Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Is it Bullying? How can we help kids become allies for one another?

I was a college basketball referee for many years, before retiring from the game a few years back.  We were taught a lesson to bring to our officiating that I have found plays out in life: No harm, no foul.  I remember players who would whine constantly and want me to call a foul over the slightest touch; whereas others understood that bumps and collisions were part of the game.  But, we were also taught never to ignore real fouls - the serious, consequential contact that created an advantage for one player over another. 

It is an apt metaphor for teaching kids about bullying and how to respond to hurtful actions. For some kids, it is not easy to make these distinctions, and we need to bring more attention to helping them understand this dynamic. We need to teach kids to understand what behavior is actually harmful, and what constitutes the rough and tumble of day-to-day life as a kid. This is at the heart of resiliency. Where is your child along this spectrum? Can he or she weather the banter and occasional collision? Or, are they sensitive to a fault? Does he or she have a tendency to ignore or look the other way in the face of misbehavior or hurtful actions? How do we respond? How are we modeling for our children? These are important parenting questions. 

In the past two years, the issue of bullying has reared its head in most public and private schools, as the print and television media made it one of the 2010 cause célèbre. Actually, as we all know, the phenomena of bullying is not new to schools, and children, but it is magnified (and educators are increasingly challenged) as demeaning, biting and sarcastic humor dominates our cultural interactive lexicon. The media influences are powerful. Movies, TV and video games rarely reinforce the kind of human understanding, compassion and caring that will help kids develop positive social skills. Instead, children are exposed to gratuitous violence, sexism and shades of other bias, and complex adult situations that are difficult to understand. The influences seem to be working against us. 

The best research on the phenomenon of bullying, and the most comprehensive approach to defining bullying is found in the work of Dan Olweus, Ph.D, who, in 1993, wrote the now famous book, Bullying at School: What we know and what we can do.  The longitudinal research was conducted in Scandinavia and Olweus' work now includes specific program recommendations for schools, and has expanded to cyberbullying and safe dating.

In 2003, I first introduced his work to the staff at Park Day School, and we spent the year focused on how to create a school and classroom climate that could minimize hurtful behavior. This is work that needs to be on-going in a school community, and in the past six months, we have explored some of the programs that have become popular among schools dealing with student behavior, and seeking school-wide consistency in dealing with inappropriate and hurtful behavior.

 It is one thing, when an adults makes an off-handed joke at the expense of a co-worker's haircut or new sweater- it is rarely taken seriously - chalked up as humorous work-place banter. But, when the same type of comment occurs on the schoolyard, all bets are off. For some kids, it is like water off a duck's back; but with others, it may be taken very seriously and sit with a child for days. When the story makes its way home, especially  in the tender moments before bedtime, it may come across as a personally insulting offense. This offense added to others, can cause parents to worry about the incidence of this type of behavior at school. Questions arise about supervision: is anyone watching out for my child? When parents share their stories with one another, the problem can take hold as a school-wide issue and cause wide-spread concern.

Lots of serious questions are on the table for our collective grappling:

How does a school sort through these experiences and help parents understand their context and differentiate innocent schoolyard banter from genuine incidents of bullying? How does a school help students recognize when comments, intended to be funny, are actually hurtful? How can students respond to one another in the face of hurtful behavior, both as recipients and as bystanders? What messages can parents deliver to their children about responding to hurtful behavior? How can teachers create a classroom climate that minimizes the incidence of kids mistreating one another? How do we help children become resilient and able to differentiate light-hearted banter from a genuine insult? 

Let's first look at the definition of bullying from Olweus (see above reference):

"A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself."

This definition includes three important components:
1. Bullying is aggressive behavior that involves unwanted, negative actions.
2. Bullying involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time.

3. Bullying involves an imbalance of power or strength.

Many assume that bullies are individuals that have been mistreated in the past, and are taking out their frustrations on the less powerful. This would create some sympathy for the bully, assumed to have been a victim. However, the research indicates other patterns among those who engage in this type of behavior. Again, from Olweus:

Information about bullying suggests that there are three interrelated reasons why students bully.
1. Students who bully have strong needs for power and (negative) dominance.
2. Students who bully find satisfaction in causing injury and suffering to other

3. Students who bully are often rewarded in some way for their behavior with
 material or psychological rewards.

So, understanding this phenomena helps teachers and parents realistically recognize the true bully, as opposed to students who may occasionally act out. Bullying is chronic, and, for the victim, experienced repeatedly over time. 

We are also seeing very recent research conducted by sociologists at UC Davis, finding that bullying is used as an "instrument of social climbing," which may again validate the findings of Olweus that students are rewarded in some way for their behavior - this time with social rewards.

Michael Thompson Ph.D, author of Best Friends Worst Enemies, reminds us: “During the course of a school day there are hundreds of tense moments between children.” In his book, Thompson guides us through a tour of the developmental factors which are involved in children’s social relationships. What we need to remember is that kids' play often takes place at a fevered pitch. If you watch children regularly, you know that play brings vein-popping, emotionally laden expressions of anger, frustration, pleading, joy, and unbridled ardor. With this as the day-to-day backdrop, we know that conflict will arise. 

Children bring varying degrees of skill and understanding to conflict, and in its worst incarnation, attempts to resolve conflict can be devoid of skill, resulting in hurt feelings. In the moment, this can lead to children taking sides, engaging in blaming behavior, and possibly becoming derisive or excluding others. It takes the careful guidance of adults to help children develop their skill at problem solving, especially when play is heated. Some groups of children may include mature and emotionally intelligent individuals who can rise to the occasion and say the "right thing at the right time." But, this is not commonplace as even the most mature kids lose themselves to the maelstrom of the moment.  

We believe that children must develop five key social and emotional skills: cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy and self-control. In her wonderful book Educating Moral People, Nel Noddings,  Ph.D., argues that "our main educational aim should be to encourage the growth of competent, caring, loving, and lovable people."

Toward that end, one of the most effective strategies teachers implement is to facilitate (and teach children to facilitate) class meetings. These meetings address social issues and help children build a repertory of social and emotional skills. The attempt is to build a climate among the kids where they can work through problems and come to a resolution, without resorting to hurtful behavior. It can take years for a child to come into his or her own in this area; and some never do (we are all witness to the adult world of the sarcastic, the cynical, or the mean tempered).

 Parents are asking for tools to help their children respond to hurtful behavior. One of the most important lessons that parents should convey to their children is to disabuse them of the notion that those who stand up for others are unpopular and lose friends. Actually, we all know that the most admired among our childhood friends were those who were honest and courageous enough to say, "Hey, what you did just then is not cool." Think back - were those the kids who were outcasts? (and, I am not talking about the archetypal "goody-two-shoes," who tattled about every slight that was given or received, no matter how minor). Kids need to learn that standing up in the face of someone being mistreated or harassed will not lose one social currency – often it will produce the opposite result. We know this to be true, but we somehow support our children's resistance and fear of being ostracized. Think: character building means developing the wherewithal to act ethically in the face of social conflict. We need to help children say "stop!" when they are witnessing or subject to hurtful behavior. 

Teach your child to say some version of "That was not cool." Role play it. Yes it takes some courage to stand up to someone who is perpetrating verbal abuse, or leading a charge to exclude a classmate from play, or teasing someone about a physical characteristic. But, this is the first step in us helping to empower the bystanders. Be direct! Don't ignore meanness.

Another strategy at Park Day School, is to bring the incident to a class meeting. Many of the classes have a class notebook where issues and incidents are reported, and then the class as a group takes up the topic during weekly or bi-weekly class meetings. This strategy allows the child to be in the presence of other, sympathetic kids who will support him or her in addressing the issue.

We need to provide other tools of expression for kids to report incidents of hurtful behavior that they may have witnessed. After third grade, "telling an adult" often loses its appeal. Though, there are certainly kids who will not hesitate to let an adult know if they see something inappropriate. But what other ways can kids let an adult know? I often think that letter writing is a great method. Kids often are reluctant to appear before an adult in authority and tell them verbally what they have seen (they would consider it tattling). However, writing a letter to a parent or a teacher can take on a different meaning and be more palatable. Even if the letter is written anonymously, it is a step in the right direction to somehow express your thoughts. 

There simply is no magic bullet - each child develops along his or her own continuum, and these actions can be easier said than done. In the context of one's own family ethos and belief systems, these strategies grow. It takes patience and lots of conversation at the dinner table.

None of this is an argument for tolerating hurtful behavior, and in a healthy school environment there must be a system of discipline and appropriate consequences (a very complex topic for another post). At our school, we rely heavily on the experience and intuition of our veteran group of teachers. We base our work upon the premise that we are helping children become ethical problem solvers, capable of resolving conflict, and that ethical and moral curriculum should be as important as academics. Ultimately, schools need to be places where it is OK to be a nice kid.