Wiring Kids’ Brains For Kindness

I was intrigued by an article in the most recent issue of Psychotherapy Networker that discussed implications for the latest discoveries regarding brain plasticity. MRI’s and other brain imaging technologies have become responsible for new discoveries about how we can change the way our brains are “wired.” Apparently,  parts of our brain can be developed like real estate. Ownership is determined through repeated behaviors and thought processes.

The author, Mary Sykes Wylie references psychologist Edward Taub. Taub found that stroke patients who lost the use of their left arm learned to compensate by overusing the right one. The right arm, in effect, bought up the unused real estate, leaving the right less opportunity to recover. When the right arm was immobilized, however, the left was more likely to keep trying and eventually to  recover lost ground, using it or losing it. Parts of the brain, it seems, are open for offers.

It is encouraging to know that our  brains maintain the ability to change throughout our lives. We used to think that they were “locked in” at age 18 or 25. Now we know that they continue to change structurally, and we can sculpt them like musculature, for good or for bad.

Of  course it helps if you are young, encouraged, and motivated.

Which reminds me of a story. When I was little, my older brother and I loved baseball. Because he was 5 years older, he played a large role in shaping many of my skills and interests. In the realm of baseball, he wanted me to be a switch hitter.  Because it is harder to hit a right hand pitcher’s curve ball while batting right handed and the same for batting left against a lefty, being able to switch is an asset. Especially in the big leagues. So, my brother had me bat left half of the time.

And I did it. It took extra work, but, despite my strong right-handedness, I learned to bat just as well either way. My brother was proud and so was I. I’m sure that a brain scan would have confirmed the progress as the real estate was transformed.

The problem was that when I started to play less with my brother and more with peers, I realized that no one my age threw curve balls. And my little league coach just thought I was eccentric. Being a switch hitter offered no advantage aside from status in my brother’s eyes, which was becoming less important.  And it was still hard work.

So I stopped. No more practicing left. Brain snapped back. I could only hit right handed again. Use it or lose it.

I think that the same principle applies with students learning bullying prevention. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a school counselor tell me, “The kids are terrible in the spring. In the fall, we cover bystander skills and the Olweus rules for including others and they do really well. But in the spring, they forget everything.”

I truly believe that when we teach children to be empathetic, to speak up for the powerless, and to stop laughing at mean behavior, we are rewiring their brains. In my blog From The Mouths of Babes, I reference a study entitled “Schoolchildren’s Social Representations on Bullying Causes.” In it, the authors determine that children have a natural proclivity to shun those who are different. The implementation of bystander skills, however, relies on teaching the majority of students to do exactly the opposite.

We are teaching them to bat left-handed.

Changing a school’s climate by empowering the majority to become empathetic and inclusive is radical. It develops new neural pathways and, like a muscle, the new wiring will wither with lack of use. If kids feel unsupported or their work offers no practical advantage, they will return to the path that is easy.

It’s a real challenge to inspire a majority of students to be kind. The message must be consistent, and kids need the opportunity to “do it” rather than just talk or be lectured about it. Actually performing a bystander skill and feeling the power of affecting another human being will change a young brain (and an old one as well). But the effort needs to be repeated. And repeated. And…. you know. Or it will return to the more established path of old habits.

Luckily the work can be very fun and rewarding. We need to be good models, keep it creative and exciting, and reward children for their progress.

Let me know if I can help.

My Best,

Paul

 

Wylie, Mary Sykes. “Beyond Phrenology: Let’s look at how the brain really works.”  Psychotherapy Networker. Jan/Feb 2014.

Thornberg, Robert. “Schoolchildren’s Social Representations on Bullying Causes.”  Psychology in the Schools, Apr 2010, Vol. 47 Issue 4, p311-327, 17p, 1 Chart

 

 

 

The Dance

In my previous post, “Emotional Marshmallows Part III,” I talked about the need to be relaxed in order to effectively deflect mean behavior. The best defense against aggression is flexibility. The metaphor I used was a dance: a lively sequence of steps; a give and take.

Far too often, adults and children view confrontations as an event to win or lose, beat or be beaten. Like most relationships, however, dealing with an aggressor at school need not be an all or nothing proposition. The goal is to move beyond the fight/flight dichotomy and into a set of choices that are more nuanced and creative: shuffle, dip, glide and spin. It is what the best communicators do naturally.

When working with both children and adults, I find that one of the simplest and most effective communications skills to teach is the disarming technique: find some truth in what the other person is saying, even if it is unreasonable or unfair. When you agree with someone, it takes away the aggressive energy and puts you on the same side. Key to using this technique is understanding that being right or wrong is often secondary to getting what you want in the long run.

And what a kid wants is to be safe.

My favorite resource for dancing around mean behavior is a children’s book: Karen Gedig Burnett’s Simon’s Hook. Burnett likens a bully’s taunts to a fish hook that her protagonist must learn not to bite. In the story within a story, learning not to bite is key to survival for a desperate school of fish.  Soon they are deflecting put-downs and barbs, using the following techniques:

  • Doing Nothing: not reacting
  • Agreeing: disarming technique
  • Distracting: changing the subject
  • Laughing or making a joke: humor
  • Staying Away: avoiding the perpetrator

Sometimes  a combination of skills is best. My favorite is combining the disarming technique with humor– also known as the art of self-depreciation. Joining in by making fun of yourself is a creative way to dance with rather than do battle with someone who is being mean:

“Dude, that shirt is ugly!”
“No kidding! I think my mom bought it to punish me! Aaaaack!”

But it is not easy. A kid needs to be relaxed, confident, and practiced in order to pull it off.  When they do, the sense of accomplishment is great. Not everyone has a sense of humor, however, so for some children staying away or causing a distraction may be a better choice.

The key is to have options. And understanding a child’s capabilities of in the face of a powerful aggressor takes some time and individual attention. How reactive is the child? How frightened? Are they verbally adept? What is their level of confidence? Even children of the same age range widely in skills and maturity, so understanding individual capabilities is crucial.

Which brings me back to the event that started my discussion of resilience in Emotional Marshmallows, Part I.  I took issue with an assembly role play in which a student volunteer is prompted to verbally abuse the presenter. The performer then turns the situation in his favor, a la “You are going to call me an idiot and I am going to make you laugh.” He subsequently receives the insults with self-effacing calm and humor until his attacker loses all steam.

Having a child insult you while you make them laugh is a deceptive way to demonstrate resiliency.  The power distribution is backwards (try the demonstration with an adult attacking a student and I guarantee a disaster). The very definition of bullying requires a power advantage for the aggressor– and the power deficit is exactly what makes it so hard for a target to respond.

The routine is entertaining, but it is not very helpful. The majority of the audience will not be able to perform the skill in real life– so what tools do they get?

It is important to not over-simplify bullying. It is important not to blame the victim. And it is important to help children become resilient by  gently encouraging them to problem-solve, make good choices, and reframe thoughts that are self-destructive. Teach them to be flexible. Teach them to breathe. Teach them to “dance.”

Cha cha cha.

My Best,

Paul

Simon’s hook : a story about teases and put-downs. Karen Gedig Burnett ; illustrated by Laurie Barrows: Roseville, CA : GR Pub., c1999.

 

Emotional Marshmallows Part III

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“If you are more relaxed, I think your brain functions more effectively.”  -Dali Lama

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response.”   – Victor Frankl

Welcome back to our discussion about resilience. When this post started,  I asserted the following skills as being key to keeping kids resilient: 1) Problem-solving skills, 2) emphasis on choices over traits, 3) cognitive flexibility, and 4) stress reduction activities. Having fleshed out 1-3, we are left with perhaps the most desired life change goal among 21st century Americans, STRESS REDUCTION.

Part of the definition of resilience is elasticity. It is the reason that  skyscrapers are engineered to sway in the wind.  The motion relieves stress and keeps the building standing. Bending, relaxing, swaying, giving and taking– are all the opposite of stress. Too much stress and things break.

Being relaxed and in control is key to resilience, especially in the face of bullying. Studies have shown that bullying has become less physical and more verbal. Name-calling and exclusion are more prevalent  than physical aggression.  As a result, being poised and ready to fight is not the deterrent that it used to be. Being relaxed and exercising self-control in the face of fire is the best defense.

So instead of teaching kids to fight, we need to teach them to dance. Not literally, of course, but figuratively. Dance is a lively sequence of steps — and flexibility is key.

How do we get a “wound up” kid to relax?

There are many approaches to managing stress in children: Exercise, mindfulness techniques, cognitive reframing, humor, art and non-directive play are all commonly used in a therapy setting. And don’t forget diet. Caffeine can make a kid’s springs become more tightly coiled.

But the simplest yet most effective technique that I’ve seen is learning to breathe. I say “learning” because it seems that many of us have forgotten how, or simply don’t feel we have the time.  A deep breath from the diaphragm, pushing the belly out, rising into the chest and lifting the collar bones– not a shallow puff from the chest but a full breath like a sleeping baby–  does wonders to calm the central nervous system and allows time to think.

Here’s the exercise:
One breathe in; one breathe out
Two breathe in; two breathe out
Three breathe in and hold (two three); three breath out (very slowly).

Make a game of it with your child or student when they are upset or “frazzled.” Count it out loud for them AND have them do it for you! Keeping in mind the quotes at the top of the page, this simple exercise makes kids more relaxed, allows their brains to function better, and creates a space between stimulus and response– all assets in managing the dance that is required when being picked on at school.

And remember, the best way to get a child to engage in any behavior (good or bad) is to model it. So, when you are driving and the rage begins to build, or if you are in front of the class and it’s one of those day when you are at your wit’s end, say to the little ones, “Give me a count…”

One breathe in; one breathe out
Two breathe in; two breathe out
Three breathe in and hold (two three); three breath out (very slowly).

And you do the same for them. Make it a game. Make it fun. Breathing and laughter mixed make the most therapeutic cocktail.

So, now that your are more relaxed and have provided a buffer between stimulus and response, what sort of dance might you do to deflect mean behavior?

I’m afraid we’ll have to save it for next time. We’ll call it the Emotional Marshmallow Trilogy Post Script. AND I promise to finally address the anti-bullying tactic that inspired it all,  “pressuring the victim” and the  “call me an idiot and I am going to make you laugh” routine.

In the meantime,

One breathe in; one breathe out
Two breathe in; two breathe out
Three breathe in and hold (two three); three breath out (very slowly).

My Best,

Paul

 

Emotional Marshmallows Part II

Hello, welcome back– time to talk more about resilience. In my last post, I discussed working with children to develop problem-solving skills, which are crucial in enabling kids to “bounce back” from bullying behaviors.

In addition to a child’s temperament, I asserted the following skills as being key to keeping kids healthy: 1) Problem-solving skills, 2) emphasis on choices over traits, 3) cognitive flexibility, and 4) stress reduction activities.We covered problem-solving in Part I, so now it’s on to numbers 2 & 3: choices over traits and cognitive flexibility– two techniques that are “joined at the hip.”

Defining ourselves and others in terms of traits is common. But for children, identifying with a trait can promote thinking that is overly rigid– especially when experiencing bullying. Traits are stereotypes and, once they are applied, they can leave little “wiggle-room.”

“He is mean.” “She is brave.” “I am loyal.”  Anyone can make a mean choice, a brave choice, or show loyalty– and one choice does not “lock you in” to being a type. When we emphasize the power of choice, we discourage stereotyping and acknowledge personal responsibility.

Negative traits stigmatize a child. Positive traits can also be problematic: For instance, encouraging a student to be brave. Being  brave can be daunting. On the other hand, helping a child to solve a conflict by making a list of choices  can be liberating.

At the same time, making it clear that being mean is always a choice places responsibility for mean behavior right where it belongs– with the perpetrator and never the victim.

Getting children to think about themselves and others in terms of choices rather than traits can be empowering. Resilience requires the sort of flexibility that choices allow. When kids learn that their choices have power and that they are not responsible for the choices of others, it is easier to  take action and move on. Negative labels like “loser” are less likely to stick. It is easier to bounce back.

Want to pay a child a compliment? Say “You are a person who makes good choices!”

Thinking of the world in terms of choices is a perfect example of our third skill:  3.) cognitive flexibility.

If a child sees the world in terms of “good kids” and “bad kids,” talking about choices forces them to shift their way of thinking. Therapists call this reframing.

Being treated mean is stressful, and, when under stress, people often “lock in” to a way of thinking that is distorted:

“I have let everyone down.”
“She hates me.”

These kinds of thoughts make us feel sad, angry, and helpless. Distorted thinking is a primary focus in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), but you needn’t be a therapist to help a child “reframe” an incident– or think about it in a different way.

It’s hard for a child to be flexible while under fire. An adult can suggest different ways of looking at a situation. In my blog Mean Girls, I reframed the actions of Chrissy by suggesting that she was motivated by rivalry. To me this seemed obvious yet it was a thought that Lydia had never entertained. Lydia thought that Chrissy’s behavior was more random. Thus the logical progression being that anyone could dump on her at any time– a tough concept for a 7 year old to accept. Maybe she was not worthy of respect?

A rivalry implies that Chrissy’s actions were motivated in  part by jealousy. Suddenly, Lydia assumes a position of greater power– and, perhaps, empathy. The funny thing is, we will never know whose version is true. It doesn’t matter. It’s likely that Chrissy herself does not know what is true. When dealing with bullying behavior, searching for truth can sometimes be futile. Teaching a child to reframe a bad situation so that they feel better is the goal.

Think about the situation differently, feel better, move on. That is resilience.

One of my favorite instances of reframing happens at the beginning of our show, Everyone Belongs: Mr. Barry is caught disrupting the program by changing images on the screen behind my back. Is he being a jerk? Is he a bully? OR, “Could it be that Mr. Barry is looking for a little attention?” The audience and I agree on the latter, conflict resolved, on with the show…

Well, that wraps up Part II. Next time, I’ll explore our final skill, 4) stress reduction activities. Finally, I’ll address the anti-bullying tactic that inspired the “Marshmallow Trilogy,”  “pressuring the victim” and the  “call me an idiot and I am going to make you laugh” routine.

In the meantime, let me know what you think. Is there an example of “reframing” that you found useful in a bullying situation? I look forward to hearing from you.

As Always,

My Best,

Paul

 

 

Emotional Marshmallows Part I

headshotbw1Each day I receive a Google Alert, listing links to current articles about bullying. Recently, the title “Bullying Message Delivered With Humor” grabbed my attention. I thought, “Hey, that’s MY gig.”

The story described an anti-bullying assembly program that was being hosted by a midwestern school district. The presenter, who is described as a youth crisis counselor, is quoted as saying that encouraging students to seek adult intervention when verbal harassment takes place is breeding a generation of “emotional marshmallows.” He further describes his message as putting “a lot of pressure on the victim… You can only build resilience by going through adversity.”

In the assembly, resilience is illustrated by a role play in which a student volunteer is prompted to verbally abuse the presenter. The performer then turns the situation in his favor, a la “You are going to call me an idiot and I am going to make you laugh.” He subsequently receives the insults with self-effacing calm and humor until his attacker loses all steam. Having seen this routine before, I assure you that the presenter succeeds and the “bully” joins in with the audience’s laughter– it’s a crowd pleaser.

While I agree that humor can be a useful strategy for deflecting mean behavior, “pressuring” a victim and achieving resilience “through adversity” are concepts that deserve some critical attention.

First, I question the idea that resilience is built through experiencing adversity. Kids do not develop resilience by being bullied. In fact, children who have been abused are typically more fragile.

Children who react to bullying and harassment with resilience do so because they were resilient before the event. We all know that some kids are harder to hurt than others. On the one hand, the media provides a constant flow of stories about bullied children who fall into suicidal despair. On the other hand we hear of kids that put up with a boat-load of abuse yet continue to persevere and become successful. You could say that they refuse to become victims. Why are some children more resilient than others? Where did the resilience come from?

Anyone who spends time with kids knows that temperament is a factor. Everyone processes information differently. From birth, some children are more sensitive and become upset more easily.  With that as a given, however, it is also true that resiliency can be taught. 1) Problem-solving skills, 2) emphasis on choices over traits, 3) cognitive flexibility, and 4) stress reduction activities all play a part in building resilience in children– and they can be taught at home and at school.

In order to keep the blog short and manageable (I know you don’t have all day to read this. And, by the way, aren’t you supposed to be working?!), I’ll limit the discussion to  1) problem-solving.

We’ll follow with 2) emphasis on choices over traits, 3) cognitive flexibility, and 4) stress reduction activities in subsequent posts. And don’t let me forget to say something about “pressuring the victim” and the “call me an idiot and I am going to make you laugh” routine.

Finally, before we begin, I must acknowledge the researcher, author, and bullying guru on whom I rely for cutting edge thoughtfulness on the topic– Stan Davis. His recent web discussion with Psychotherapy Networker led to my interest, and much of what I know about resiliency.

So, here we go:

Problem-solving: When a child is suffering, our first inclination as adults is to “fix it,” especially in the case of bullying. Using our power and experience as a tool, we intervene with a solution. Unfortunately, we lack the perspective of an elementary school student, and our solutions don’t necessarily work.

School dynamics are typically more complicated than one might predict. We can underestimate the amount of fear and shame that a child can feel when excluded or harassed by classmates with power. Oftentimes, we suggest something that they’ve already tried, causing them to feel more hopeless. More importantly, we’ve snatched from our child the very tool that will protect them in the future– honing  problem-solving skills that create resilience.

The best way to develop problem-solving skills is through gentle questioning. Reflect the child’s emotions without getting caught up in them (“I can tell you are feeling very upset about being treated unfairly”). Then inquire about what they have tried and respond positively (“That was definitely worth trying. What else can you do to try and solve the problem?)

With a warm and supportive guide, kids can be very creative. And they will learn to model your calm, analytic approach. Of course if you let your emotions take over, scream and stomp around, they’ll model that too.

The process provides children with a tool that they can use for a lifetime. Each attempt hones the skill, and each success builds confidence, self esteem, and of course resilience. Developing problem-solving skills is not quick, but it is gratifying.

Two crucial things to remember are:  1) Do not get angry; 2)Do not jump in and solve the problem until your child has tried more than one solution. And let them know that you will always be there for them if things get “too tough” for them to handle.

One of my favorite “universal” problem-solving strategies that can be used school-wide is Walk-Talk-Squawk. Everyone in the school learns it within minutes, it follows the “trying two solutions before getting adult help” rule, and IT RHYMES! Plus, I’ve been told by parents that their kids have employed the strategy at home to cope with little brothers and sisters. (How cool is that?!)

Alas, I promised to keep this short. And I was just getting warmed up!  Stay tuned for choices over traits, cognitive flexibility, and stress reduction activities. Not to mention “pressuring the victim” and the efficacy of the “call me an idiot and I am going to make you laugh” routine.  In the meantime…

what do you think? Make sense? Do you have a problem-solving story to share? Please use the “add comment” button below to join the conversation.

My Best,

Paul

Mean Girls

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Recently, several counselors have asked me the following question: “Does your program include something about mean girls?” Mean Girls, a phrase that taken out of context sounds like an indictment, has now become common in the lexicon of educators.
Of course, what they are talking about is a particular brand of peer aggression, which has come to be known as the “mean girl” problem thanks to the 2004 movie of the same name. The movie brilliantly parodies the cut-throat politics and social maneuvering among The Plastics, a clique of self-absorbed high school girls who are both revered and feared. Like royalty, they determine the fates of their classmates with an arsenal of put-downs, rumors, dress codes, secrets, and back-stabbing.  Effectively using the metaphor of a jungle, there are fantasy scenes in which the students become wild animals, tearing at one another’s throats in a battle of life and death– and death, of course, is synonymous with social exclusion.
Tina Fey’s comic screenplay was taken straight from the pages of  Rosalind Wiseman’s groundbreaking book, Queen Bees & Wannabees, published in 2002: a thorough examination of adolescent girl friendships and cliques. Wiseman’s “Girl World” is explored in such detail, including maps and an exhaustive list of roles and titles (Queen Bee, Sidekick, Banker, Floater, Torn Bystander, Pleaser/Wannabe/Messinger & Target) that it lends itself well to comedy. It depicts a perilous world and offers advice to parents who aspire to understand and guide their daughters through its hazards. When the book came out, Wiseman became a staple on the talk show circuit, and her ideas resonated. Fey’s movies then launched them into pop culture history.
Both works document high school culture,  but as any elementary school teacher knows, the “mean girl” dynamic can start much earlier. From the first day of elementary school, girls seek and form groups to explore common interests and to gain a sense of belonging. Their connections tend to be more verbal and fantasy based, playing pretend and acting out roles. Social skills are honed and relationships can become intense. It is a normal part of development, but the stakes can be high, especially when someone feels excluded.
My daughter Lydia, who is in her twenties, recently reminded me of an event from second grade, when she fell victim to this dynamic. I asked her about it for this blog and she reprised the story. Here is an exerpt:
“When I was in second grade there was a group of girls who called themselves ‘The Club.’ The Club was Chrissy’s idea. Chrissy made the rules for the two other girls in The Club. On certain days, the trio would co-ordinate clothing or hairstyles. As far as I could tell, club meetings involved standing in a corner of the blacktop with arms crossed, talking. At the time, I was only interested in playing at recess.  Chrissy sometimes glared at me for reasons I never understood, but I did not care much about The Club…That is, until I was specifically excluded.”

I was becoming friends with a girl named Grace. One day she told me that she couldn’t play with me. Chrissy was inducting Grace into The Club that day. 
 The next day I asked Grace to play at recess. This time she told me, “I’m in The Club now so I can’t play with you today.” When I asked her why, Grace said, “That’s what Chrissy said…I do wanna play. Maybe tomorrow.” 
 
This continued for what seemed like a long time to me. Sometimes Grace would say, “Maybe Tuesday- or next Thursday.” Another girl I liked and talked to, Stephanie, was an original member of The Club. One day she also told me that Chrissy said she couldn’t play with me. Apparently, Chrissy was making rules about what days The Club members could play with other kids. Eventually the girls’ excuses evolved into, “Chrissy says I can’t play with you.”
 
Feeling friendless, Lydia’s attitude toward school changed. Distraught, she told my wife and me about what was happening. Needless to say, it was heart-wrenching to see our eight year old girl, who typically loved school become so discouraged.  I wrote a note to the teacher, and the club was immediately dissolved: a true testament to the power of an authoritative figure in the lives of second graders.
What is also remarkable is the similarity between “The Club” and “The Plastics” of movie fame. Our experience not only predates the works of Fey and Wiseman, but illustrates the same cruel dynamic in girls who are barely old enough to read.  Why do girls act this way and why are they so good at it?
Lyn Mikel Brown, activist and co-author of Meeting At The Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girl’s Development, characterizes this dynamic as “the tyranny of nice and kind.” Because girls are required to act nice and accommodating at an early age, they learn to hide strong feelings like anger from public view. Denied open expression of anger, they become experts at more subtle forms of aggression, such as gossip, spreading rumors, and exclusion. This way, they maintain the image of being “nice,” while at the same time wielding power.
For me, Brown’s explanation holds water. Chrissie (leader of The Club) clearly saw Lydia as a rival. Knowing it inappropriate for a girl to physically, clash, hit, call-out,  or otherwise display anger or violence toward her, (like Fey’s wild animals) she employed her refined social skills. What a boy might have communicated in an athletic contest or a fight, was instead suppressed into a finely orchestrated coup de tat.  Using friendship as a commodity, she left her rival bankrupt and alone. Club members acted as loyal players to the plot, and only adult intervention brought it to an end. Chrissie’s club was dissolved, and the members regained their free will.
Is this dynamic preventable or is it inevitable? Is our only hope as counselors and educators to short circuit such behavior when we see it happening or can we replace it with a better alternative? I think we can do both.
Olweus’s 4 rules, (Do Not Bully, Help Others, Include Everyone, and Tell An Adult) are instrumental in promoting open dialogue about the way girls treat one another. Discussing “The Club” dynamic openly as a form of bullying, emphasizing the pain of exclusion, and describing and promoting empathy are all worthwhile and effective methods of reducing peer aggression. And thank goodness Lydia chose to tell an adult. In the case of “mean girls,” however, two additional areas require our attention: promoting assertiveness and evaluating friendships.
Recently, while counseling a woman in her late 20’s, I asked her if she had attempted to rectify a situation by being assertive. She responded, “I don’t want to be mean.” While girls have mined the depths of subtly aggressive communication: silent treatment, eye-rolling, sighs, stares, whispering, and pretending not to hear (to name a few), being direct or assertive  is considered mean. Correcting this distortion is crucial to empowering girls and helping to avoid the “mean girl” dynamic as both victims and perpetrators.
Using an “I” statement to tell someone what you want is easy to teach and model. Assertiveness role-play helps girls to build confidence and become more direct and powerful. It is respectful and responsible and can be taught to a kindergartner. It is far less abstract than “pillars of character” and can be used everyday. Wouldn’t it be a great addition to the curriculum?
Finally, there is the question of friendship. Though I shy away from using the word frenemy,  it is true that many children maintain friendships that are toxic. In an environment where friendship is a commodity, and “best friend” is a title to be coveted,  many kids are blinded to the fact that some friendships are bad. I recently found a Friendship Quiz online, designed to help girls decide whether or not someone is a good friend. Qualities like “stands up for me around others” are followed by check columns: Always, Sometimes, or Never. Answers are numerated for a friendship score (6-This friendship is worth keeping!, 0-3-This friendship is over! etc.) With my daughter Lydia in mind, I would surely include the quality: “Tells me whom I can and cannot play with.”
Enough said… for now. This blog is on the long side, but I had a lot to say. I love my job, bringing mental health issues to schools (I tell other therapists that my “client load” is a half dozen adults and 2000 children per week). Needless to say, girl peer aggression, assertiveness, and friendships are topics that I will continue to explore. And, as requested, they will be covered in Part III of our anti-bullying programs which is currently in production. Working title: Warm Heart, Cool Head.
My Best,
Paul

The Systems Approach

headshotbw1If there is one thing that the relatively recent and intense focus on school bullying has taught us, it is the need for a systems approach. The best way to reduce mean behavior is to improve peer relations throughout a school, and to do so everyone must be engaged. The problem should be measured and discussed, policies made clear, and skills taught. Getting everyone on the same page—students, teachers, administrators and parents—is essential.  The days of approaching bullying as simply a problem between a “bad kid” and a “victim” are over. We now know that for change to occur, the school community must be involved.

Having said this, the truth is that SYSTEMS ARE HARD TO CHANGE!  I learned this firsthand while counseling children in a private practice. The family dynamic often undoes a young client’s progress. Sometimes the very parent who brings their son or daughter into therapy seeking change undermines the child’s growth. So, unless the whole family is on board, kids make some progress, then “snap back” into old familiar patterns. Old habits, even when they are negative, are comfortable. Change can be scary. And sometimes people form their personal identity as a reaction to the system:

“She’s the black sheep; I’m the little angel.” (or vice versa)

“My son has so many problems; I’m the tortured parent.”

“He is weak; I am his protector.” (“If he gets stronger, who will I be?”)

Sometimes, family members have a vested interest in their child or sibling continuing a problem behavior, whether they know it or not.

The same kind of  “snapping back” can happen at schools. All schools have policies and rules to prevent bullying. No matter how wonderful the message, however, the trick is getting it to “stick.”

If a child effectively learns to employ the WALK-TALK-SQUAWK technique to deal with mean behavior, but is told by a parent to “never walk away from a fight” or “stand their ground,” then chances are the technique will be lost.

If a student makes a mean joke in class and everyone laughs, lessons about empathy will be cancelled by the positive feedback given by his peers.

And if children are lectured about spreading rumors but hear a teacher criticizing a colleague behind her back, modeled behavior will trump the lesson.

As a result, the most exquisitely researched and crafted anti-bullying policy will have little effect if parents, students and teachers are not on board. In my experience as an assembly provider, students and teachers are the most easily engaged and receive our message enthusiastically. Hundreds of letters, emails, and evaluations tell me that our concepts are grasped, the kids use them, and they work. However, as a believer in systems, I always wonder about the third corner of the triangle that we rarely see—the parents.

Parental support of concepts such as empathy, bystander skills, and assertiveness is crucial to students becoming good bystanders and kind classmates. Asking their child about bullying behavior at school and listening without getting angry is an important skill. Undermining anti-bullying messages with “old school” advice about fighting back and being a “tattletale” should be avoided.

So how do we get the parents on board? Parent nights are an excellent tool. After hosting some poorly attended evening programs restricted to adults, I have learned that the best format is an evening program for students and parents on the night of the assembly.  The kids are told to “come back tonight” with their parents (with the promise of more magic tricks) at the conclusion of our program. The show is a delicate balance between entertainment and helpful tips for Mom and Dad. Audiences are large and the message is spread. But not every school can afford another program due to scheduling or economic restraints.

A regular newsletter column that includes active bystander skills for students and parents to discuss can help engage caregivers. And, of course, the school website can convey the message using words, pictures and even video.

One of my goals this summer was to develop a “parent packet” to go home with students following our assemblies. It will contain a summary of skills that their child has learned in addition to parenting tips. The trick has been limiting the material and keeping it concise, to cut down on photocopying and to provide a version that can be made available via the web. I am excited about providing a new dimension to our service. I hope that it will be effective in helping our message to “stick” by spreading it throughout the “system.”

Remember, most students never try to hurt anyone. When they as the majority are given skills and guidance, the school culture can assume a new tone. Others will fall in step. If parents support the school’s message, teachers model warmth and kindness, and student bystanders greet mean jokes with silence, then aggressors will adjust to the cues of the system: one that values empathy, assertiveness, and respect.

My Best,

Paul


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