Bullying and ELLs: What Teachers Can Do

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.

About Kristen Lindahl

Kristen Lindahl
Kristen Lindahl holds a PhD in linguistics with a specialization in L2 teacher education from the University of Utah. She is currently assistant professor of bicultural-bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she teaches pre-service ESL/TESOL educators at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. Dr. Lindahl has taught K–12 and college ESL, and actively pursues consulting and coaching teachers of English learners in public and English language schools around the globe.
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4 Responses to Bullying and ELLs: What Teachers Can Do

  1. Two more things I would like to add to this post.

    First, with respect to technology, many ELL students are significantly handicapped compared to L1 students and even to most ELL students raised in this nation or other developed nations. Especially when these students come from Third World regions, their knowledge of educational technology is likely to be scant. Not surprisingly, this is also true of their parents and guardians.

    A corollary to this is that when it comes to expecting secondary students (and/or their parents and guardians) to access the School Information System (PowerSchool, IC, Skyward, etc), the likelihood is that none of these people will be able to successfully navigate these systems without significant help.

    The logical extension to this is my second point, which is that some adult (and teenage) education in the use of these systems needs to take place. If the community offers ESL classes for adults, then try to include at least this much technology into these classes. If this is NOT done, the parents and guardians of the ELL students are unable to help their students as modern parents are expected to in the developed world.

    There are two important corollaries to this second point.

    First, even when ELL students are no longer being bullied for their own lack of English proficiency, they are very, very often the targets of other students’ ridicule of their parents who (chances are) will not learn English as quickly as their sons and daughters. Since modern parents must do more than simply make lunches, attend school concerts and plays for their offspring, it is VITAL that the parents and guardians of modern ELL students be enabled to fully function as modern parents of students. If they do not, their offspring will continue to be bullied due to their parents’ lack of technological expertise as well as for their “weird” accents or speech.

    Secondly, try to ensure that the School Information System which your school (or district or state) uses, is at least somewhat user-friendly to people who are not highly experienced in educational technology or English. In my experience (as a teacher of some years in teaching ELL students), one of the better systems is PowerSchool. It is fairly user friendly and offers some translations. The others are (in order of merit when I last used them) Skyward, Infinite Campus and Echo.

  2. madisonln says:

    I looked specifically at the section of this post on how we can protect ELLs from bullying in the classroom or at school and at the tips provided by Colorin Colorado. I really liked that it is mentioned that it is crucial in the classroom to set clear guidelines for how students should be treated in the classroom. Similarly, examples should be given for how students should act and treat one another. Non-examples can be provided to students as well, so students can know how to respond or react if they are treated unfairly, or see one of their classmates being mistreated. On the teacher side of things it is very important to inform both administration and parents of any unfair treatment of students. Sometimes taking notes of what happened can help with keeping record of these occurrences. Having a record helps to keep track of what type of bullying is happening and helps to notice if it is a reoccurring issue. As a class, set consequences so students know and understand what will happen if students choose not to obey the class expectations for treating all students equally. No bullying. Following through with these consequences will be very important so that students know this is a very serious matter, and that they will be held accountable for their unkind words and actions against not only ELLs but all students.

  3. Molly Watson says:

    This post offers so many insightful tips and things to keep in mind regarding bullying and ELLs. The fact that they most likely will already be more timid and feeling different than their peers is overwhelming enough in the first place. It’s so important to always keep in mind what we, as teachers, are going to do to be proactive in this situation. This begins with our own actions and words. It’s so easy to say something that we don’t even think of as being hurtful, but in reality, we could be really offending somebody.

  4. Emily Pleasants says:

    Bullying is such an important topic to be discussed, especially where ELLs are concerned. I love that you included resources for teachers to assist them in finding ways to prevent bullying in their own classroom. One of my big take-aways from this article is to ensure that your individual classroom is a safe learning space for all students by not dividing students and strictly regulating when they can utilize their L1 and L2. It was a new idea to me that the way that your classroom is structured can allow bullying, but it makes complete sense! Teaching tolerance is a great way to begin the year and make sure that the atmosphere in your classroom is productive and comfortable from the very beginning.

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