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Welcome to thebullyblog: From the Mouths of Babes

Welcome to thebullyblog. This is the first installment in a series of informational articles, reviews, and practical advice on the topic of reducing bullying in our schools. As a therapist and presenter of anti-bullying assembly programs, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting hundreds of school counselors, teachers, administrators and parents who are taking an active interest in reducing mean behavior. This blog is an effort to share current research, trends, and ideas about the nature of bullying in schools and what we, as professionals can do to help. So, let’s get started…

An article recently published in the Swiss journal Psychology in the Schools makes the argument that, when it comes to bullying, the stories that children tell are as important as the statistics. Typically,  Google Alert on the topic of “bullying” packs my in box with scary statistics, horror stories, and new reports that recount serious physical and emotional injury and suicide. So it was refreshing to find a scholarly study that pulled data  straight from the mouths of school children who described why kids get bullied. What was the number one reason? Children felt that students were bullied for being different.

According to the children, targets might be different in
1. appearance (ugly, fat, short, thin, wearing wrong or odd clothes, wearing glasses, having different skin color, or just looking “bad” in some way);
2. behavior (weird speech, playing with opposite sex, clumsy);
3. characteristics (stupid, childish, nerdy);
4. having a disability (“retarded,” deaf, confined to a wheel chair); finally, a child might be bullied for
5. association (having an odd friend or family member, or belong to a different culture).

The notion that students are bullied for being different may not be groundbreaking, but it says something about the culture of school children that deserves our attention.

Bullying is part of a larger dynamic. Most kids are experts at reading the cues of those around them and figuring out what is expected. Expectations determine behavior. They see how others act and act accordingly. Using these skills, kids from the study learned that, to avoid being a target of mean behavior, you mustn’t look different, act differently, associate with those who are different, or, heaven forbid, defend anyone for being different– not exactly an environment conducive for nurturing positive bystander skills.

For me, this information helps to define the challenge of bringing concepts like empathy to elementary school children.  Including the kids who are different may seem like radical ideas in a culture where deviating from the norm is punished. Part of our job is to make these “radical” ideas commonplace, acceptable, and even fun– like the adventure of wearing someone else’s shoes. At the same time, focusing on a solitary, bad person or “bully” misses the point. “Bullies” will exist as long as they are supported by a culture that is afraid to speak up.

The authors of Schoolchildren’s Social Representations on Bullying Causes describe the children’s social reality as being “morally disengaged.” Fortunately, the elementary years are an opportune time to engage students morally, through art, literature, story-telling, activities, and, of course, through example.

Our programs attempt to blend nearly all of these methods of engagement, strung together with magic and laughter. It is an ambitious 45 minutes. Our Teachers Guide offers suggestions for folllow-up, the best of which, I believe, encourage kids to go out on the playground and “step out of the box.” Playing with someone new, smiling at a peer who is having a bad day, or being part of a club whose purpose is to foster friendships, are all behaviors that can holistically affect a school’s culture. Moral engagement moves closer to the norm. Everyone benefits.

For an educator, challenging  children to engage morally as well as academically can seem like a daunting task. School cultures are at least as dynamic and complex as the many lives that enter the doors each day. I admire the school counselors, administrators, and teachers that we’ve had the pleasure to work with. My partner Barry and I realize that we are only a supplement in a much larger journey. We feel honored in our roles to remain true to the growing body of research and to help keep the journey joyful.

References: Schoolchildren’s Social Representations on Bullying Causes.Thornberg, Robert. Psychology in the Schools, Apr2010, Vol. 47 Issue 4, p311-327, 17p, 1 Chart


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