Tuesday, 25 February 2014

It takes a village: A comprehensive approach to combat bullying

I was teased a lot in elementary school.

I was made fun of for my academic ability, which made me stand out from my peers, and for my Romanesque nose (although that wasn’t the term the other kids used). I also had poor co-ordination and was extremely self-conscious participating in any type of competitive athletic activity. My well-meaning parents tried to develop my self esteem by enrolling me in outside activities such as dance lessons. But the lessons ended up being another source of taunting among some of my school mates who were in the same dance class.

To top it all off, I had a lot of trouble maintaining attention in the classroom. I worked hard and was eager to please, but I didn’t fit into the mold of a “conventional” learner. In Grade 4 I enrolled in a gifted program, but found that I still didn’t fit in. Although my language skills were well beyond my years, I was just as many years behind in my math skills. I didn’t feel like anyone understood me—teachers or other children. I was teased during gym class and would get what I referred to as a “math headache” each day.

The taunting from other students was hurtful. I felt embarrassed and excluded, and I felt like I didn’t have an adult at school who I could confide in. I still remember the names of the students that made the most frequent and hurtful comments, and how I felt waking up each day and dreading going to school.

Sadly, this is not a unique story. Thankfully, my story had a happy ending.

In high school, I was lucky enough to attend a school for the arts (think “Glee”) where my quirkiness was valued and I fit in with the eccentric group of students that embodied the culture of our school (FYI- my focus was music, obviously not dance!). In this setting, my confidence developed, I made many wonderful friendships and participated in a wide variety of activities, both within and outside of school. I moved past the negative experiences of my elementary years.

This is not the happy ending that all students experience.

Bullying is often dismissed as a normal childhood rite of passage, however, there is no denying that is detrimental to students’ academic, physical, social and emotional development. Students deserve to feel safe at school. Nearly all students are either targets, perpetrators and/or witnesses to bullying. It is a problem that affects nearly all students, educators and families in some way and as such, we all play a role in the solution.

What is bullying?
  • Physical or psychological intimidation which occurs repeatedly over time to create an ongoing pattern of harassment and abuse.
  • The behavior is intended to have the effect of (or the pupil ought to know that the behavior would likely have the effect of) creating a negative environment for another individual, causing harm, fear or distress to another individual.
  • Actions may be of a physical, verbal, emotional or sexual nature and may include behaviours such as ongoing teasing, name calling, taunting, threatening, exclusion, ostracism, harassment, manipulation of friendships or physical violence.
  • The behavior may also occur in a context where there is a real or perceived power imbalance based on factors such as size, strength, age, intelligence, peer group power, economic status, social status, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, family circumstances, gender, gender identity, gender expression, race, disability or the receipt of special education.
  • Cyber bullying can be defined as sending or posting harmful or malicious messages or images through email, instant messages, cell phones and websites.
  • Examples of cyber bullying include: sending cruel, vicious or threatening messages, creating websites that contain stories, cartoons, pictures and jokes ridiculing others, posting pictures of classmates online with intent to embarrass them, breaking into an email or social media account and sending material to others, engaging in online messaging to trick another person into revealing sensitive or personal information and forwarding that information to others, or taking a picture of a person using a digital phone camera and sending that picture electronically to others without consent.

Why people bully

There is not one answer to this question; however, trying to determine a cause or combination of causes in each particular situation may be helpful when attempting to find the most appropriate solution.
  • Some pupils engage in bullying because they suffer from a lack of confidence, have low self-esteem or may have been bullied themselves.
  • Some bullying can be prejudice or identity based and is rooted in a lack of understanding and respect for diversity.
  • Some students who engage in bullying behaviour have more aggressive personalities combined with a low level of self-discipline and impulsivity.
  • Sometimes bullying occurs because a student is seeking attention or trying to impress their peer group.
  • In some, I like to believe more rare situations, students that bully may lack a sense of remorse and may even believe that the other person deserves the treatment they are receiving.
  • Although the impact is not any less significant, some pupils who engage in bullying behaviour may not intend to bully or even recognize the potential negative impact of their words and actions on others.

What to do if your child is being bullied

  • Listen, be supportive and empathetic, and gather information. Don’t blame your child, but also be aware that you are hearing one side of the story. Try to step back and check your emotions (this is obviously easier said than done). Ask them to describe who was involved, who witnessed the situations and how and where each bullying episode happened.
  • Tell them that bullying is wrong and that you are glad he or she had the courage to tell you about it. Never tell your child to ignore the bullying. If your child were able to simply ignore it, they likely wouldn’t be coming to you for help.
  • Ask questions about what happened such as, “What do you think you can do if this happens again?”
  • If you disagree with how your child handled the bullying situation, don’t criticize them but continue to ask questions that may guide them toward a different response such as “What do you think is going to happen if you do that?”
  • Ask your child what they think can be done to help. Although it is difficult, try not to pass judgment or take on the problem as your own right away. Your child needs to feel empowered to come up with and act on their solutions, this is a skill that will last a lifetime!
  • Do not encourage physical retaliation as a solution. This is not likely to end the problem and could escalate the situation.
  • If you have made attempts to coach your child and the problem continues, it is time to report it to an adult at the school. If they are coming home more than once a week with complaints, don’t wait. Start by setting up an appointment with the classroom teacher where you will have their full attention, do not just mention it in passing. Most students who bully know better than to do it in front of staff members and the teacher may be unaware of the situation, so come prepared to provide details including who, what, when, where and how. Let them know the impact that the bullying is having on your child. Later, you can check in via email or phone.
  • Expect the bullying to stop. Talk regularly with your child and with school staff to see whether it has stopped and, if not, ask to meet with school administration about your concerns. Let them know that you spoke with the teacher and your child is still coming home with the same complaint. Ask what you should do and what the next step at school is, and continue to reassure your child that you are working with the school to remedy the situation.
  • Communication is crucial! Maintain positive, regular and open dialogue with the school and let them know that you want to work with them to help your child as well as any other victims or bystanders that are being affected. We all play a part in the solution to bullying and working together is often the key for successful outcomes for our students.

How to deal with cyber bullying

  • Being proactive is the first step. You are your child’s first and best teacher. Model and teach respectful and responsible internet usage.
  • Make sure your children understand what cyber bullying is and that anything they post or send is permanent and can be made public.
  • Set up the family computer in an open area, set expectations and consider utilizing parental controls.
  • Teach your child to not reply to or forward inappropriate or hurtful messages that they receive (whether about them or someone else) and to report them to an adult.
  • Instruct them not to erase or delete messages.
  • If they are able, block that person from sending messages.
  • If your child is the victim of cyber bullying, print a copy of the messages or come to school prepared to log in and show the messages to a school administrator. The principal or vice principal will work with you to address the situation.
  • If physical threats are made or the bullying escalates, inform your local police. The school can also involve their community police liason.
  • If necessary, get a new phone number, account or email address and give it out to only one person at a time.

What if your child is the bully?

Would you know if your child were bullying others? How would you react if you got that call from the school that no parent wants to receive? Maybe you yourself have been uneasy about how your child interacts with others. However it comes to light, your response sets the tone for the outcome of the situation. Your response can escalate the situation or it can create a valuable learning opportunity for your child.

The first step is to manage your natural emotional reaction to either blame or defend your child. Remember, this is a description of behavior that your child is experiencing at the moment but does not define them as a person, nor is it who they will be forever if you work with them to get help.

There are many reasons why children bully and that you may not be aware of it. It does not mean that you are a bad parent. Take a deep breath—or 20—and begin to gather information.

Although it may not be your first reaction, thank the person who contacted you. It’s not an easy subject to broach, and showing them that you are eager help change the situation makes all the difference. Next, take time for yourself to process and formulate a plan for speaking to your child.

Calmly ask your child what happened. Ask questions and gather as many of the details as you can. Let them know that we all make mistakes and that you need to know all of the information.

If they see that you remain calm, they are more likely to provide accurate responses. If they can only tell you what the other child did, tell them that you want to hear the whole story but you want to hear what they did first.

Even if your child has a different story that the other parent or school staff may not be aware of, your primary job is to help your child take responsibility for their actions and find strategies to help them in the future. Explain that whatever happened, you will help them to get through it.

Try to determine underlying factors that may have led up to this particular situation (some examples may include anger, teasing, insecurity or lack of awareness of the impact of their behavior).

Model conflict resolution skills and help your child to develop strategies that will help them moving forward. The strategies that you teach them will be different depending on the factors that you feel are contributing to the behavior. Make your expectations clear about what is acceptable and not acceptable and explain what will happen if the bullying continues.

Role play different situations with your child where they play the part of both bully and victim. Provide positive feedback and recognition when your child deals with conflict well, shows empathy to others or uses positive coping strategies to manage their emotions.

If your child is involved in ongoing situations of bullying, know that it won’t “just go away” on its own. Communicate with the school to help you to connect you and your child with community supports such as counseling services. Go to the doctor who will rule out any underlying issues such as anxiety, depression, impulsivity or difficulty reading social cues. Be realistic but optimistic. It takes time to change behavior but with understanding and patience, it can be changed.

Tips for school staff

School staff should not wait until a situation arises to approach the topic of bullying. There are countless ways to be proactive about addressing bullying in schools and classrooms.

Sharing your own experiences and how you were impacted helps students to know that you understand and will take their concerns seriously should they need someone to turn to.

Plan activities that develop a safe supportive community where students get to know each other and respect each others’ differences. Within this environment, emphasize the interconnectedness of the community and encourage them to think about how their actions affect others (both positively and negatively).

When bullying does occur, here are some steps for staff to follow:
  • Listen and affirm using statements such as “You were right to get help from an adult” or “I’m glad you asked for help with this”
  • Gather information using questions such as “Tell me more about what happened”, “Has this happened before?” and “Who saw what happened and how did they respond?”. Another key question is, “Are you telling me this is to get someone in trouble or to keep someone safe?” (reporting vs. tattling)
  • Determine what the child needs to feel safe, counsel them on what to do if the bullying continues and assure them that you will take action.
  • Continue to gather information from the bully as well as from any witnesses.
  • Take action by the asking the student to stop the behaviour, explaining why it is wrong and how it impacts others (or better yet, facilitate a safe conversation between the people involved, including witnesses, so they can explain the impact). Ask them what they think they need to do to remedy the situation ensure that they follow through with this plan.
  • Communicate with families to inform them of the situation and steps that have been taken.
  • Follow up by checking in to determine the success of the intervention.
  • Refer the situation to an administrator if it involves hands on, threats or repeated behavior.

School-wide approaches

In order to combat bullying, we must shift the culture of our schools and of our communities. Positive school climate involves a social environment that promotes positive interactions, an emotional environment that promotes self-esteem and belonging and an academic environment that promotes learning. In general terms, it refers to the overall “feel” of a school.

Programs that focus on developing positive school climate get results because they take a proactive approach to bullying prevention. They are focused on school-wide student engagement rather than interventions. As a result, relationships become founded in respect, kindness and inclusion, and are modeled by the majority.

  • Positive and proactive system and school-wide approaches to bullying include:
  • Utilizing a climate survey and other data to assess needs and drive school approaches and policies within each school
  • Including students in the delivery and development of school-wide initiatives
  • Programs that address both risk and protective factors
  • Character education initiatives
  • Explicit teaching and modeling of social skills and self regulation strategies
  • Implementation of restorative practices
  • Pro equity and inclusion practices that ensure all students feel represented, safe and able to succeed
  • Developing student leadership programs within the school (e.g. Peer Mentors, Conflict managers)
  • Working in partnership with community partners to implement programming (e.g. ‘Roots of Empathy’, “VIP”, “DARE”, Big Brothers/Sisters in School Mentoring and Counselling Services)
  • Including healthy lifestyle initiatives in classes and co-curricular offerings
  • Working together with staff, parents and students to create a consensus on the definition of bullying, clarify behavioral norms, and communicating and consistently enforcing school rules and expectations
  • Classroom teachers who promote inclusive, caring learning environments and allow time for discussions about difficult topics
  • Focusing on positive climate initiatives beginning in the primary grades to establish norms that students grow up with
  • Creating a team that is representative of the school community to make sure that all voices are heard when establishing programming. Members may include educators, community members, students and parents
  • Incorporating lessons and discussions that support social and emotional development into the curriculum
  • Recognizing that all students are negatively affected by bullying and empowering bystanders to intervene
  • Building healthy student-teacher connections where staff model behaviors of respect and inclusion and hold students accountable to meet school wide expectations

How to develop a resilient child

Schools and parents can also function with a common goal of developing resiliency in our children and youth. The ability to “bounce back” from a negative situation is a skill that can be taught and nurtured. When we teach this early, we provide skills that will last a lifetime!

Some strategies to develop resiliency in our children include:
  • Maintaining open communication
  • Recognizing and helping them build a belief in their positive attributes, especially those that they may not recognize or take for granted
  • Helping to develop talents and confidence by facilitating activities based on their interests
  • Encouraging the development of positive relationships and social skills by enabling interaction with peers, both from school and from outside of the school environment
  • Modelling optimism, even when times are tough. These are excellent opportunities to teach problem solving skills!
  • Modelling and talking about positive self care skills and healthy habits related to diet, exercise, sleep and other lifestyle related factors
  • Teaching them how and from whom to seek help when they are feeling threatened
  • Discussing goals and helping to break them down into manageable steps so that they can be successful
  • Modelling and helping them to do something good for someone else. Science has shown that when we help others, our serotonin levels increase!
  • Use humour as a strategy to help get through times of challenge
Bullying is a complex issue that requires courage to address and, although dealing with this problem can be complex, it is not a subject that can be ignored. Working together in partnerships, school staff, parents, students and communities can make positive changes to the climate of our schools and improve the educational experiences of our students.

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