The Guide for Creating Student Bullying Focus Groups

An essential way to hear student concerns about school safety, their ideas for reducing bullying and creating a safe and caring school, and gather evidence-based data about bullying. The facilitators guide for setting up Student Bullying Focus Groups

Defining bullying terms to a high school Student Bullying Focus Group

I’ve found one of the simplest ways to find out where bullying happens at a school is to arrange student focus groups and then ask the kids. I’ve created and then used the Student Bullying Focus Groups model in dozens of U.S. schools as well as in Taiwan, Canada, and Germany, and each time I hear not only some of the best solutions for stopping peer cruelty, but also heart-wrenching comments from the students. Here is just a sample of their ideas:

“Bullying always happens during hall passing–too many kids. Tell teachers to stand in the halls.”

“The safest place is the library. Bullies never go there, it’s quiet, librarians are strict…you can breathe.”

“Kids always exclude kids in the cafeteria. Mix up the seating so they meet other kids.”

“My friend is bullied so bad she wishes she didn’t wake up, but no one helps her. Get a place where she can go and feel safe! Why doesn’t the school have reporting boxes?”

“Teachers just need to tune into students. Just knowing someone cares and is watching makes a difference. If they walk into the halls and look in the cafeteria and even in the bathrooms they’d see a lot!”

“We need to know skills to step I and help. Students could stop the bullying if we learned how. We don’t all like to be bystanders, you know.”

“There’s so much bullying that we don’t feel safe. No one believes us. Thanks for listening to us.” And then that precious child started to cry. The child sitting next to her cried, I cried, and we all hugged.

Leading a middle school Student Bullying Focus Group

The goal of creating Student Bullying Focus Groups is to give students the chance to voice their views about school safety and bullying. After all, effective bullying prevention is always evidence-based and involves students. By asking students key questions in a safe venue the right facilitator can learn not only bullying trends at a school, but also their ideas to make the school safer. In one 60-minute session students will tell you bullying frequency, most prevalent types, why it happens and where it occurs. Students will also tell you which bullying prevention strategies work-and don’t-and give concrete suggestions to improve school climate and reduce peer cruelty. Let’s listen to the kids! They need to be heard!

Guidelines for Student Bullying Focus Groups

I’ve created these guidelines and then used them dozens of times. I’ve also refined them dozens more times. The following guide is what I feel is most effective in gathering bullying data from students, but adapt them to meet your focus group objectives and the district or school’s needs.

  • Choose an adult (no more than two) who has facilitation training and experience working with students. The person must be a good listener, be someone students trust and respect, and have enough knowledge about bullying to be able to ask questions that will help generate answers for bullying prevention implementation. Students are often more open to sharing with an adult who is not on the school staff.
  • Prior to the session explain the focus group objectives and show questions to the administrator. Ensure permission is granted.
  • Ask counselors, homeroom teachers, or administrators to nominate students. “Ideal” participants are verbal (unafraid of voicing opinions), have peer respect, and represent different peer groups. Students should be a cross-section of the school culture including: race, cliques, activities, and academic levels (like a member of the band, football team, chess club, cheerleader squad, car club, debate, prom princess, volleyball, etc.). The administrator can select 8-12 students per focus group from nominations.
  • Pick a comfortable setting so students can sit at desks or at two long tables put into an “L” shape.
  • Set aside 45 minutes to an hour or the length of one class period for the meeting.
  • Ask a staff member to take notes. I’ve found that students are more open if there is one adult leading the group and the adult note-taker is inconspicuous during the session and an unknown to students.

Materials Needed Per Student Focus Session

  • Per student: 8 1/2 x 11” school map; nametag; 3 4”x6” index cards; a pencil, desk and chair
  • Per trainer: list of questions you want answers to; student names and ages; marking pens; flip chart

Introduce the Session

  • Greet students as they arrive. Ask them to write their first name on a nametag and wear it (wear one yourself). Create a friendly tone. Ask students to sit wherever they feel comfortable – or you can prearrange desks so that each has three index cards and a pencil per student then ask them to sit wherever there are cards.
  • Open the session. Introduce yourself, your role and your purpose. I generally say I’m an educator, writer and reporter who studies bullying and travel around the world and work in schools with students and teachers to help make schools safer. You might add why you are concerned about bullying and share a story or statistics about bullying to break the ice.
  • Student introductions. Ask students to make brief introductions with their name, grade, and anything they’d like to say.
  • Introduce note taker. You can take notes yourself, but I find it’s can be difficult keeping up with group momentum. If you have a note taker, introduce the person and her role.
  • Explain meeting purpose. Briefly describe your agenda and purpose of the group. Emphasize that you want to hear student views and concerns about bullying and school safety and any solutions. Explain that their ideas will be shared with the staff.  Mention that their selection was based on counselor/teacher nomination, because they are respected by their peers and have opinions that should be heard.
  • Emphasize confidentiality. Stress that the names of students will be kept anonymous. It sometimes helps to ask that the student sitting closest to the note taker or you check for no names. Students are more likely to open up knowing you are serious about confidentiality.
  • Set meeting rules: Emphasize that every opinion counts. There are no “right” or “wrong” ideas. Students may share ideas or write ideas on a card. Explain that they are there to represent their ideas as well as what they feel is their peers’ point of view.
  • Define terms: To ensure understanding, define bullying terms you will use based on student ages. You might write terms on chart paper. “Here is what I mean when we talk about bullying today…”
  • Bullying is an aggressive, cruel act that is usually repeated. The bully has more power (strength, status or size) so the victim cannot hold his own. The hurtful behavior is not an accident–it is always intentional or done on purpose.
  • There are five types of bullying: 1. Physical: hits, punches, kicks, slams, shoves, chokes, threatens with force or fear; 2. Verbal: taunts, name-calling, intimidates, insults, says humiliating, hurtful comments, etc.; 3. Emotional or relational: excludes, shuns, gossips or spreads mean, untrue things about someone; 4. Electronic or cyber bullying: using technology to harass, threaten, embarrass, or target another person with online threats, humiliating texts or photos, and mean tweets, posts, or messages; 5. Sexual: doing unwanted/inappropriate touches or comments, gestures, actions, or attention that is intended to hurt, offend, or intimidate another person, focusing on things like a person’s private body parts or sexual orientation in an offense way.
  • Hot spots are the places where bullying happens most often. Hot times are the time or days when bullying happens most often like Monday or ten o’clock.

A high school student from a focus group marks "hot spots" and "cool zones" for bullying in his school

Key Questions

  1. On a scale of 1-10 (1 hardly ever; 10 daily) how often do you see or experience bullying at school?  Ask students to think then raise their hands showing the frequency by the number of fingers raised-a less-threatening approach than verbalizing. Acknowledge that everyone seems to have a different idea –to be expected. Switch the scale to accommodate the type of data you need (monthly, weekly, daily, hourly)
  2. Define then discuss 5 types of bullying types. Have you seen someone bullied at school? What type of bullying was it? What happened? Did another student or teacher try to stop it? Is what happened more common or rare?
  3. Of the bullying types what kind is type you or your peers witness or experience? Why?
  4. Is there one class that bullies more than others? (K-6; Fr-Sr) Why? What might help reduce it?
  5. Give each student a school map. Ask if there are missing places or locations they cannot identify. Describe “hot spots and hot times. Cool spots or safe zones are places where students feel safest and bullying happens least. Circle eachcool spot on your map-the places where you’re least likely to see or hear bullying and where kids feel safest. Give students a few minutes. What are the safest places at school? Put a triangle on the place that you or your friends feel safest.
  6. What makes some spots safe (not safe)? What would make hot spots become cooler, safer zones? What could the school do to make hot spots safer?
  7. If you are a friend is bullied would he or she get help to stop it? Friends? Classmates? Teachers? Principal? Who would help/not help? Are there people to go to for help? Who (where) could he/she go where he might feel safe? Why are kids more likely to go to some adults more than others? What do adults do or say that would make you not (do) go to them for help? Put an H on places on your map where kids can go to get help.
  8.  Does your school have places or ways students can report a threat or bullying? If so, do students use those reporting options? Why or why not? What could a school do so that students are more likely to report bullying – either what they’ve seen or experienced themselves?”
  9. What about your peers or other students – if they see bullying do they try to help or not? Why? Do you or your friends know what to do if you witness bullying? What would help kids be more likely to not be a bystander or just watch but step in to help? Are there skills or techniques that a student needs to help them be less likely to be bullied or a bully? What are they?”
  10.  If you were the school principal or superintendent what would be the one thing you would do to make students feel safer or stop bullying? What could teachers do to reduce bullying? Ask students to write their suggestions or concerns on the cards and anything else they would like you to know.

Final Wrap Up

Thank students for their time and suggestions and tell them how you will be using their data. Ask: “Is there anything else you would like to ask or suggestions you would like to give about bullying? What question did I forget to ask?” Give kids the opportunity to talk to you alone following the session. Collect maps and cards. Consider creating a list of “Top 10 Student Ideas to Stop Bullying” based on students suggestions to give each participant when convenient so they realize you took their points seriously. Report key findings and trends to the administrator or staff and make recommendations for bullying prevention.

 © 2012 by Dr. Michele Borba: The 6 Rs to Reducing Bullying

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