strategy that can be used by itself. They all rely on a shared commitment from the staff and the parents (where they have been included). Creative people can add to the list... teachers, parents, and students.

1. In a staff meeting, discuss the issue. Draw the teachers' attention to put-down "humour" and encourage them to look closely at their own styles of humour in the classroom. Each teacher is asked to make a commitment to her/his colleagues that s/he will avoid this type of statement and that s/he will not accept it from any student at any time. This commitment is important, because all teachers need to know that they have the support of all other staff, and that their efforts are not going to be undermined. It is also important that the staff show a unified front to the students so they can not be played off against one another. Staff can be encouraged, at this meeting, to talk about how they feel about this style of "humour", and its effects on the individual students and the school generally.

2. At a school assembly, ideally attended by all staff, the teachers' concerns are outlined. Students are challenged about the ways that they talk to each other and the teachers. Students are told that teachers will be concentrating on helping them to change the ways that they are talking to each other in order to make the school environment a more friendly and harmonious one. At the same time, students are encouraged to challenge each other when unpleasant comments are directed at them or at other students. Make it clear that all staff will be participating in this drive and that students are welcome to join it also.

3. In the classroom, all teachers will make a personal declaration about the issue stating clearly their objections to the cynical, put-down style of "humour". Teachers will make it clear that wisecracks and comments of this type are not acceptable in the classroom or anywhere at school. Every teacher is encouraged to say clearly what s/he wants e.g.,. "I want you all to speak to each other with respect". Teachers are also encouraged to point out the programming effect that put-down statements can have on fellow students and others; and to promote every one speaking to each other in ways that will encourage desirable outcomes.

4. Teachers also can make a commitment to students that they will be aware of the ways that they talk to the students, inviting students to challenge comments that they consider to be unhelpful.

5. Initially teachers may find that they are challenging students quite frequently. Some students may also attempt to make fun of the teachers' efforts. These students should be confronted with this behaviour. Confrontation can take the form of a statement such as..."That statement was a put-down, John, I would like you to say what you want to say in a friendly way, now, please", or." Jim, please repeat your request in a more pleasant way."

6. Occasionally, staff may find it helpful to describe the effect of what a student has said and then model a more appropriate statement. The offending student can then be asked to keep reframing his/her statements until they are OK.

7. While the frequency of challenges may appear to be high at first, teachers will probably find that time requirements are quite modest. Also time is gained overall because the "humour" and its results would have had to be dealt with anyway. The differences become evident as students become more aware of their comments and monitor their own contributions.

8. On a school-wide basis, perhaps during art classes, students can be invited to prepare posters with reminders about how they should address each other, e.g., "Say it with Respect". Teachers and students may come up with other similar projects to reinforce what they want.

9. Students can also be encouraged to adopt their own affirmations such as "I am in control of my mouth", "I am responsible for what I say", or "What I put out, I get back". Students will probably be able to reframe these in language more acceptable to them. Teachers can help by monitoring the intent of the statements.

10. Teachers and students in appropriate classes can view and criticise TV programs that rely on the "put-down" style of humour. In English, teachers can encourage their students to study and identify the various types of humour: pathos, understatement, self depreciation, laconic,phlegmatic, facetious, cynical, ironic, black, droll, comic, etc. Then, they can ask: Are thefollowing acceptable forms of humour: sarcasm, ridicule, lampooning, satire, mimicking, racially based jokes, etc? Students may find a whole unit on humour very enjoyable. (They could also be challenged to explain the difference between English and American humour, as seen on television.)

11. Classes can initiate a "token economy" where, if a whole session passes without any unpleasant wisecracks, the class can finish with a short burst of "Friends" or some other "Victim-less" style of humour, on video.

12. If the school wanted to take the theme to a climactic conclusion, a night composed of drama,skits and music of a humorous nature could be put on by the school. The public could be invited. (This could also be a fund raising project.) Contributions would naturally be checked by the staff to ensure that it truly meets the "victimless humour" criteria.

13. Parents can be involved in the project from the beginning. Early on, when the assembly has been called, a letter can be sent home explaining to parents what the staff are trying to do, and inviting the parents to participate from home.

14. Interested parents can be invited to meet at the school with some of the enthusiastic teachers to talk about their experiences to date and then to discuss strategies for use at home. Specifically, parents can be encouraged to use OK statements around the house, particularly by saying what they want, rather than what they don't want, to their children and each other.

15. At home, students can be challenged in a similar way to school. Parents can require their children to reframe their sarcastic, rude or nasty comments into pleasant messages.

16. Perhaps a parents' support group could be formed, if there is enough interest. There are strong indications that parents of adolescents really appreciate the chance to get together to talk about the various ways to deal with the issues that usually come up during their children's teenage years.

When working in schools, several priorities guide what I do. I am enthusiastic about these types of programs. My experience is that they work well and I am happy to assist schools that are taking a stand on this form of bullying. To establish a program, I am interested in discussing the various aspects of what is possible with those in authority at the school. In particular, I think it is important to arrange the guidelines with the principal, to attend staff meetings in which the program is discussed in its early stages and to take a monitoring role throughout the program. During the program, I make myself available in person and on the telephone as much as I can, so I can help guide the development of the program, debrief with people who are wanting discussion and to help arrive at new options when these are needed.

In early November 1996, Trinity College, Brunswick, Melbourne, Australia organised a "Tolerance week",

to confront and discourage bullying among the students. Trinity is an all boys secondary school,with a good spread of ethnicity in the students. Bullying was defined as racial comments,intimidation and verbal abuse.

Teachers responded well to the idea and included items on bullying in normal curriculum activities.

Students viewed a video on bullying to stimulate their thinking and to challenge what is often considered as OK behaviour. Several competitions were run, with prizes for the winners. Slogans and posters were designed and displayed around the school. Other activities included drama, role plays, songs and prayers related to the theme.

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