As both children and speakers of other languages, school-age English learners are particularly vulnerable to bullying. This blog helps teachers and teacher educators recognize signs and causes of bullying and presents some steps they can take to prevent it.
Know what to look for. Stopbullying.gov presents warning signs of bullying, for children who might be getting bullied or those who might be bullying others. Signs that a child might be the subject of bullying at school include unexplainable injuries, lost or destroyed clothing or other personal items, reluctance to go to school, or self-harming behaviors such as running away from home or hurting themselves. If you suspect bullying or know someone who is in immediate danger, StopBullying.gov outlines the steps to get help now.
Protect ELLs from bullying in the classroom or at school. Colorín Colorado recently published a blog on 8 Tips to Protect ELLs from Bullying. These tips include setting clear guidelines for your class, giving clear examples of what constitutes bullying, and informing parents and administrators when you suspect bullying. Two points from this blog that I feel are worth emphasizing are that (1) teachers need to take what their students tell them seriously; chalking it up to “kids will be kids” can have serious, if not disastrous, consequences for those involved; and (2) Parents of both L1 English speakers and ELLs need to be reminded that bullying is not just something to be expected when a child moves to a new place. The article cautions, “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“ [my emphasis].
Understand how your own classroom policies (official or unofficial) might encourage bullying. In a recent study presented at the Conference on Immersion and Dual Language Education hosted by the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, Maria Del Rosario Talamantes presented findings that English learners tended to bully each other in classes where rigid separation of languages took place. When teachers tightly restricted when students could use English and when they could use their L1 (Spanish), it created a power dynamic that pitted students against each other based on their language proficiency. Take away message for teachers: Be aware of how your own classroom policies (official and unofficial) impact how students treat each other, and don’t assume that ELLs are always responsible for helping each other. They are all under extreme stress and pressure to learn a new language, and because many are children, they may not be able or willing to take on the additional task of helping a peer. The teacher is ultimately responsible for making students feel comfortable and accepted.
Realize that bullying may not be overt. ELLs may suffer micro aggressions, or the everyday slights, snubs, or subtle insults that target people from different marginalized groups (according to Psychology Today). Often, micro aggressions occur without people even realizing that they’re committing them, which makes them difficult to address. Teachers might be communicating these negative messages without even realizing it.
Recently, a micro aggression went viral after a college professor told a Latina student that the word “hence” was “not her language” and accused her of plagiarism. In response, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on recent efforts on behalf of colleges to train professors to recognize implicit bias and address it in the classroom.
Seek ways to stop bullying before it can start. Teaching Tolerance published an insightful piece titled, “Lonely Language Learners,” about how isolating the lives of young ELLs can be. Promoting interaction and grouping structures that enable students to build their own social networks are crucial to today’s classrooms, and teachers need to deliberately focus on how they’re grouping students and why. It’s important to remember that allowing students from varying L1 backgrounds to be in groups other than ability or proficiency-level groups exposes all kids to “multiple ways of thinking, solving problems, and living in this world.” This richness of experience is one of the greatest resources that students bring to all language classrooms.