Bullying Prevention: It Can Start with ESPs

From her post in Leslie Middle School’s office, Debbie Pavon knows what to do when she spots one of her “frequent fliers.” That’s what this education support professional (ESP) calls students who land again and again in the principal’s office for being disruptive. Sometimes, they’re bullies. Other times, they’re the ones who have been bullied.

“They’re not bad kids, they just make bad choices,” says Pavon. She offers them a listening ear, and helps them talk through their problems. “Some of these kids just need the extra one-on-one attention.”

ESPs like Pavon are in a unique position to combat the bullying that has become endemic to schools. According to the new NEA report, “Nationwide Study of Bullying: Teachers’ and Education Support Professionals’ Perspectives,” 91% of ESPs think it is their job to intervene in instances of bullying and harassment, and research is just beginning to show how vital they are to making schools bully-free.

First, ESPs tend to be very personally connected to their students because they are more likely to live in the community served by their school and get to know students in settings outside the classroom.

“I listen to students to know when they are having a good day or a bad day. I want to know their concerns and problems,” says Dave Arnold, head custodian at Illinois’ Brownstown Elementary. “Students are often afraid to talk to teachers, but don’t usually look at an ESP as being as much of a threat to them as an administrator or a teacher.”

Like Arnold, Pavon recognizes how key it can be for students to have a caring adult lending a listening ear. Though a little out of her comfort zone as a bookkeeper, it’s a strategy she knows can help.

“If that changes one kid’s life to say, ‘Somebody does care to stop what they’re doing and help me,’ and say, ‘You know what? I am special,’ it makes me feel good. Hopefully it’ll make them turn their life around,” she says.

From their positions on school buses, on the playground or in the lunchroom, ESPs are also more likely to overhear or see bullying directly. The NEA study found that a significant portion of bullying unfolds in these unstructured areas.

“ESPs are usually the first line responders to students who are being bullied,” says Lorie Miner, a Wasilla, Alaska special education assistant.

Lorie Miner (standing) and Dave Arnold at the anti-bullying workshop at the recent 2011 NEA ESP Conference. Credit: Andrea Kane

Miner teaches anti-bullying workshops, including one titled, “The Important Role of ESPs in Student Bullying Prevention and Intervention,” which she presented at the recent NEA ESP Conference. In it, she provided strategies for ESPs to offset bullying, including working with colleagues to draw a map of these bullying hotspots and asking students to do the same. Schools can post staff members in the corners of the building where bullies lurk.

This idea mirrors the work of Dr. Stephen Leff, one of the only researchers who has focused specifically on these ESP-targeted zones. In a study on preventative playground strategies, for instance, researchers found that dividing elementary school play into specific, engaging activities, with clear supervision by a monitor, reduced aggression and upped cooperation.

Stopping bullying in its tracks requires collaboration between ESPs, teachers and administrators. Still, many ESPs miss out on training that may be provided to other school personnel. ESPs in the NEA study reported that they needed more professional development about how to intervene in bullying. Some schools are beginning to recognize that, including their ESPs in sessions about state anti-bullying laws and school policies.

Pavon enrolled in Miner’s anti-bullying workshop at the ESP conference because she wanted to know how to better assist students. As she left, she said she’ll looking at anti-bullying resources, including NEA’s Bully Free: It Starts With Me campaign, and she may present information to her colleagues at a staff meeting.

“Everybody needs to be involved,” she says. For her fellow ESPs, she says to keep an eye out for the frequent fliers in your school – your help might be just what they need.