The research is clear: children and youth who are bullied over time are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Bullying—unwanted, aggressive behavior that strikes a power imbalance—makes a damaging impact on mental health. Factor in technology and its ability to amplify bullying behavior on a global platform, and the effects can be devastating to young minds.
When many of us think of bullying, we imagine schoolyard fights and name-calling on the bus. But today’s bullies have more tools at their disposal, including social media sites like Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok and Twitter. Social media has changed the power dynamic, giving bullies more influence than they previously held.
Creighton Runnette, senior school counselor at Shady Side Academy, said the academy’s anti-bullying measures take all these factors into account, with mental health at the forefront of the school’s guiding principles on handling bullying. Shady Side uses a restorative practices lens when dealing with bullying through engagement, teaching, and learning practices, counseling, and self-awareness. Its policies and practices shift the focus from intent to impact.
“Part of the restorative process is seeing how your actions impacted others,” said Runnette. “Shady Side uses restorative practices with a proactive and reactive approach. Throughout the process of student discipline, we focus on the principles that center on relationship-building and repair, creating pathways for safety and trust. Shady Side’s restorative practice model relies on authentic engagement, communication, agency, and choice for all impacted community members.”
Bullying victims can access a school-based mental health program that helps them process and recover from the situation. Shady Side partnered with the Allegheny Health Network (AHN) in 2021 to bring The Chill Project to the academy. The project is a mindfulness-based wellness program that serves students, faculty, staff and parents.
“Families play a large role in how children behave, so we see them as part of the solution,” said Runnette.
The Chill Project includes 3 components:
A ‘Chill Room’ on campus where students can go to de-escalate and regain a sense of calm.
Access to mindfulness instruction provided by a full-time, school-based wellness educator.
Access to on-site therapy with a full-time, school-based counselor.
Kids also can receive off-campus counseling services if their needs extend beyond what Shady Side Academy can accommodate.
Moving forward, Shady Side plans to focus its efforts on preventative measures. “There is purpose and intention behind their behavior,” said Runnette. “The healthier people are, the less likely they are to act out.”
At Seneca Valley School District in Butler County, Dr. Jeffrey Roberts, director of student services, said the focus is on empowering students. “The most important thing we can do is empower bystanders to become upstanders,” he said.
Seneca Valley’s L.E.A.D. (Learn, Explore, Act, Develop) anti-bullying program teaches students how to stand up to bullying by self-advocating and advocating on behalf of their peers. “L.E.A.D. recognizes that bullying is a behavior and not a person,” said Dr. Roberts, adding that when it comes to cyberbullying, it often happens outside of school, but affects the in-school environment.
Like Shady Side Academy, Seneca Valley believes in a program that supports both the bully and the victim, offering mental health services and other supports to address the behavior. “Bullies usually lack self-confidence,” said Dr. Roberts. “Sometimes they have an area of weakness that causes them to lash out. We recognize that both the bully and the victim may need support.”
It doesn’t mean that bullies don’t face consequences for their behaviors, however. “We have to address both mental health and discipline,” said Dr. Roberts. “There have to be consequences for the bullying behavior.”
In addition to school-based therapy offered to students and their families, Seneca Valley also partnered with Care Solace services to offer an additional layer of care for the school community. Care Solace helps students and their families find mental health care providers and substance abuse treatment centers. It works as a complementary resource to other mental health and counseling services that the district offers in-house.
“We’re big advocates for family-based counseling,” said Dr. Roberts. “We recognize that bullying is a symptom rather than a root cause.”
Focusing on mental health is the strategy that improves future outcomes, he added. “Punishment is just an immediate punitive consequence.”
All secondary buildings in the Seneca Valley School District also have mindfulness rooms where students can access a quiet, calming place to collect themselves. “If I feel like I’m out of sorts, there are things I can do before I blow up on someone,” said Dr. Roberts.
Focusing on education and relationship-building skills early in school can help prevent future bullying, said Lezlie DelVecchio-Marks, a K-3 school counselor in the Shaler Area School District and the 2022 Pennsylvania School Counselor of the Year for the American School Counselor Association.
“Our school counselors focus all year on relationship-building and self-advocacy,” she said. “We teach the difference between bullying and mean behavior and how to stand up for oneself and others. We recognize the youngest (elementary) level is where we can really begin to make an impact on students’ lives.”
A social-emotional component in their curriculum teaches students how to build relationships and solve problems, which can make an impact in reducing instances of bullying.
“It is hard for students to truly learn if we don’t address their social-emotional needs,” said DelVecchio-Marks. “Social-emotional learning can help students regulate and manage emotions, which can lead to academic success.”
Shaler’s elementary schools also use a tiered system that addresses bullying behavior to minimize the impact on student mental health. Tiers I and II classroom and small-group instruction can lead to in-house counseling and other services for the victim and the aggressor. Tier III is reserved for the most serious bullying situations and often requires a referral to an outside agency for counseling and other mental health therapy services. Shaler partners with Mercy Behavioral Health to address the mental health needs of students who fall into that third tier.
A large part of the anti-bullying program at the elementary level in Shaler focuses on inspiring and empowering children. Shaler’s equity, inclusion and belonging (EIB) initiative helps students feel comfortable and accepted.
While young children who engage in bullying behavior face consequences, DelVecchio-Marks said they also receive the mental health and other behavioral counseling supports they need.
“We support our kids who have been bullied, but we also support the kids who make mistakes,” she said. “Bullies can have trauma in their lives that may contribute to their behavior. We want them to understand that life is about making mistakes and learning from them, and we hope that they will take these newly discovered lessons and skills into the real world.”