English language learners (ELLs) are often the targets of bullying. Accented language and cultural customs that are perceived as different frequently cause ELLs to be victimized by bullies. Bullying is evident in the classroom as early as preschool, and there are potentially many long-lasting effects of bullying for the victim. Children who are bullied have low self-esteem and tend to be anxious and insecure. They are often lonely and depressed. Because of bullying, their social skills are typically deficient, making it difficult for them to make friends (Nansel et al., 2001).
There are many types of bullying. Physical bullying is composed of actions such as hitting, pushing, and punching; verbal bullying includes name-calling and teasing; and emotional bullying consists of behaviors such as excluding someone from an activity.
How Families of ELLs Perceive Bullying
ELLs are most often the victims of verbal and emotional bullying. Their parents are not likely to report bullying to the school unless the child is physically hurt. In my experience, parents of ELLs do not recognize the emotional damage that bullying can cause in children. Parents often perceive that verbal and emotional bullying is a normal part of growing up. Furthermore, ELLs who are victims of bullies are usually reluctant to draw attention to themselves and are embarrassed to talk to their parents and teachers about their problems.
Four Strategies to Help ELLs Deal With Bullies
As ESL teachers, we must encourage our students to bring incidences of bullying to the ESL classroom. Helping our students learn the language they need in order to deal with bullies should be part of our curriculum. ELLs need to understand the information about bullying that is being taught in their general education classroom through simplified language, visuals, and peer translation. During the ESL class, real language should be used for an authentic purpose. When the material is being taught in the general education classroom, ELLs are able to participate in activities with their English-speaking peers. The same language is reinforced in both classrooms and is used by students in multiple school settings such as the playground, school bus, and cafeteria. In this way, the ESL classroom provides language learning opportunities that are relevant and meaningful to students.
Here are some strategies I’ve found beneficial for helping ELLs to deal with bullies.
1. Get Help
English learners need to be encouraged to ask an adult and/or peers for help. Bystanders to bullying incidents should be taught to speak up and help students who are being bullied. It can’t be emphasized enough that bullying is a problem for everyone in the school, not just the bullies and their victims. ESL teachers should help ELLs role-play and practice asking for help during a bullying incident. The language of asking for help should be taught at the students’ English language development level.
2. Assert Yourself
ELLs need to be taught to stand up for themselves in a nonconfrontational way. ELLs will usually not assert themselves while the actual bullying incident is happening. They might, however, bring the problem to the ESL class. ESL teachers can help by going over assertive language with students. ELLs often need to deal with bullies from their own cultural background, and this strategy works well because they can assert themselves in their first language. Role playing and practicing is key to learning this strategy. Students may also draw and label pictures to illustrate asserting themselves.
3. Avoid Bullies
Often ELLs will be bullied when they are alone. The victim of bullying should try to avoid being alone on the playground. Students with limited English are encouraged to team with more proficient speakers of English and stay together during recess. Building community and encouraging classmates to be of assistance to each other goes a long way in helping ELLs avoid problems with bullies. In ESL class, students can try to identify a behavior that might encourage bullying. For example, if the victim of bullying cries or looks sad, they are more likely to be a repeat target. This is especially true if they did not report the problems to their classroom teachers or the aides on the playground.
4. Learn Self-Talk
As previously stated, an adverse effect of bullying for the victim is low self-esteem. In order to minimize that consequence, children can be shown how to “self-talk.” They can be taught to tell themselves positive statements such as “I am a good person. It is not my fault that I am being bullied. When someone bullies me, I don’t have to take it. I like myself.” Students in ESL class are encouraged to self-talk in their native language and to write down their self-talk in their primary language and practice saying it to themselves. This is an important part of helping ELLs deal with bullies. ELLs need to feel convinced that it is their job to report bullies and to help their friends, and that they have a right to a bully-free environment in school.
This blog is based on a chapter in Authenticity in the Language Classroom and Beyond (Dantas-Whitney & Rilling, 2010), entitled “Sticks and Stones: Preventing Bullying in the Elementary School,” by Joann Frechette and Judie Haynes.