Bullying: A Big Complicated Problem with Many Simple Solutions

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

Monday, January 31, 2011

What Happens? A Girl's Heartfelt Question About Bullying

This original poem was read as part of a presentation on bullying prevention at St. John's University. When I told the presenter, Ariel, how much I liked the poem, she introduced me to the author, Alexandra, her twin sister. Alexandra told me that she changed the ending after having a discussion with her mom. (Look for the explanation below.) After knowing the full story, I was even more impressed. Alexandra is a talented girl who wrote the poem; Ariel is a supportive sister who shared it in her class; and Denise is an awesome mom whose interest in her child turned a hopeless ending into one of inspiration.

What happens when you reach and no one is there
what happens when everyone's expectations are unfair

what happens when all you face is disappointment
what happens when you're the one they're annoyed with

what happens when you can't understand why
what happens when no one can hear you cry

what happens when you're just a kid
what happens when you can't figure out what you possibly did

what happens when your love isn't reciprocated
what happens when you wake up to hatred

what happens when you realize you're not free
what happens when you're prone to just flee

what happens when they control your every move
what happens when sadness is a permanent mood

what happens when you want to just go away
what happens when no one wants you to stay

what happens when you finally give in
what happens when you don't care if they win

what happens when now it's too late
what happens when their remorse is fake

what happens when this is a continuation
what happens when it's all over our nation

what happens when we realize lives are on the line
what happens when we start to fight bullying, one at a time...change happens

What was the original title and ending?
They Win.
What happens when you finally give in, I'll tell you what happens, They Win.

Alexandra explained, " I decided to change the ending because my mother had challenged me when I read it aloud to her. She asked,
Well do you think their biggest concern at that point is winning or losing? These people are on the peak of suicide and I'm not sure someone would even think about who's winning. It’s not about that. It's not a game
... I really liked when she went back at me and questioned me because I think perhaps while writing that last sentence I was no longer expressing my initial reason for doing it, my initial passion. Although it was an effective ending punch line I wasn’t trying to express that people who take their life are weak and letting everyone win. I was writing it purely to show the harsh and sometimes fatal reality of bullying. I was writing to show the struggle of a victim. Often with bullies it's about them, they take out how they feel on others. Bullies probably don't wonder if that person had a bad day or maybe that kid might be going through something within their life. If I were to keep the 'They Win' ending, it would leave the lasting thought about the bully and that was not my intention."

When asked why she thought it was important to challenge her daughter and take an interest in the poem, Alexandra's mom explained it this way:
I feel it’s very important for me to take an interest in my daughter’s poetry because as a mother my role is to encourage my children in all that they do, and all that they are interested in. As far as the topic of bullying as sad as it is I think many people ignore it and hope it will 'go away'. For Alexandra to write such a powerful and moving poem acknowledging the issue is amazing. I think many parents struggle with getting their children to open up to them. I consider myself lucky that my daughter wants to express her opinions and feelings and I would be foolish not to encourage and support that. I also feel many children’s talents are suppressed in school alone (by bullies) but also not fueled correctly by caretakers within the home. Negligence of any talent is a shame. It’s sad that some amazing writers, singers etc. go unnoticed and never have the chance to flourish.

Wow. We can all learn something from the poem...and a mother's interest.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Mrs. Behrens, Goldie Hawn and The Optimistic Classroom

Mrs. Behrens is probably 110 years old now but wherever she is, God Bless her. She was my third grade teacher and she introduced my class to mindful education. But Mrs. Behrens didn't know it.

I just spent a weekend at a MindUP Curriculum workshop, a collaboration between The Hawn Foundation (as in Goldie!) and Scholastic. The concept behind MindUP is a bit revolutionary. It's goal is to introduce more joy of learning in the classroom. Joy in the classroom? Is that allowed?

All kidding aside, I was fascinated and inspired by the presentations by impressive experts, including social scientists, neuroscientists and educators. Over the course of the two days, I learned more about my brain and was thrilled to find out that it doesn't look exactly like my Tangled Ball logo. Not at all. It's probably fairly ordered like everyone else's. It has a compartment that reacts to fear and novelty, it has a fairly big part that stores info, it has a part that makes me aware when I've had one glass of wine too many, and it even has a filter.

It was explained in a way that a first grader could understand (except for the bit about the wine) and that's the point. The more kids know about how their brain works, the more they understand themselves and can adapt to different situations and to each other.

Less stress. As a matter of fact, the exercises that teachers introduce in the classroom through this program include stopping to mindfully breathe several times a day to relax the students, help them push away the clutter, find a little peace and help them become aware of the moment.

This brings me back to good ol' Mrs. Behrens. I went to Notre Dame Elementary School in Long Beach, Indiana. It was absolutely wonderful but I can't say that in the 1960's it was very progressive. There was a lot of discipline and memorizing and general fear when you didn't do your homework, but Mrs. Behrens' class was safe. She would have us stand up and stretch every once in a while. She would encourage us to look out the window. She would speak in such a way that you felt that she liked you. And my absolutely favorite thing she did was asking us to clean off the top of our desks, then take out a pen, pencil or crayons. In a soothing voice, she would instruct us to draw or write or just sit and think as she would turn on the record player and introduce Bach or Beethoven or some other amazing piece of music.

It was no wonder that we had such a nice class. That type of atmosphere nurtured inclusion, happiness, and understanding. (Not a lot of bullying went on that year.) It's funny because I always thought that I was an outstanding student in her class but when I found my old report cards, I really got average grades. She just made me feel extraordinary and I went on to get very good grades.

Introducing evidence-based curriculum like MindUP in the classroom makes so much sense to me. Positively changing how children approach the academic learning process as well as developing greater social and emotional intelligence will change school climates and the rewards of an Optimistic Classroom will last a lifetime.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Secret Bullying Prevention Weapon? Friendship.

How to Make and Keep Friends: Tips for Kids to Overcome 50 Common Social Challenges is a new book out by Massachusetts based founder of Social Smart Kids, Nadine Briggs and director of the Peter Pan Center, Donna Shea. The book is one of their many collaborations, including their recently announced Social Success in School, a bullying prevention training initiative for teachers and administrators. Social Success in School was developed in direct response to Massachusetts' new bullying law. If that wasn't enough, they're hosting a conference on March 5th: How To Make & Keep Friends: Partnering with Children for Social Success and in the summer they run a social skills camp together.

Bravo! With these seemingly separate projects, this dynamic expert duo (and obviously good friends) are aiming at the heart of the problem and coming up with solutions.

Let's talk about the book first. Friendship is the secret weapon. If we can connect with others, not much can keep us down. Friendships can carry us -- and our children -- through most situations, including bullying. According to the authors, "Parents care more about their kids making friends than their grades." I completely believe that and although many children have difficulty creating friendships for a variety of reasons, Nadine and Donna say it can be learned. They should know. They've been teaching it with success for years.

This gives me hope. It's heart-wrenching but common to see children having trouble socially. I'm thrilled that they've come up with a book that kids can read on their own with little but effective tips like instead of asking on the playground, "Can I play with you?" and possibly getting rejected, they can say, "I'd like to join in."

Sometimes having one friend can give a child, or anyone for that matter, the resiliency to get through life's curve balls. Teaching social skills is an admirable vocation. When I asked Donna and Nadine why they do what they do, they simply and powerfully said, "Every kid should have a friend." And when they say, every child, they mean every child, including kids with physical and emotional challenges.

Based on what they've learned, Nadine and Donna recently launched their school training program, Social Success in Schools, developed for grades K-6. Built upon the same premise that social aptitude creates a better school climate, the tools were designed to build empathy and tolerance.

Fascinated by their tagline, "dedicated to educating and supporting kids with social challenges," I asked them:

To date, what is the most satisfying part of your work?
We get a tremendous amount of satisfaction when we see one of our friends in a social skills group learn a new way of interacting with others. For example, when we hear them say “how about we…” when they would have previously said “you have to….”.

What's the most important thing parents can do to help their children have a friend and be a friend?
Schedule playdates. We understand that parents are busy with work, siblings, and life in general but the single most important thing that they can do is create social opportunity for their children. The second most important thing that a parent or educator can do is understand that children who are socially awkward need an adult partner to help them navigate social situations with patience and understanding.

I wish them luck with book sales, conferences, training programs and summer camp but mainly I thank them for stepping up and identifying one of the most important things in every single child's life: friendship.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Schools, Parents, Internet Safety and the New Year

Internet Safety! Horrors! Where do we begin?

Recently, I noticed a few basic disconnects when it comes to elementary school-aged children and teaching Internet Safety basics. There's an information gap between school and home. Most schools now have a computer class. The computer teachers I spoke with talk about Internet Safety in class. But where is there a need to actually practice Internet Safety? In the home, of course. Who is the teacher in the home? The parent, of course.

Many parents are tech savvy but many more are not and it's created a generation gap of sorts. It may close as younger parents come up the ranks but in the meantime, it's a dangerous gap. Although it's a big scary subject, it can be manageable with the right tools and good basic information, especially if parents and schools communicate.

In preparation for a parent workshop, I came across this "one-stop shopping" resource: Net Cetera. Their downloadable tools are awesome and I also ordered the booklet for several schools to share with parents at workshops and to send home to parents who couldn't attend. It's not People Magazine but it's an easy read. It's free and I've been able to order 500 at a time.

Parenting is so crammed with things we should do: immunizations, reading, test scores, sports, hygiene, cleaning, play dates, haircuts, feeding, clothes buying, washing and folding. (Who am I kidding? The folding doesn't actually get done in my house but you get the drift.) Sometimes it's too much in a day to do but unfortunately, just like teaching our kids "stranger danger," Internet Safety is on the "must do" list.

I've done a little work for you. Here's a sample letter that can be sent home from school with the Net Cetera booklet and bookmark. It can be signed by the principal, assistant principal, computer teacher or PTA President. It's a start to closing the gap in a simple, effective way.

Dear Parent,

A brand new year is a good time to set priorities and to focus on all the good things we want to achieve for our children and ourselves.

In that spirit, we are sending home this booklet from Net Cetera, which is full of information and tips regarding online safety.
As your children get older, their dependence on technology for help with schoolwork and connecting with friends becomes stronger. In most cases, the Internet is a fantastic resource.

Realistically, though, we can’t be 100% comfortable with all it has to offer. For example, statistically, one out of four children are bullied online. There’s also the issue of “digital literacy,” predators and privacy issues. In other words, you can’t believe everything you read – or trust everyone you meet -- on the Internet. Our children will be safer and happier if we take the time to be informed. Simple tips, such as where you place the computer or rules on cell phone usage, will help protect them and help you sleep better at night, too.

Students at (name of school) learn about Internet Safety issues in computer class. Since the majority of their computer and cell phone time is outside of the classroom, we want to ensure you have the proper information to reinforce these lessons at home.

We hope you find this booklet helpful. It doesn’t take long to read but it may save you hours of worry.


(Principal, Parent Coordinator, PTA President, or Computer Teacher)

It's amazing what can come from one little letter bridging the most important teachers in a child's technology driven life.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Bullying and Plastic Surgery

I'm not sure how I feel about this. How about you?

Years ago, my first reaction would be, "This is ridiculous. Kids should be happy with what God gave them. Blah. Blah. Blah." I thought that way until a friend opened my eyes several years ago. We worked in media together and we were watching a similar story about high school-age girls and plastic surgery. I was unaware that his sister had gotten a nose job when she was a sophomore. Thank goodness I didn't say what was on my mind. He said that people criticize girls who get nose jobs because they don't know what it's like to have a nose that people make fun of on a constant basis. In other words, walk a mile in her shoes before rushing to judgement.

It made me think. At that age, teens are very aware of the "pretty" factor. There's no way around it. Every tween and teen knows how important it is to look good -- or at least feel like you look good. Remember when getting a pimple could make you want to stay home?

The problem with this story is that I actually think both girls looked beautiful even before their surgeries. In these cases, is it bullying or is it feeling very sensitive about looking perfect?

I'd really like to know what you think.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Pain of Bullying for Parents

If you're reading this and you're a parent who's child is being bullied, I have one thing to say to you. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry that you're feeling the pain of feeling your child's pain. It's true heartache.

I was recently talking to a mom who is going through the devastation of watching her daughter be excluded. She was wondering if "exclusion" can be considered bullying. The answer: Yes.

In this case, her child had been slowly excluded from a group of friends that seemed fine until they got to sixth grade. Then it started. Not making room at the lunch table. Making it hard for her to join a game at recess. Laughing when she made even the smallest mistake in class. Then it became too obvious to ignore. A bunch of kids were going out for pizza after school. They made the plan right in front of her, didn't invite her and told her it was because the most popular among them, didn't want her to go. And what made it the hardest is that it was her birthday.

As a mom in these situations, we can feel rage. It's so difficult to see our children hurt, especially when we can't fix it right away. The frustration is horrible. In so many cases, the parents of the children responsible actually, in some way, contribute to it. They're happy that their child is popular. And these are parents that you thought you knew. It's so tricky because handling it correctly is a slippery slope. Ugh!

This post is not about answers. (Although here's a link with suggestions.) It's about sympathy. If your stomach is in a knot and you're confused and hurt, you're not alone. The statistics are that over 5 million kids are bullied each year. That means potentially 10 million parents are watching their kids suffer. Of course, not every parent suffers with their children but the good ones do to some degree. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that parents have to step up and solve everything for their kids but they do need to stand by them. Sometimes an interested parent is all a child has in their life and it's not easy.

It's lonely. It's painful. But hang in there. Stay cool. Be that child's best friend. I applaud you for having the guts to walk next to your child in their time of need. Although I probably don't know you personally, I understand that it's one of the most difficult parts of parenting. Your child is worthy of being included. Never forget that it's not about your child. It's about another's need to have power. Don't let that person, even if they're only eleven years old, have power over you, too.

Right now it doesn't seem like there's any silver lining...but this is a chance to show your child that they will always be worthy in your eyes. What a gift.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Progress in Cyberbullying Prevention: Go California!

California has come up with a law that is simple and brilliant. Although it's a California law, every parent from coast to coast should know about it.

This law makes it a crime to set up an online account impersonating someone else for the purpose of causing harm. In other words, if someone pretends to be you -- or your child -- online and then starts spreading rumors or damaging information, they could go to jail.

Although the law is apparently only a paragraph, it has big potential to help. Up until now, there was very little someone could do if they were at the receiving end of harmful impersonation. That's hard enough for adults, but can you imagine being a teen and trying to cope with someone pretending to be you and then spreading poison?

I'm hoping that the remaining 49 states jump on board but it's key that California is the first. As Hemu Nigam, Internet Security Specialist, explains in the interview, most of the internet companies are based in California so there's a better chance that no matter where the internet crime happens, it could possibly be prosecuted. (If I understand this correctly, when information passes through servers based in California, technically it could be considered under the California law.)

This is going in the right direction to protect all of us, especially for "that kid at home." Come on New York, Indiana, Florida, Colorado.............................

Monday, January 3, 2011

A New Year Brings New Possibilities in Bullying Prevention

Hopefully, more children won't have take their own lives in 2011 in order for us to remain vigilant about bullying prevention.

Three years ago after going to my first Family Online Safety Institute conference in D.C. and then the International Bullying Prevention Association meeting in Indianapolis, I came away with several thoughts:

• There should be one conference that discusses both: bullying offline and online. Kids see it as all one seamless community. For those being bullied in the schoolyard and then online, it's all one big heartache.

Good News: This year I noticed a shift. Experts are starting to talk about kid's online and offline lives as one life. It's a concept that's a little hard for adults to understand but is key for prevention.

• Bullying Prevention messages need to be mainstreamed to the general public. There are great experts doing fantastic work but not enough people know about the tools that are available. Are any of those tools the entire solution? Absolutely not. But if we can help a handful of kids in every school in America, we're talking about thousands.

Here's my pick of the day: Steps to Respect. Check out their materials. I believe in early prevention and also involving the entire school community, including teachers and parents, so I was impressed. Pre-K through elementary school is where it's at if we want to nip some of the abusive behavior in the bud.

In a recent study, researchers found that Steps to Respect helped lower incidences of bullying, such as gossip and spreading rumors by 72%.

According to the study:
When students' playground gossip was observed in the spring, children in the Steps to Respect classrooms had 234 fewer instances of gossip per class of 25, or a 72 percent decrease in gossip among students who had gossiped before participating in the anti-bullying program.

Even if it was half that percentage, it's worth a shot. (Anecdotally and surprisingly, spreading rumors is one of the top reasons given when I ask kids in fourth and fifth grades what bothers them most.)

I'd really like to hear from teachers and/or parents who've used the Steps to Respect materials. My goal is to share any and all tools and information that will make a difference.

Here's to a happy, healthy...and lighthearted 2011!