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Ask an Expert: When a teacher doesn't notice classroom bullying

Q. What advice can you give when the children bullying your child do it quietly. My son is 11 years old. Tattling is frowned upon. He gets harassed one-on-one when the teacher is not looking. Then when I find out about it, I get the common response, ‘I will look into it.’ I let the teacher know that the other boys dislike my son. The teacher always goes along with what the five boys who are doing the bullying say. The teacher believes that if those boys are saying the same thing, then my son is lying. Getting tired of it. So what to do?

A. Your situation, regretfully, is commonly how bullying works and why it is maddening for parents of a bullied child. First, let me shed some light on the social dynamic your son is caught up in and then give you some actions you can take to help him.

Tattling vs. telling

“Tattling is frowned upon.” By whom? And should that stop you from helping your son? In lawless cultures, such as street gangs, there is a saying, “snitches get stitches.” The purpose is to keep power and punishment in the hands of those at the top the hierarchy. Gang leaders deal harshly with snitching or tattling to outside authorities, which does little to keep victims from being bullied and oppressed. As I explained to one of my students just last week, the bullies are trying to prevent the bullied – my student and your son – from getting help from someone who could stop them from bullying their victim.

In your son’s case, it sounds like working this out within his peer group is not working. Therefore, telling (not tattling) a trusted authority that he is being attacked by a pack of boys is one recourse he, and you, should take advantage of. If anything, you will have a record of your son being bullied. As evidence mounts you may have to take your son’s case to a higher authority than his present teacher given that s/he doesn’t seem to believe your son.

Alerting school authorities can also be as covert as the bullying. Students do not have to know that administrators are keeping an eye on them for bullying, nor do students have to be told that your son has reported his situation. Bullies do not have to know how they got caught to be stopped. This strategy can help take away the stigma the children have about invoking higher authority.

Bullying is opportunistic

Most bullying is done when teachers cannot see it. Bullying is opportunistic for the simple fact that if teachers see it they can stop the bullying. Bullies know that teachers cannot see every interaction, and at times are willing to overlook or minimize what they do see so they can get on with teaching.

You son may also be the victim of “The Halo Effect,” where a preferred trait spills over to other qualities whether or not it is true, e.g. a tall, attractive man would also make a good president. If these other students are well-liked by the teacher and get good grades, the teacher may be fooled by this aura and be less likely to believe that they could be bullying your son. Paradoxically, being popular makes it easier to bully other students.

So what to do?

  • Get as much specific information about the bullying as you can–listen compassionately to your son’s stories, as hard as this might be. Document the full scope of the bullying from your son’s viewpoint, from beginning to the present, including: what happened, who was involved, how your son tried to handle the situation and what the results were.
  • Follow up with his teacher. “I will look into it,” is a vague response that requires clarifying. Ask the teacher what s/he has uncovered after “looking into it.” Did the teacher give your son any advice on how to handle these situations, or is s/he relying on your son to handle things on your own? Holding the teacher accountable for your son’s safety while under his/her care may change the teacher’s view of the situation and make him/her more vigilant to the bullying.
  • Talk to your son about what responses to bullying you consider acceptable. Let him know you are behind him; this alone will give him some confidence in standing up for himself. Role-play responses to the type of bullying he usually faces (without more specific scenarios I cannot give you more specific responses). While having the school and his parents on his side help and will bolster his confidence, it is ultimately up to your son to face the bullies using the tools you have given him.
  • Consistency is key. You mentioned that by the time your son reported the bullying to the teacher it wasn’t the first time he was a target. Responding to the bullying with a firm, confident rebuke each and every time sends the clear message that your son will not be a passive victim and may even earn the respect of these other boys.

Feel free to contact me at if you have more specific details and/or need further advice or post your results on this site.

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