Bullying: A Big Complicated Problem with Many Simple Solutions

If each one of us untangled one string at a time...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Bullying: A Case Study in Ostracism from Facing History

Facing History and Ourselves recently launched their new online resource, Bullying: A Case Study in Ostracism. Based on their other initiatives, including their core curriculum, I knew it would be good but it exceeded all my expectations. Before I get into why you'll thank me for bringing this to your attention, especially if you're a parent (of any age child), principal, teacher, counselor or mentor, it might be helpful to understand Facing History's mission and why they're such a strong resource as a whole:

The Ostracism Case Study evolved as part of research conducted by Harvard and Facing History and Ourselves and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. At it's core, are riveting interviews with girls regarding a simple problem that began among 7th grade friends that escalated into a complicated and serious ostracism issue. (I urge you to listen to the overview of the study. Fascinating.)

A Guided Tour Through The Minds of Middle School Girls

It's also worth the time to listen to the transcripts of the girls' interviews. Like me, you may not be able to stop thinking about these word for word transcripts from girls who are only 12 to 14 years old. This is the best tool I've come across to help adults understand the world and relationships of middle school girls. I'm going to urge the schools that I work with to consider using this online and free curriculum and to include it as part of their professional development but I think it's helpful for parents at home, too. The discussion questions are simple but extremely thought-provoking and make a great platform for discussion for girls (and probably boys, too) during their middle through high school years.

An Important String in the Tangled Ball of Bullying

The girls' descriptions of what happened to cause the complete ostracism of one of the once popular girls -- to the point that she was contemplating suicide -- reminded me of a recent situation I came across involving 7th and 8th grade girls ignited by Facebook. Both situations involved feelings about a boy, the "pack mentality," cliques, self esteem, miscommunication, harshness, and cluelessness. They both escalated very quickly and by the time adults were brought in, the situation was so muddy, that it was difficult to actually help. In fact, the involvement of some of the adults at that point actually hurt the situation.

This curriculum would have been useful at the time. Facing History and Ourselves has expertly brought the global history lesson of the devastating affects of ostracism home. Thank you, Facing History.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

If You're Working on Bullying Prevention...Keep Going!

Do you ever wonder if this is worth the effort? In the Northeast, it's the end of the school year. Principals, teachers, counselors...and yes, parents...are exhausted. If you've been working or volunteering your time to help kids learn how to treat each other better...or to help those who have already been the target, rest for a bit. And then, KEEP GOING.

I applaud you for taking this on. The other day, I was thinking "Why do I do this?" I'd be happier renting kayaks or something equally simple and carefree. Bullying prevention is one complicated discouraging difficult task.

But then I came home and saw this article in U.S. News and World Report about the long term effects of bullying. It didn't surprise me because people in their 60's, 70's and even 80's talk to me about their childhood bullying experiences. (Believe it or not, the ones who were the bully feel as bad as the targets.)

I have to agree with Dr. Strayhorn in the U.S. News article:

Being the target of a bully involves real suffering," Dr. Earlene Strayhorn, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Loyola University, said in a university news release. "The constant stress of physical assaults, threats, coercion and intimidation can take a heavy toll on a child's psyche over time. The abuse may end at some point but the psychological, developmental, social and emotional damage can linger for years, if not a lifetime.

So take a dip in the pool, enjoy the sun, eat guacamole and tortilla chips and get your energy back. Kids need you.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Iraq, The Bronx and Empathy

I know I ranted a bit through yesterday's blog about Reality TV so it may be a little ironic that today's post is about sharing something I saw on TV.

Here's a segment from last night's PBS NewsHour. It's about a teacher in the Bronx using curriculum provided by the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. The five-week curriculum is a journey connecting the lives of children in war-torn Iraq with the lives of children here.

It's not only an effective way to teach about the Middle East, it's a beautiful way to teach empathy. Congratulations to Morningside for such innovative curriculum. And Ms. Fardig, you hit it out of the park.

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Is Television Making Us Bullies?

There is one big factor in the bullying conversation that hasn't made it's way into all the media attention. It's the media.

I like reality shows as much as the next shallow person but there's SO much of it! I actually heard Bobby Flay call a weeping young chef out on a food challenge show, telling her that her cupcakes were crumbly and this is the FOOD Network, not the FUN Network. I thought food was supposed to be fun.

(I don't want to necessarily pick on The Food Network because I had hours of joy watching it with my beloved mother-in-law during the last year of her life, but I think she would even say that some of the shows have gotten a little too mean-spirited. God save the poor chef who doesn't know what to do with the secret ingredient!)

But food competitions are the least of it. Just turn on Bravo or MTV and hold on to your seats. All fun and games until you realize that kids are watching the same shows: Jersey Shore, The Housewives of Everywhere, etc., etc. Screaming, cursing, hitting, stomping, blasting, blood vessels popping and manic texting.

This is what concerns me. We can deliver great school programs to help combat peer to peer cruelty from elementary school on up, but what is really influencing our kids and our culture? How do we stop this deluge of mean?

And as a side note, some of these programmers are getting in on the bullying prevention band wagon, but is that a good idea, either? Here's author and expert Rosalind Wiseman's blog post about the rather odd partnership with the NEA (National Education Association), the Creative Coalition and the WWE.

I'd really welcome your thoughts.

Monday, June 13, 2011

THINK Before You Speak

A friend of mine who has three young daughters just sent "THINK" to me. Nancy is a believer in teaching her children from a young age to respect others and to expect respect in return. To do this, it takes the 3R's we don't normally think of when we think about elementary school education: reflection, relationship and resilience. Seems like these are sophisticated concepts for little kids but it's amazing how much they absorb and how simple the messages can be, for example:
THINK before you speak:

T - is it True?
H - is it Helpful?
I - is it Inspiring?
N - is it Necessary?
K - is it Kind?

Is it possible to teach young kids in school to be "mindful" before they speak or act? According to The Hawn Foundation (as in Goldie!), yes.

Post 9/11, Goldie was thinking about her legacy and after some mindful thought, decided that she had to make an effort to introduce something important but generally missing in the classroom. JOY.

Mindfulness curriculum, called the MindUP Program, is now available through Scholastic. It sounds very "new age" to talk about social emotional learning (SEL) and particularly mindfulness but it's just common sense. (MindUP is the cornerstone of the initiative, The Optimistic Classroom.) Teach children about the brain when they become school age and they will develop more of an understanding about their emotions, their behavior and their stress levels. It should come as no shock that stress makes it harder for kids to learn.

What's so cool about this training is that it's simple. Although many teachers may be resistant, in the end it's as much a benefit to them as it is to the student. A calmer, more thoughtful class is so much easier -- and much less draining -- to teach.

I sat in on one of the trainings and the teachers on hand who used the tools, were quite enthusiastic. One of the trainers was a principal in a high risk school. She said that incorporating simple techniques throughout the day, made even the emotionally challenged students able to control some of their aggressive impulses. One of the techniques is ringing a hand-held gong three times a day (or anything that makes a pleasant noise) and upon hearing that, the students stop everything and push all thoughts out of their brain in order to catch a breath and re-focus. Sound crazy? I don't think so. If adults did this at work, we wouldn't get so burned out.

Check it out. These techniques can even be used at home. Most of the time, "bullying" behavior is impulsive behavior gone unchecked. What if we taught our kids how to be in charge of their own feelings and behavior?

I think you're on to something, Goldie!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Parents and the Pain of Bullying

My heart aches for all parents who are suffering watching their child be ostracized, physically bullied, called names or hurt online. It's one of the hardest things a parent can go through. It causes a flood of negative emotions.

The frustration is enormous and the fact that there is no crystal ball indicating when and how it will get better is so discouraging. Sometimes the anger is hard to manage. You may be wondering, "How did I get to the point where I'm furious with a child that was once my child's friend? Or with the parents who don't step in?"

You work so hard to build your child's confidence over the years and someone comes and steals it. That's what it is. A theft. When others don't care, it's an insult.

I hear over and over how parents of children who were once close, are now enemies because of the change in behavior their children have towards one another. I've noticed that when girls start forming cliques and start leaving one-time friends out, the mothers of the girls in the clique turn a blind eye. I often wonder if it comes down to something as simple as they are secretly pleased that their daughter is perceived as popular. No one wants a child to be perceived as a "loser." Parents are supposed to be mature. It's not always the case.

This goes for boys as well. Why upset the apple cart when the apple of your eye seems to be the one everyone wants to be around? Negative or positive attention -- it doesn't matter. It's attention.

Sometimes it just takes one parent of one of the popular kids to step up. I recently heard of one of these moms. She heard that her son and his friends were cutting out a couple of the boys in their class. Why? Because they could. The mom confronted her son and asked him why certain boys weren't invited to go get pizza. The boy's answer was lame and the mom knew it and straightened it out. It didn't happen overnight, but the situation definitely improved.

That's a cool mom. She was realistic about her own child's behavior and instead of being defensive, she was objective. She felt it was a teachable moment and the way her son was "leading" was not the desired type of leadership.

Every once in a while, you meet someone with a backbone. It's so refreshing.

To all the moms and dads out there who could be helping, please step in. It's good for you, for your own children and for your community. Kids are not going to magically do the right thing. You have the power to blunt the suffering of others.

And to all the moms and dads out there who are suffering along with your child, I hope you meet someone with a backbone and a capacity for compassion. In all the heartache, don't lose heart.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Bully Free Summer Vacation

Summer has such a nice ring to it. It conjures up wonderful thoughts of lazy days and relaxed fun -- unless you're working and your child is having friendship problems. The pain that bullying brings during the school year can spill over to vacation time and not only cause continued heartache but a practical problem, as well.

What do your kids do during the summer if they can't rely on friends to help fill up the time?

Summer can be difficult and if your child isn't having fun, there is nothing light hearted about the season for you, either. It's a constant reminder that off time isn't easy.

The upside is that it may be a good time to build your child's confidence and help them find another group of like-minded kids. It's worth the time to seek out programs -- free or otherwise -- that will give your child new skills or build on the ones they already have.

Sometimes they only need one other person who likes what they like.

In our area, there's a day camp for kids who like to hike. It's great for both girls and boys. Sometimes boys who don't like traditional sports are stigmatized but hiking can be a great alternative. Even guys who like arts and crafts are often given a hard time in school but in a program that uses sticks, leaves, and bugs as materials, the stigma is gone. And girls who don't fit it with certain cliques may actually click with others on the trail.

This is just one example. There are countless programs that may appeal to kids who's interests may be on the "fringe." All that being said, I KNOW what a hassle this can be. Getting a child to and from camps or activities during the summer while you're at work can be brutal...and if your child is having a problem with other kids, you can't rely on their parents to help you out, either. In other words, it's a lot of effort for parents, but doing your homework for summer can really pay off. It may be a time when your child's confidence can actually be the project which may lead to a more positive school year in the fall.

It's also a good time to help them with their social skills. Since they'll be meeting new people, remind them how to make and keep friends.

If you ARE working (and most people are), it's also a great opportunity to set ground rules and time limits on computer use. If your child is one of the over 7.5 million kids under the age of 13 on Facebook, consider taking them off for the summer. A lot can happen when you're not home and according to statistics, over half of the kids harassed online DON'T tell a parent. (They're probably afraid that as adults, we won't handle it right -- and they may be correct.)

The bottom line is that it's nearly impossible for a good parent to have a good summer themselves when their child is miserable. Do yourself a favor and organize a summer that will give both you and your child a vacation from the fallout of bullying. Life should be a beach.