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Ways to Create Welcoming, Bully-free Online Learning Environments

By Vicki Nishioka | June 10, 2020

Vicki Nishioka
Vicki Nishioka is a senior research advisor at Education Northwest with extensive experience in evaluation and technical assistance focusing on equity, school climate, discipline, and social and emotional learning in preK—12.

Given our current educational reality, many students are spending a lot more time online with varying levels of adult supervision—a situation that emphasizes the need to prevent cyberbullying and ensure students who are targets of bullying get help.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, most students believed cyberbullying was a major problem; in a recent Pew Research Center survey, 59 percent of teenagers reported being bullied or harassed online. They also believed teachers, social media, and lawmakers were not doing enough to address this issue.

Cyberbullying involves intentionally harming someone over time by sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or threatening content using cellphones, computers, or other digital devices.

It can range from overt aggression (such as name-calling, threats, or mean teasing) to relational aggression in which rumors, lies, or private information is shared to embarrass a student or harm their relationship with others. Cyberbullying can also involve deception in which a student pretends to be someone else to get or post information to hurt others.

Whether it occurs in virtual or in-person settings, bullying can cause lifelong harm to the student being targeted, student bystanders, and the student who engages in the bullying behaviors.

Research on preventing cyberbullying in virtual learning environments is limited. However, many strategies that prevent cyberbullying in schools can be applied to online learning environments:

Establish Clear Classroom Expectations

Just as they would in a physical classroom setting, teachers should set up rules about respectful language and appropriate behavior—with input that represents their students' diverse racial, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds. This is important for many reasons. Students can provide a vital perspective on how youth and adults can treat each other with respect and kindness in virtual classrooms. They may also be aware of how students can feel hurt or disrespected via social media and offer ways to deal with these situations. In addition, by drawing on students' experiences and incorporating student voice, teachers can make online classroom expectations more relevant and up to date.

Lead Conversations with Empathy

These last few months have been challenging for students. Adults can help by making intentional efforts to learn how each student is doing and using empathy to ensure each student feels emotionally supported. In addition, adults can share stories about how the pandemic has affected them, which will show students that they are not alone in feeling scared or stressed. Further, the uncertainty the pandemic creates has elevated the importance of making sure that for every redirection or correction they experience, students receive at least five positive statements. These could include praise for trying, showing empathy, participating in online class activities, asking questions, or supporting others.

Teach, Model, and Coach Students in Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Skills

During this difficult time, it is especially important to nurture emotionally supportive relationships. Accordingly, educators should teach, model, and coach students in SEL skills, such as communicating respectfully, expressing empathy, managing frustration or other strong emotions, and handling conflicts. Students should also learn about the long-term harm cyberbullying causes and how to report concerns-even if it is just a feeling that something is not right. In addition, students need to know what to do if they witness or are the target of cyberbullying (including how to report the incident and the importance of saving and not forwarding harmful messages).

Engage Families from the Outset

Families play an important role in understanding how to create welcoming, culturally responsive learning environments. Educators should reach out to families regarding their views about safe use of social media, problems they have noticed, and their suggestions for protecting the social and emotional safety of all students. Educators should also ensure all families know the online learning guidelines and expectations students have helped create and agreed to follow. This communication should be delivered in an accessible format (for example, in a letter rather than an email if Internet access is unavailable) and personalized (for example, provided in a family's home language). In addition, these outreach efforts should include general tips about keeping their children safe online, as well as information on the importance of intervening in cyberbullying situations and what families should do if their child is the target, a bystander, or the student who is bullying classmates.

Recognize Cyberbullying and Intervene Immediately

Educators need to be vigilant in identifying cyberbullying situations—and when they do, they need to intervene at once. Specifically, they should:

Investigate immediately and save evidence of the bullying incidents. All school staff members should be trained on identifying and responding to cyberbullying. In addition, school leaders should designate a trained employee to investigate cyberbullying complaints and take steps to prevent future occurrences. If possible, arrange for the removal of the harmful messages or posts. If not, report the cyberbullying to the social media site and advocate that it remove the harmful messages or posts.

Ensure the student who is the target of the cyberbullying is safe and provide support, as well as reassurance. Providing emotional support to students who are targets of cyberbullying is critical; they need to know they are not to blame. They also need to know the plans for keeping them safe. If needed, emotional or mental health support should be provided.

Increase supervision and create an intervention plan for the student who is engaged in cyberbullying. Educators and parents or caregivers should make sure the student's access to and use of all digital devices is supervised to ensure bullying behavior does not occur. Further, a multidisciplinary team should develop an intervention plan with family input to help the student safely engage in learning activities. The team should also determine whether referrals to law enforcement, mental health, or other community supports are needed.