Teaching is routinely ranked as one of the most stressful professions. In today’s child-focused social climate, teachers are more scrutinized than ever before.
With budget cuts, new standardized testing, and increased focus on teacher assessment tools, the undercurrent of a school can be one of mounting pressure. That said, I often work collaboratively with teachers to meet the special needs of my clients. The bulk of these teachers regularly go above and beyond to educate with passion — to inspire students to explore their strengths while nurturing their love of learning.
Still, there are times when this isn’t the case — when, in fact, the opposite is true. With increased awareness of bullying comes increased awareness of the adult bully. In an anonymous survey of 116 teachers at seven schools, 45 percent of teachers admitted to having bullied a student. Here’s what you can do if you suspect that your child is being bullied by a teacher.
Learn the signs.
Being bullied by a teacher can cause your child to exhibit the following symptoms:
- Headaches stomach aches
- Complaints of nausea
- Nightmares (particularly on Sunday night or during the week)
- Tantrums before school
- Shifts in behavior
- Mood changes and acting-out behaviors after school
- Self-deprecating remarks
- Refusal to leave the house
- Excuses to stay home from school
- Loss of interest in school
- Reports of the teacher not liking her
- Complaints of being picked on by the teacher
- Complains of being constantly yelled at
- Complaints of being humiliated by the teacher
- Complaints of a teacher being rude, making sarcastic remarks, or being disrespectful
These warning signs may not indicate that your child is being bullied by her teacher, but they probably do mean that something has gone awry at school. Often, younger children present with more somatic complaints — that is, physical symptoms of emotional and psychological experiences, such as headaches or nausea — because they don’t yet have the expressive language skills to tell you what’s really going on. Still, older children and adolescents are not exempt from experiencing somatic symptoms. Your child may display any number of these signs, regardless of age.
Get your child to talk about it.
Getting your child to talk depends on her age and ability to express herself. Here are some suggestions:
The first step is to regulate your own affect; gain control of yourself.
If your child is being bullied, especially by an adult, it makes sense that your feelings could fall anywhere between indignant and murderous. However, a parent’s explosive emotional display is likely to overwhelm a child and may cause her to shut down even more. Work on regulating your emotions before starting the conversation.
Use the Dialectical Behavior Therapy skill of “observe and describe.”
Once you’ve regulated your own emotions, gently address your concern with your child. Use the skill of observe and describe. Stick to what you have specifically observed and describe it to your child. For example:
“I notice that for the past four mornings you haven’t been wanting to go to school, and you’ve told me you had a stomach ache every day. What’s going on?”
“Every Sunday night, I’ve noticed that you become tearful. Why do you think that happens? I wonder if it has to do with going to school.”
Create a culture of open communication.
Creating a culture of open communication at home is easier than it sounds, and it will allow your child to feel confident in expressing her feelings. Where I work, clients share a high and low (or best and worst part of their day); this typically provides me with important information.
Try sharing a high and low of your day, and ask your child to do the same. When parents openly share tough parts of their day and how they problem-solved, they are modeling resilience for their children.
There are other modes of communication you can encourage that may allow your child to further open up. For instance, you can engage her in an activity in which she writes or draws pictures of messages she receives in various environments, including the classroom.
Normalize and remind your child of your role as a parent.
If your child is being bullied, especially by an adult authority figure, it’s possible that she may feel ashamed. Using active listening tools, like normalizing (explaining that a certain reaction is understandable) and validating (expressing that a person is entitled to their feelings) may encourage your child to share what she is going through. For instance, you can say something like:
“Sometimes, when there’s something that makes us uncomfortable, it makes sense for us to want to avoid talking about it.”
“Sometimes, kids avoid school because they are being bullied. I wonder if this is something that could be happening to you or someone you know.”
If your child continues to deny being bullied, let her know your reasons for thinking there is a problem and provide reassurance that you are in her corner. Also, normalize being reluctant to reveal this experience by saying something like, “I know sometimes people don’t want to admit to being bullied because they find it embarrassing, or sometimes people are afraid that if they say something, the bullying will get worse. It’s understandable to think that, and at the same time, it’s my responsibility to make sure you are treated fairly.”
Seek outside help.
If adequate validation, normalizing, and gentle, open-ended questioning don’t work, take your child to see a therapist who specializes in working with kids in her age range.
You may also want to consider approaching the school. In fact, many sources recommend going to the teacher first (provided the situation is not completely egregious), and I’d tend to agree.
Start with some open-ended questions at the source.
Stick to questions like, “I’m concerned because my child is reporting that she doesn’t believe you like her. What do you think is contributing to that?”
Ask the teacher for advice on how to solve the problem.
Although you may feel upset at the teacher, give her a chance to explain what is going on. The teacher may have insight into what is affecting her dynamic with your child. Perhaps your child has been arriving to class late or acting out during lessons. While these actions in no way justify bullying, understanding the teacher’s point of view can put the situation in context.
Inform the teacher of what works and doesn’t for your child.
Explain to the teacher which parts of their dynamic may be affecting your child. You can say something like, “You know, my child can be sensitive sometimes. She tends to do much better when she is pulled to the side and corrected than when she is corrected in front of the class.”
Alert the teacher of your next steps.
If you want to make sure that the plan you set in place with the teacher is put in motion, contact the administrators after your conversation. If this is is a step you plan to take, let the teacher know once you’re wrapping up your meeting..
Emphasize that you are informing the administration in an effort to problem-solve effectively, and not to retaliate for wrongs you believe were committed. If the bullying has been reported directly by your child and is more severe in nature, it is important to meet with the teacher and immediately alert the school’s administration of the incident and your conversation with the teacher. Follow the chain of command at your child’s school. Keep copies of all correspondence — electronic and written.
Take notes about this meeting.
Once you leave the meeting, take notes on what transpired. Include the time and date, as well as a close transcription of what was said by each of you in the conversation.
Document the steps you take.
When documenting, be specific with time and date. Write with as much detail as possible, but make an effort to stick to objective, measurable reporting. Leave your interpretation of what’s going on out of it. Include direct quotes from your child, details from witnesses to the incident (if there are any), and what the teacher said or did as recounted in your child’s own words.
If your child is not opening up about being bullied, stick to documenting the behaviors that you are observing — crying, pulling out hair, refusing to leave the house, saying that she “hates herself,” stating she never wants to go to school again. School administrators need as much evidence as possible to take action.
In her article “When the Teacher Is the Bully,” Jessica Kelmon suggests building a parent network, as well as making yourself visible at school by volunteering and chaperoning. She also suggests asking other parents for feedback on the teacher and discussing concerns with other parents.
It’s a good idea to document these conversations. The reason is that a single complaint against a teacher is not taken as seriously as multiple complaints. It’s harder to deny a problem when so many people know about it. If you take the route of checking in with other parents and building a parent network, it’s important to remain as objective as possible, sticking to observing and describing your experience with your child and her teacher.
Help your child manage the situation.
You can be a support to your child through this difficult situation by employing the following strategies:
- Role-play assertive responses to being bullied.
- Help your child come up with a script of what she can say to her teacher.
- Help your child think of helpful coping skills (drawing, playing with silly putty, deep breathing, counting, reflecting on a positive memory).
- Teach your child positive self-talk — that is, what she can say to make herself feel better.
- Teach your child how to approach an adult and express herself, but let her know that people rarely like being corrected in front of others.
- Educate your child about how she should expect to be treated, giving her clear explanations of what is and is not acceptable behavior.
- Teach your child how to use “I statements” in an even tone to express her feelings. “I feel bad about myself when you call me names in front of the class, even if you are just joking around.” Or, “I feel humiliated by you, and I don’t think that’s right.”
Understand the range of solutions schools may offer and the timelines for relief.
Some schools have bullying specialists on staff. Your child can meet with this professional at your request. Additionally, the school may facilitate these meetings as a way for her to feel supported in the school setting.
Parents can put their concerns in writing and ask the school to make a social worker or psychologist available to speak with their child; this professional should have regular check-ins with her after an initial meeting.
Unless there is hard evidence that your child is being bullied, it is likely that the school will initially respond by monitoring the situation. In this case, it is up to the parents to ensure follow-through. Parents should inquire about who the point person will be and check in regularly about the situation.
Unfortunately, this is a problem that can take some time to eradicate. Regular meetings and scrupulous documentation help. Outside mental health professionals can provide documentation that may be useful in advocating for your child’s needs.
If the school is not acting and you have confirmed that that your child is being bullied by her teacher, follow the chain of command up to the superintendent in your district. If the problem remains unresolved, consider legal action with an education lawyer. Provide documentation of steps you’ve taken to rectify the problem, as well as the responses you’ve received by school staff and administrators.
Know what the law says about bullying.
Recourse is clear if your child’s teacher is putting her hands on your child. This warrants an immediate call to child welfare and a report for institutional abuse. With verbal or psychological abuse, or social isolation, it can be less clear. Parents are often concerned that the student has little power and that the teacher will just make things worse for her if the family complains. Still, concerns of bullying should always be addressed. If a teacher does something that makes a student feel uncomfortable — particularly if the behavior occurs repeatedly — it is worth addressing.
Bullying laws differ from state to state; however, under federal civil rights law, schools are obligated to address conduct that is:
- Severe, persistent, or pervasive
- Creates a hostile environment that detrimentally impacts the student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or opportunities offered by a school
- Based on a student’s race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or religion
Follow this link to learn more about how to respond to school bullying in a greater variety of circumstances.
Alward, M. (2006, November 1). Being Bullied by a Teacher? Retrieved March 10, 2015, from A Better Child.
Federal Laws. (2015, January 1). Retrieved March 14, 2015, from Bullying and the Law.
Gordon, S. (2015, January 1). 10 Ways to Respond to a Teacher Who Bullies. Retrieved March 17, 2015, from About.com.
Kam, K. (n.d.). Teachers Who Bully. Retrieved March 6, 2015, from Web MD.
Kelmon, J. (n.d.). When the Teacher Is the Bully. Retrieved March 21, 2015, from Great Schools.