What I Learned From My Childhood Bully

Amy Lauren Smith

Editor's note: Bullying is a serious issue, and Choices teacher-advisor Amy Lauren Smith--a 6th to 8th grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher's Guide each month--understands this from a personal perspective. Her advice will help you understand what students may be going through and what certain bullying-prevention steps can be effective.

A few weeks ago, I got an email from a former classmate. Having recently started a 12-step program, he had written to offer me amends. I was surprised by the gesture--not only because I hadn't seen him in over 25 years, but because in the process of reaching out to all those he had harmed in his life, he felt the need to include me on that list.

It's not that I didn't remember being bullied. As a teenager who struggled with obesity, I was the constant target of many of the kids at my school. It was just that I didn't remember him as being the worst of them.

That's why I found this exchange especially meaningful--not just personally, but also as someone who teaches and writes about bullying. It serves as further evidence that the effects of bullying can stay with the bully, as well as the bullied, long after the initial damage is done.

I know how the experience impacted me--when I moved away to college, I began taking care of myself and became a health teacher. I was determined to help kids as they struggled to find the right path. But I hadn't thought much about how the experience had impacted any of the other kids involved.

Hearing from the one of my old bullies all these years later, I'm reminded of the importance of what we do, and of the need for early prevention. Here are some efficient strategies for handling bullying at your school.

1. Discipline that shifts from zero-tolerance to positive behavior change

In his email, my classmate pointed out what I already knew--he was acting out because he had some pretty big issues of his own. He was a teenager, and he needed help. An ineffective zero-tolerance policy would have removed him from the situation without offering him the chance to discover what had lead him there in the first place.

Check out the bullying prevention resources from Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports.

2. Initiatives that are started by students, rather than teachers and staff

It doesn't need to be an official program. The lasting memory I had of my classmate wasn't of a time that he bullied me; it was of the time when he finally stopped. He decided one day that he'd been too hard on me, and let me know me he would tell his friends to back off too. From that moment I felt safer, like I had an ally, and that's what I remembered the most.

Read about these teens who bounced back to help fight bullying.

3. Health classes that put the focus on healthy coping skills

It took me years to understand how much of an impact my emotions had on my weight, and the stress of constant bullying wasn't driving me to make better choices either. My classmate had struggles of his own, but rather than food, he turned to bullying and--as is often the case with those who are bullies--eventually alcohol and drugs. If we teach kids healthy ways to deal with stress, maybe we can prevent them from causing harm to themselves and others as they try to figure it out on their own.

Try this unit plan designed to help kids recognize their healthy coping skills.

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