Posts Tagged 'bully'

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,



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





Mean Girls


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,

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,


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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