Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Teaching Empathy to Reduce Bullying

The concept of teaching empathy as a way to reduce bullying is gaining traction both in research and in practice, and there are several good reasons why we should be paying attention.

What is empathy?
 Research on positive psychology in schools defines empathy as an emotional "response that is identical to or very similar to what another person is feeling or is expected to feel." A common metaphor for empathy is walking in someone else's shoes.

An important distinction is found between the words empathy and sympathy.  Sympathy is feelings of concern or being sorry "for" another. Feelings of sympathy allow space between a situation and an observer. A sympathetic person can remain emotionally responsive, but also detached.

On the other hand, empathy is a shared experience that removes that space. Feeling empathy is understanding what someone else is feeling, also described as being sorry "with" another. Dr. Neel Burton explains that empathy requires imagining what that person is feeling, seeing the situation from another's perspective. When you feel empathy, you cannot remain detached from another person.

Can teaching empathy reduce bullying? Dr. Patty O'Grady suggests that bullying is the opposite of empathy. She says that bullying is a weak behavior dependent on complete detachment from another, while empathy is strong behavior present only when one has connected to another.  Most importantly, they cannot co-exist.

A Harvard study of 10,000 American middle and high school students attempted to make a clear connection between building empathy and reducing bullying. The researchers found that when students reported high empathy in their schools, they also reported fewer incidents of discrimination and threats to physical safety. These students also spoke of bullying in particular. Fewer bullying incidents occurred, and students were more likely to report bullying when it did occur.

Empathy is a powerful behavior that cannot co-exist with bullying. Bullying focuses on maintaining power over those perceived as inferior. Conversely, empathy connects people into the universal human experience. From empathy, compassion emerges, and from compassion, altruism. Long-term, sustained efforts in developing empathy in our children is an important component in developing the safe, supportive, and caring environments where they can thrive.

Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting and communicating that incredible healing message of "You're Not Alone."     ~Brene Brown

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Bullying: Who Is Most at Risk?

Once aware of our bullying problem in schools, the next question people often ask is "Who is most at risk?" The simple answer is that every young person everywhere is at risk of being a target of bullying behavior. However, bullying is a complex problem, and we need to dig deeper.

The US Department of Health and Human Services suggests that students who are most at risk for being targets of bullying have one or more specific characteristics.

  1. Students perceived as different from the dominant peer group. These students have body sizes or outward appearances that set them apart. Race and ethnicity different from the dominant peer group may play into this perceived difference.
  2. Students seen as inferior or "less than." These young people are perceived to be fragile and unable to protect themselves from aggressive behavior.
  3. Students perceived to be sad and/or nervous. These students also may suffer from a poor self-image and seem unsure of themselves.
  4. Students socially isolated, appearing to have few friends. These students may not be well-liked by their peers. 
  5. Students having difficulty in group settings. These students appear uncomfortable in social situations. 
  6. Students identified as learning differently. This includes students with learning disabilities. 
The US Department of Education's stopbullying.gov site highlights two groups that are at increased risk of being bullied. First, the LGBTQ population is often the target of bullying behavior. Schools and communities alike must work together to provide safe space for these students where they are protected from harm. The second group includes those with disabilities and special health needs. Recently, bullying behavior in school has been aimed toward those who have received accommodations for life-threatening food allergies. Again, schools and communities must partner to create environments where these students are safe.

Because bullying cannot flourish in safe and caring environments, we must do whatever we can to strengthen these environments for all of our children, especially for those students and groups who have the greatest risk of being harmed. 

I think we have a moral obligation to our children that can be easily summarized:
 number one - protect them from harm.    
 ~Tom Allen

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Bullying for Parents: What You Can Do (Part II)

As the US Department of Education states, "Parents play critical roles in addressing and preventing bullying." Their concern, influence and responsibility are unparalleled. Once parents are fully aware of the bullying problem, the next step is action. Fortunately, excellent advice is easily accessible, and plentiful resources are available online for parents.

Some anti-bullying initiatives have been inspired by recent films. For example, the BULLY Project, a campaign extending from the movie BULLY, offers helpful tips for parents:
  • Parents are encouraged to teach their children about cyberbullying and encourage them to be positive witnesses to bullying. 
  • Children should hear the consistent message at home and at school that bullying is not a normal part of childhood. 
  • Parents need to share with other parents what they know about the prevalence of bullying in schools. 
  • When parents learn their child is being bullied, doing the bullying, or witnessing bullying, and they are not sure what to do, they should ask for help. In addition to the school resources, the medical community, mental health professionals, and other community resources are available to assist. 
The National PTA's program Connect for Respect (C4R) unites parents, students, and schools in efforts against bullying. The first step of C4R is creating a team of students, parents, and educators. This team will assess the culture/climate of the school community, target areas of concern based on the results, and move toward strengthening a positive and supportive culture where bullying cannot thrive.

Stan Davis, founder of the Stop Bullying Now, with Charisse Nixon, Professor at Penn State Behrend, compiled their experience with the voices of 13.000 students in Youth Voice Project: Student Insight into Bullying and Peer Mistreatment. They provide valuable advice for parents who believe their child is being bullied or mistreated. The first important step is to assess the severity of the mistreatment.

  1. If the behavior is mild and has little impact on the well-being of the child, parents should advise their child to ignore the behavior, stay away from the person mistreating them, and/or ask the person to stop.
  2. If the behavior continues or is moderately severe, parents should begin documenting the mistreatment with dates and other details. They should brainstorm together possible solutions after identifying the strategies the child has used to that point. Parents may then approach the school, making contact with the teacher first and then the principal. The meetings should be focused on the documented mistreatment and existing school policy/response to bullying.
  3. If the behavior is severe, parents may need to approach officials with documentation of the events and the impact as a first step of action. They should work with school officials in matters of school-based bullying and outside officials, perhaps law enforcement, with bullying that occurs in the community. If the child continues to show signs of trauma, including sleeplessness and anxiety, a physician or mental health professional will be of great assistance.
One of the most important pieces of advice for parents and a most challenging one to achieve is to remain calm. Being calm when talking to school and outside officials will allow the problem and the details surrounding it to be presented in a non-threatening manner. Staying calm when talking with your child about the incident will help to draw out the facts necessary to address the problem. 

Most importantly, remaining calm will help to quiet the upset child. By modeling this, the parent is also helping the child build resilience and inner strength, a positive outcome from a traumatic situation.

When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it is our job to share our calm, not to join their chaos.   ~L.R. Knost

Friday, October 7, 2016

Bullying for Parents: What You Should Know (Part I)

Parents and schools working together provide the united front necessary to reduce bullying. Both educators and parents have powerful online resources available to them; however, parents may not be aware of these resources or know how to access them.

The US Department of Education site, stopbullying.gov, provides a wealth of information for awareness, prevention, and intervention. While many sites provide toolkits and action plans, the stopbullying.gov site starts at awareness and lists some possible warning signs that children are being bullied. The following are some warning signs from a very comprehensive list:
  • Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics, or jewelry
  • Frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or faking illness
  • Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
  • Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, or not wanting to go to school
  • Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
Another valuable online resource is the site for the National PTA's program Connect for Respect (C4R) that promotes proactive and responsive parental involvement in schools.  The C4R is a research-based approach in building strong relationships in schools. These strong relationships are the building blocks in safe and supportive learning environments where bullying cannot flourish. Again, parents and educators are working together to keep our children safe and healthy.

Finally, the National Education Association has tools specifically for parents and educators, The ABC's of Bullying reminds us that bullying can occur anywhere. The article, For Parents: If a Child Complains of Being Bullied," provides warning signs and early steps for parents to take before the school is involved. It suggests questions to ask to confirm suspicion of bullying.

Educators are starting to grasp the critical importance of the caring relationship between every student and at least one adult in school. We also understand that healthy and supportive relationships are at the core of a strong and caring learning environment. Most importantly, we know that bullying cannot flourish in those positive, supportive schools. Having the parents as partners in this effort is vital to its success.

"Connecting home and school makes us a great community of learners." ~Unknown

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Is Bullying Really an Issue?

Increasingly, I am asked to speak to parent groups about bullying awareness, prevention, and intervention. Before one presentation last spring, a gentleman came up to me and said that while he appreciated my coming, he wanted me to know up front that he did not believe that bullying is a problem. He went on to say that we have become too sensitive as a society and that our young people needed to toughen up. 
I responded to his comments with a simple question, "How do you know that bullying isn't a problem?" He tilted his head and said, "I guess I don't know."

For the record, bullying is a problem, and we do have the data to support that. The quickest way to see national and state statistics is by looking at results from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, given every two years to our nation's 10th-grade students. The national results from 2015 YRBS results regarding bullying are as follows:

  • 20.2% of American high school students reported being bullied on school property during the 12 months before the survey.
  • 15.5% were electronically bullied, counting being bullied through email, chat rooms, instant messaging, Web sites, or texting during the 12 months before the survey. 

Knowing national and state statistics will confirm that a problem exists. However, we need much more information in order to determine the best course of action to resolve the problem.

Staff and student surveys provide much of this information. Research- and evidence-based programs such as Bully-Free Schools and the gold standard for bullying prevention programs, Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, provide these diagnostic tools. Students from upper elementary to high school and their school staff respond to questions about witnessing bullying, identifying types and locations of incidents, and being targets themselves.

The results from these surveys can be used in several ways. They can help us develop specific action plans, such as to increase monitoring in areas identified as hot spots. The results also provide baseline data for evaluating the effectiveness of the bullying prevention initiative. Most importantly, being able to place student perception next to staff perception reminds us that we can be ignorant of bullying happening right in our vicinity.

The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance. 
 ~Nathaniel Branden

Just How Prevalent Is Bullying?

The headline from an August 16, 2016 Detroit Free Press article reads: Study: Michigan Worst State for Bullying in U.S. The study, from WalletHub.com, had used several different metrics to determine that Michigan had the biggest bullying problem in the nation, metrics that included estimates of the cost of truancy, bullying prevalence, bullying impact and treatment, and anti-bullying legislature.

Teasing out the issue of prevalence gives us three basic questions:  How widespread is the bullying problem? As children get older, how does bullying change?  At what age does bullying peak?

  1. Last year, 20.2% of American high school students reported being bullied on school property and 15.5% reported being cyberbullied. In Michigan, 25.6% reported being bullied on school property and 18.8% reported being cyberbullied (2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey). In other words, one of every five American teens and one of every four Michigan teens are bullied.
  2. Bullying changes with age, growing in frequency through elementary and middle school and decreasing in high school. Incidents of verbal, social and cyberbullying become more frequent as children age, while physical bullying decreases(SAMSA/PREVNet). Furthermore, girls engage in social (relational) bullying behaviors earlier than boys. Because bullying behavior changes with age, intervention and prevention efforts must reflect these changes to be most effective.
  3. Finally, bullying peaks as children move into adolescence. Puberty, social skill development, and school transitions "provide the opportunity for both positive social interactions and social deception" (SAMSA/PREVNet).  As physical bullying decreases, other more social forms of bullying increase. With 28% of American middle school students reporting bullying incidents, while only high school students report 20.2%, it appears that bullying peaks in middle school. (stopbullying.gov)
We have clear evidence that bullying remains a major issue for 20-28% of our children/young people. With this sense of urgency, we might consider spending more time being responsive and proactive in intervention and prevention, instead of waiting for yet another discouraging headline.

Be a light, not a judge. Be a model, not a critic. ~Steven Covey

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Everyone Plays a Role in a Bullying Situation

Often we perceive bullying as a conflict between two parties and narrowly focus on those directly involved. We describe a situation of an individual exhibiting aggressive behavior toward a target of that behavior. This perception must be expanded so that we collectively understand that a bullying situation effects anyone who is directly or indirectly involved in the event.

In The Bully, the Bullied, and the Not-So-Innocent Bystander, Barbara Coloroso describes a bullying situation as "a tragedy performed daily in our homes, schools, playgrounds, streets, and workplaces." This tragedy has three roles: the bully, the bullied, and the not-so-innocent bystander. These are merely temporary roles, she argues, so that we do not permanently typecast children for their roles nor do we translate the part to values that placed on individuals.

The bully and the bullied are roles that most of us can easily identify; however, we need to expand our focus to include all those who are also involved in a bullying situation. They are traditionally called bystanders, but are also referred to as witnesses. The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, the gold standard of bullying prevention programs, digs deeper into this category. In the "Bullying Circle," bystanders are divided into five categories:

  1. Henchmen take an active part in the behavior, but are not involved in planning.
  2. Active supporters are the cheerleaders who try to reap any gains from the situation.
  3. Passive supporters are entertained by the ordeal, but do not provide outward encouragement.
  4. Disengaged onlookers are disinterested in something that is "none of their business."
  5. Potential defenders are those who disapprove of the bullying but do not move to aid the target.
Bullying is a complex situation that involves more than just the bully and bullied. Perhaps by understanding the roles that all of us play, we will become proactive and responsive in order to break the cycle of bullying. In this way, we might see significant decreases in these tragic events.

Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness. ~James Thurber