As schools open their doors each fall, students from all walks of life enter. Each has the opportunity to share with other students in the amazing experience of education. Wide-eyed and anxious, children slowly lower their guard and allow themselves to get comfortable with their teachers, fellow students and surroundings. The hope is that this experience will be filled with joy and comfort for each and every student.
For many English Language Learners (ELLs), school is a place of laughter, fun and expansion. Bit by bit language and cultural elements are learned, shared and savored. For other ELLs it is a place of fear, humiliation and intimidation.
As we know from reports and studies which have been coming out over the past few years, bullying has become a serious issue in schools around the country. What used to be limited to verbal attacks has turned into something more subtle and fierce – cyber-bullying being one clear example of how today’s technology can be used to intimidate others in far-reaching ways.
Unfortunately, ELLs are often easy targets for bullies in the school setting. Foreign accents and different cultural mannerisms are often mimicked and made fun of in school, which can cause ELLs to question their most basic identity and heritage. Helping to prevent the bullying of ELLs can be a little more tricky than protecting again general bullying, primarily because attempts to be helpful can end up causing even more discomfort to ELLs.
Below are some tips for teachers and parents to utilize in the classroom and at home:
- Set ground rules: Make sure that all students (and their parents) are clear of what your rules are on bullying. These should be general rules that apply to every student in the classroom/school. Post these rules on the door of the classroom and school so that students can see them when they enter and leave. Ask each student to take a look at it each day/week so that they will be reminded of what is expected of them. Make sure that the general rules include things that may apply specifically to ELLs, such as making fun of the way someone talks, dresses or acts.
- Give clear examples: Share with students examples of what you consider bullying (without specifying anyone in particular or using actual events). Do not give examples that specifically include ELLs being bullied! This can make things even worse for ELLs! Some excellent examples would be from your own life experiences or examples of children from American moving abroad and the difficulties of learning the language and culture. The point is to shed light on what it feels like to be in new surroundings without a solid base of support.
- Set consequences: Make sure that students understand that bullying, on any level, will not be tolerated and that the consequences will apply across the board. These consequences should be agreed upon throughout the school and be clearly posted. An ELL who knows that there are clear consequences for bullying can feel a sense of relief that his teachers and school are supporting him by creating a healthy environment.
- Be informed: Make sure that you and the parents of your students know what the signs of bullying are. Keep an eye on changes in your ELLs’ attitudes and personalities. Remember that subtle changes may or may not indicate big problems under the surface. It is important to not overreact to a given situation but instead to be cautious and to carefully flesh out possible issues.
- Take them seriously: Anything that your students share about their own experiences with bullying or what they have witnessed when others were bullied is to be taken seriously. An ELL who sees other ELLs being bullied can become just as frightened as if it happened to him or her personally. Anytime an ELL opens up to a teacher or parent about such episodes should be taken seriously and be given the support needed.
- Inform parents: Parents of ELLs need to be reminded not to tell their children that bullying is something to be expected when living in a new country, even though the parents may believe this. Not only can this make a child feel even more frightened and helpless, it can cause a child to feel resentment and bitterness toward the country and its citizens in general. ELLs need to feel that they belong here, not part of a subset that is tolerated.
- Inform administrators: It is important that teachers remind school administrators of the additional risk that ELLs face from bullying. Give administrators clear examples of what ELLs experience from bullies: mimicking their accents, making fun of their racial differences, laughing at their mannerisms and cultural idiosyncrasies, and more. Help administrators understand what it would feel like if they were to enter a school in another country without being able to communicate well, and then having other students making fun of their every effort.
- Write down what you see: If you believe that a student in class is bullying an ELL but you aren’t sure, write down what you see or believe is happening. This way you will have a record of incidents which all together may form a picture when seen over the long term. You will also have some examples to talk about one-on-one with students when the opportunity arises, or during parent-teacher meetings.
As we know, bullying can happen in any environment. It is not specifically tied to ELLs. However, being that they are seen as different, ELLs become easy targets for a bully. The hope is that the more we stand together against bullying the more ELLs will feel comfortable coming forward and reporting their experiences.
In a recent article in the Boston Globe titled, Schools Seeing Shift on Bullying, it was reported that bullying in Massachusetts has seen a shift due to students taking a more direct role in reporting bullying incidents and showing a united support against bullying. There is only so much a teacher and parent can do to help prevent the kind of physical and emotional attacks caused by bullying. Supporting students in their own efforts to stand up against bullying may be just the solution needed to help ELLs find a more comfortable atmosphere in school.
Photo credit: Chesi – Foto CC
Have you ever had to confront bullying in your classroom? What are your tips on helping English Language Learners deal with bullying? Where have you found the most support in helping to prevent bullying in your classroom?