Address issues of bias and bullying at four levels

A comprehensive approach to addressing bullying includes examining issues at four levels.

Issues related to bullying and bias are complex and require careful and intentional approaches to address effectively. It’s not helpful to simply blame kids and label them as “bullies” and “victims.” Instead, it’s important to step back and examine the issues through a broader lens that allows us to understand what’s contributing to bullying and other hurtful behaviors. Because bullying behaviors are often connected to issues of human differences, it’s essential that we help young people learn about bias and other issues related to gender, race, class, disabilities, sexual orientation and other differences.

One way educators, youth development professionals and families can address these concerns is to learn more about how these issues play out in the lives of kids (and adults) at four levels: Personal, interpersonal, institutional and cultural.

Four levels of bias and change

  1. Personal: Attitudes, feelings, beliefs
  2. Interpersonal: Actions, behaviors, language
  3. Institutional: Rules, policies, practices, procedures
  4. Cultural: “Beauty,” “truth,” “right,” “normal”

The personal level encompasses the feelings, beliefs, values and attitudes we hold in our heads and in our hearts. This level includes bias, prejudices and stereotypes we hold about ourselves and others. These beliefs and attitudes may be conscious or unconscious. An example at the personal level is beliefs held about how a boy “should” look or act or how a girl “should” look or act.

The interpersonal level is where our beliefs play out in our actions, language and behaviors. For example, if I hold rigid beliefs about gender, I might expect girls to wear pink and pastels, and play with dolls and fashion accessories. I might also encourage boys to shun all things pink and play with trucks and action toys. Kids learn these rigid “rules” early on from a variety of messages around them and learn to police each other around issues of gender (and other differences) in ways that are not helpful to their overall development. These beliefs and actions related to gender are linked with issues of bullying in important ways. In a recent study involving teachers and elementary school children, 23 percent of the students said that the reason kids get bullied is for being a boy who acts or looks “too much like a girl” or a girl who acts or looks “too much like a boy.” According to the study, gender nonconforming students are less likely than other students to feel very safe at school (42 percent versus 61 percent), and are more likely than others to be called names, made fun of or bullied at school (56 percent versus 33 percent). In other words, rigid ideas and beliefs about how girls and boys are “supposed to be” that are held by adults and kids play out in our language, actions and behaviors, and contribute to who gets bullied and why.

The Institutional level includes written and unwritten rules, policies, practices and procedures in all of the organizations and institutions in which children, youth and adults live, learn, work and grow. These include schools, out-of-school youth programs, faith communities, recreation programs, sports and families. Policies and practices in these institutions that reinforce rigid gender rules may contribute to bullying behaviors when boys and girls are pigeonholed into narrow options for toys, games, sports and other activities. In addition, when boys’ activities (such as football) are lifted up and recognized with pep rallies, bands, cheerleaders and parades, while girls sports go largely unnoticed and unrecognized, girls and boys (and men and women) receive powerful messages about who is valued in the institution and who is not.

The cultural level includes what groups value and consider “beautiful,” “true,” and “normal.” For example, we all experience a steady media diet of messages that portray boys and men as strong, muscular, aggressive, violent and “hard.” Girls and women are often valued almost exclusively for their appearance and bodies with “beautiful,” defined as thin, light-skinned, flowing hair, no blemishes and wrinkle-free.

While the examples of the four levels shared in this article focus on gender, we can apply this framework to race, ethnicity, disabilities and many other areas of human differences. While hurtful, mean-spirited bullying behaviors happen at these four levels – so does positive change. Adults have important roles to play in helping children and youth learn about differences in healthy ways.  

You can learn more about addressing the complex issues of bullying, bias and harassment through a new Michigan State University Extension resource called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments. You can download a free PDF of the 32-page Introduction section of Be SAFE or order a copy of the 224-page curriculum at the MSU Extension Bookstore.

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