Wakefield Schools have rolled out a pretty extensive Anti-Bullying policy. The kids have all learned about it and there was even a march at Galvin last week in support of a zero-tolerance policy. Since October is Anti-Bullying Awareness month, we thought we'd have some straight talk about the whole subject. While none of us ever want to see a child bullied, we share our thoughts on the policy and where we see its strengths and weaknesses.
Let’s start out by identifying the meaning the term bullying, as defined by the new Olweus Bullying Prevention Program being rolled out in the Wakefield schools:
Bullying is when someone repeatedly and on purpose says or does mean or hurtful things to another person who has a hard time defending himself or herself. Bullying can take many forms, such as hitting, verbal harassment, spreading false rumors, not letting someone be part of the group, and sending nasty messages on a cell phone or over the Internet.
Sensei Rick Alford, owner of Wakefield's own Defensive Edge, has devoted nearly 13 years to helping children avoid bullying and has shared his insights with the students at his martial arts school and at the schools around town. Special thanks to Sensei Rick for sharing his perspective on the topic.
I began my research on Bullying when I opened Defensive Edge in 1999. It was the same year that bullying contributed to the tragic massacre at the Columbine High School. Every week I have parents of my students come to me for advice on how to handle bullying situations with their children. Often when I ask them how they would like to see their child handle the bully, the dad wants the child to fight, while the mom wants the child to walk away. In my experience, both of these choices can make a bad situation worse.
I’d like to share some basic information about bullying and how parents can recognize if their child is a target of bullying. Bullying has two key components: repeated harmful acts and an imbalance of power. It involves recurring physical, verbal or psychological attacks or intimidation directed against a target that cannot properly defend him/herself because of size or strength, or because the target is out numbered or less psychologically resilient. Bullying includes assault, tripping, rumor-spreading, isolation, demand for money, destruction of property, theft of valued possessions, destruction of another’s work, and name-calling. Other bullying includes sexual harassment (exhibitionism, voyeurism, sexual propositioning, and sexual abuse involving unwanted physical contact), ostracism based on perceived sexual orientation, and hazing. Parents should note that not all taunting, teasing and fighting among school children constitutes bullying. Two persons of approximately the same size or strength (physical or psychological) fighting or quarreling is not bullying. Rather, bullying entails continual acts by someone perceived as physically or psychologically more powerful.
Bullying is known to have long-lasting harmful effects, for both the target and the bully. Without intervention, bullies are much more likely to develop a criminal record than their peers. The targets of bullying suffer psychological harm long after the bullying stops. In fact, two thirds of attackers in school shootings had previously been bullied. This experience appears to have been a major role in motivating the attacker. International research suggests that bullying is common at all grade levels, but most frequently during elementary school. It occurs slightly less often in middle school, and less so but still frequently in high school. High school freshmen are particularly vulnerable. Kids who are being bullied often tell no one about their misery out of shame, fear of retaliation or being considered a snitch, and feelings of hopelessness.
How can parents know if their child is the target of bullying? Some signs to watch for include:
• Subtle changes in behavior (withdrawn, sensitive, anxious, preoccupied)
• Demonstrates a loss of interest in school and in favorite activities
• Comes home from school with bruises and scratches, torn or dirtied clothing, or with missing or damaged books and property
• Loss of appetite
• Excessive trips to the school nurse
• Inability to sleep, bad dreams, crying in sleep
• Repeatedly loses clothing, money or other valuables
• Appears afraid or reluctant to go to school
• Has repeated headaches or stomach aches, particularly in the morning
• Chooses a roundabout or strange route to and from school
• Feels lonely
• Reluctant to take the school bus
There are a number of techniques that can help your child deal with a bully. At Defensive Edge, students learn many physical self-defense skills to give them confidence to be able to defend themselves in dangerous situations. Just as important, kids need to understand that “mental self-defense” and non-violent alternatives are the best ways to approach handling conflicts with a bully – before they become physical.
I run a program for kids called Brave the Bully™. In it, I teach kids how to defend themselves against bullies and I encourage them to be aware of their body language and what it might be telling a bully. I teach them to appear confident, even if they don’t feel it inside. Bullies don’t pick on kids who are confident. They are like predators looking for easy targets who will not defend themselves. I let my student know that it is all right to feel nervous or frightened, but they need to try not to show it. There are studies that show that your physiology can impact your psychology. Simply put, if kids walk with confidence, they will begin to feel more confident.
The students of Wakefield Public Schools are lucky to be in a district that is incorporating the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. I also believe in this program and think it’s an effective way to build a community against bullying. It teaches kids how to prevent bullying of themselves and others and how to handle it should the situation occur. Such a comprehensive program will undoubtedly make great strides in impacting the incidence of bullying in the schools in Wakefield.
For more information on Defensive Edge, the Brave the Bully™ program, and Rick Alford, please go to their website at www.Defensive-Edge.com.
Luckily, my kids have not been bullied in school and (as far as I know) haven’t bullied anyone else. Nobody deserves to be mistreated, but every kid who says or does something mean isn’t a bully. I think it is critical to teach kids how to get along and treat each other with respect, but also to teach kids what is, and what is not bullying. The Olweus program has been very well received and it seems to create an environment where kids understand that bullying won’t be tolerated. This works in a school setting where there are often other kids who should feel empowered to stick up for someone who is being bullied and tell an adult what has happened. Hopefully, that sense of empowerment will extend beyond the school walls and encourage kids to speak up if they are bullied in other situations – in person or through social media or texting. The program also teaches kids not to be victims. Everyone has a voice and their concerns will be listened to and taken seriously.
I don’t remember any specific anti-bullying policies or training when I was in school, but I did have the adult equivalent — mandatory seminars to address sexual harassment in the workplace. We all spent a day watching videos and taking quizzes about nasty workplace behavior and we learned exactly what to do if anything ever actually happened. Inappropriate, negative behaviors are given a name and a clear definition. This can be a good thing – knowing that mistreatment, teasing, threats, and violence won’t be tolerated and that there are steps you can take to change your situation is incredibly valuable.
The Olweus program defines bullying as “when someone repeatedly and on purpose says or does mean or hurtful things to another person who has a hard time defending himself or herself.” The key phrase is repeatedly and on purpose. Awareness of the intent of the bully is important. Every instance of mean words, or a nasty look, or leaving someone out of a group is not necessarily bullying. If a person or group is intentionally mistreating a student and repeatedly singling that child out, then it must be addressed. However, kids can’t “cry bully” every time they feel mistreated.
One other potential pitfall— I think that these kinds of programs, however well-meaning, are asking kids to label the bad behavior of others as “bullying” when it might not be. In the older grades, the accusation of bullying can be used as a weapon in itself. Time will tell if this new school program can help provide all kids with a safe, happy environment to learn.
Tasha Schlake Festel
Bullying isn’t new, by any means. We all remember those kids who got picked on no matter what they did. Some of us might even have been those kids. Luckily, I did not experience bullying until I was an adult and much better equipped to handle it. I was one of the few who made it through elementary school, high school, and college without a scratch. Phew!
Obviously bullying is bad and we don’t want it to happen. As the literature clearly – and rightly – states, children deserve to feel safe when they are at school. But can a policy do that? Is it possible that we’re also teaching the bullies to be more effective?
I won’t lie. The cynic in me wonders if some of the anti-bullying programs and workshops are user’s guides for budding bullies, kind of a “Bullying for Dummies” outline. I certainly hope this is not the case, as we all do. As the mother of two kids, the last thing I want to do is teach bullies how to be sneakier and more effective. Yes, I know bullies don’t bully because they just figured out how, but I do wonder if they’ll get better at it, armed with insider information.
I worry that the supposed “stop the bully in his tracks” responses won’t be so shocking anymore when everyone is using them. The bullies will find ways to respond. Anyone good at his or her job knows that there is always an effective work-around. Kids are pretty savvy, even in elementary school, and subtlety reigns supreme for many bullies. This stuff isn’t always easy to spot.
But, as the saying goes, knowledge is power. Knowing how to protect yourself (and others) from bullying could stop a bully in his or her tracks. As I see it, the real power in most bullying situation lies with the bystanders, the ones not personally involved. They may have seen or heard something, and the OBPP program holds them responsible for doing something with that information. The lesson of the program is that we’re all in this together.
I talk with my kids regularly about their social interactions at school and in their extracurricular activities. They’re both pretty forthcoming with information. But as they get older, they’re not the open books they once were. I find that volunteering for lunch duty is extremely telling. It gives me insight into their worlds. I can see what kids are like in their natural habitats. It’s fascinating.
I also coach some of my kids’ teams and run various activities for organizations in which they are involved. I know them, and I know the people they interact with. I’d like to think this will foster an environment of trust and familiarity so I’ll know what’s going on and with whom.
I see home as the first line of defense against a bully. The program at school is back-up. It’s our job as involved parents to keep our kids safe.
As a parent who’s had to deal with bullying issues, I’m glad about the emphasis on anti-bullying programs and clear policies in the schools. I think the schools should keep educating students in this area as much as they can. Bullying will never go away, and the advent of technology and social media has created a new bullying monster we’re still trying to get our heads around as a society.
My kids and I have seen Sensei Rick Alford’s Brave the Bully program many times. Like several newer anti-bullying philosophies, Rick’s program highlights the responsibility of the bystanders. My kids also have taken classes at Defensive Edge for years. Between the anti-bullying tactics they learned through Brave the Bully and their self-defense training in jujitsu, they have the confidence to deal with bullying. Sensei Rick teaches his students to defend words with words and hands with hands, and my kids have had to do both.
Like Brave the Bully, the Olweus program emphasizes the role of the bystander. A few other components of the Olweus program stood out to me:
While it is great to educate bystanders on their role, it is still difficult for kids in a seemingly neutral position to take action by siding with or helping the victim. Bystanders might feel bad about witnessing bullying, but in a lot of cases they’re probably thinking, “Better you than me.” Of course, that isn’t the right thing to do, but role playing situation are different from real world incidents.
In the Olweus program, kids who stand idly by are reported along with the bully. The beauty of this element is that it gives the bystanders an out for alerting a teacher. Under other scenarios, the bystander who gets an adult might be perceived as a tattle-tale ( a grim prospect for elementary school kids). Now, the bystander can just say, “I’m not getting in trouble for something you’re doing wrong.” I doubt this was the intention of the Olweus strategists, but it is a nice benefit for bystanders to feel comfortable about going to get help without repercussions for doing so.
Moving to the Side of the Victim
Something as simple as bystanders moving to the victim and standing behind him is a powerful visual. If a bully is suddenly targeting a kid who is now backed by a phalanx of bystanders, it sends a message that the audience for his antics is gone. It also supports and empowers the victim.
Kids learn to get an adult if they see bullying, but what happens once that adult arrives on the scene is not always consistent. One teacher might just tell the kids to knock it off. Another might send the bully to the office. Yet another might feel kids are just too sensitive, stop the behavior, and do nothing more. My understanding from a friend who went through the Olweus training is that the teachers now have a consistent approach to intervening in a bullying event.
First, the adult addresses the group: “I’m seeing what looks like bullying to me.”
Next, the adult addresses the victim: “I’m sorry this happened to you. It will be handled and I’ll speak with you later. You may go.”
Finally, to the bully and bystanders: “You are all not following our rules about bullying, and I’m reporting this to the office.” The adult writes down the names of the bully and the bystanders and submits them to the principal.
Simple, quick and effective. I’m sure my quoted verbiage is inexact, but that’s the gist as it was described to me.
I haven’t read through the entire Olweus program, but I like what I’ve heard so far. I also agree with Tasha that the discussion begins at home. Parents need to support a bullied kid, and take it seriously if their child is bullying others.