Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Role of State and Local Policies in Bullying Prevention

State laws and policies around bullying prevention became a focus for the US Department of Education in early 2010. In its analysis of existing state anti-bullying policies, the US DOE examined aspects of the existing state laws. The department found that while the majority of states had passed anti-bullying legislation, inconsistencies remained, including the definition of bullying. This analysis also brought to light the omission in many laws of a mental health component, the identification of groups most targeted by bullying, and mandatory documentation of identified bullying behavior.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, in Preventing Bullying through Science, Policy, and Practice, examined the federal and state laws and policies around bullying. By 2015, every state in the US had passed anti-bullying legislation. At the federal level, no laws exist specifically focused on bullying; however, civil rights laws, anti-discrimination polices, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) do provide protection for students from being bullied on the basis of gender, race, color, disability, religion, and national origin.

Additionally, the NAS reviewed the research on the impact of state prevention laws and the implementation of these laws. While progress has been made, especially with regard to a national focus on bullying, the impact and the implementation remain inconsistent and inadequate.

The following are some of the findings of the panel:

  1. Federal laws do provide protection for vulnerable groups that can support state anti-bullying laws; however, the protection is limited to those groups specifically identified.
  2. While all states have anti-bullying legislation, there remain inconsistencies in the way that bullying is defined and in the authority states have to respond to bullying behavior.
  3. No evidence exists to support zero-tolerance policies as a means to ensure school safety; in fact, these rigid policies have potential to make schools less safe.
  4. Additional research is needed in environments beyond the school, including residential programs and juvenile justice facilities.
We need to dig deeper into those places where bullying prevention is working, where students are safer, and vulnerable groups are being protected. In this way we might understand the interaction between the place, the policy, the program, and the people.

"Schools should be a safe place for students to be and to study, rather than be worried about being bullied or injured.” ~Kaz Sato (Cincinnati Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League)

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Relationship between Bullying and Trauma

Research- and evidence-based bullying prevention programs have addressed bullying in a systemic and comprehensive way. We now have access to proven methods of preventing bullying and to intervene in bullying situations. While we have made great strides in designing and implementing systems that prevent bullying, there remains a need for intervening at the individual level in order to help children/young people heal from bullying situations. Using the lens of trauma in a bullying situation will fill this need.

We know that a bullying situation affects all involved in many ways, from social and emotional impact to physical and mental effects. Those who are targeted often fall into a learned helplessness that can continue throughout life. The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children (TLC) defines trauma as any real or perceived experience that leaves a person feeling hopeless, helpless, and fearing for their life/survival, their safety. Furthermore, the effects of bullying have been linked to signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Bullying is a traumatic experience.

When our brains perceive threat, whether that threat is real or imagined, the most instinctual and primitive part of our brains, called the reptilian brain, goes into survival mode. This powerful response is often flight, fight or freeze. In dangerous situations we do not have the time to weigh options or rationalize the threat. The reptilian brain's takeover reduces cognitive and emotional capacity and our senses become the driving forces of our actions.

A child/young person targeted in a bullying situation will be in this survival mode, a state of hyper-arousal. By using a lens of trauma to approach bullying, we deal with its effects on a sensory level and help the targeted child to de-escalate and begin to regulate emotions. No amount of behavioral intervention will be affective until the reptilian brain is assured the threat is no more.

The effects of bullying are felt in every aspect of our being, including emotionally, physically, and psychologically.  Those who are targeted, especially over a period of time, will manifest the same symptoms of those diagnosed with PTSD.  When we look at the impact of a bullying situation on this level, we can begin to heal those who have been harmed by the situation. 

"We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear." ~Nelson Mandela

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Empathy and the Amazing Mirror Neurons

In Born for Love, Maia Szalavitz and Bruce Perry explain that we are born with foundational skills that allow us to learn empathy. Babies have the ability to imitate facial expressions, and they have an automatic response of crying when other babies cry. These two skills probably engage a cluster of brain cells called "mirror neurons." 

The study of mirror neurons is still young, but it has already given us some insight into human behavior in social settings. As Szalavitz and Perry describe, "Mirror neurons fire when you do something - but more important, they also fire in a less intense fashion when you see someone else do the same thing." Neuroscience researchers from the UK explain that mirror neurons fire in the person doing the action, and they fire also in the person observing the action. Whether you are doing something or whether you are watching it being done, the mirror neurons are active. 

So how does the study of mirror neurons help us understand the development of empathy? We learn empathy by watching others show empathy. It is a compassionate response, an act of kindness that fires the mirror neurons. 

Here is an example: A young man sees an elderly woman struggling to get her groceries into the car. He sees her struggle and begins to feel empathy toward her situation. As he goes to her and assists her, his mirror neurons are activated. The brain is responding to his compassionate actions. Amazingly, the mirror neurons of anyone witnessing the exchange also responds, although to a lesser degree. The woman herself experiences an emotional and cognitive response. So, in an act of kindness the person who comes to another's assistance and anyone witnessing the situation experiences the same empathetic cognitive response. Again, mirror neurons respond to action or by observing action. 

As neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese explains, "It seems we're wired to see other people as similar to us, rather than different,,,As humans we identify the person we're facing as someone like ourselves." When our children see us in situations where we are helping, comforting, and supporting, their mirror neurons fire, and they begin to understand what it feels like to be there for someone else. By our acts of compassion, we are helping our children develop empathy. 

“It is an absolute human certainty that no one can know his own beauty or 
perceive a sense of his own worth 
until it has been reflected back to him in the mirror of 
another loving, caring human being.” 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Understanding Trust in Bullying Prevention Efforts

We know that effective bullying prevention efforts are found within strong school communities, but what is at the heart of those strong communities? TrustAs Tony Bryk and Barbara Sneider suggest, "trust is the connective tissue that binds individuals together to advance the education and welfare of students."  Understanding the critical role of safe and supportive places for our students in bullying prevention efforts is not enough. We need also to understand how to build those strong school communities. The importance of building trust in bullying prevention efforts, then, cannot be ignored.

Tony Bryk and colleagues, among other researchers, have compelling evidence of the importance of relational trust across the school community as a critical resource for school reform. Parker Palmer explains that relational trust is built on empathy, commitment, and compassion among other aspects. When relational trust is evident, people understand the rights and responsibilities of themselves and others. It is a dynamic, social interaction.

The most successful school reform efforts, including bullying prevention initiatives, will have evidence of strong relational trust.  It will be found across school buildings and will involve everyone. This trust will be identified within student populations, across the teaching staff, between schools and their parents, and so on. In sum, trust must be evident within and across every subgroup. The potential of the most solid research- and evidence-based bullying prevention initiatives can be realized only when trust is evident within the entire school community.

Megan Tchannen-Moran and her colleagues have spent nearly two decades studying trust in schools. They suggest that when we trust, we are willing to be vulnerable to someone. Essentially, our feelings are open to being hurt. This willingness comes from our confidence that the person is benevolent, reliable, honest, open, and competent.
As we build trust in our school communities, we honor the obligations we have to one another. We assume the good intentions of others and come to rely on them as well. As we increase the honesty and openness in our buildings, we share decision making, remain flexible, and keep promises. Most importantly, by building or restoring trust in our schools, we are providing the foundation for strong communities.

The Colorado Trust published Build Trust, End Bullying, and Improve Learning in 2008, a report of its school and community bullying prevention initiative that touched the lives of over 50,000 students. The report cites increases in academic achievement and highlights the critical role of adults in effective bullying prevention efforts. In particular, the report states that "a positive relationship with adults and students at school and a school culture of trust and fairness are key to reducing bullying."

"Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him, and to let him know that you trust him." --Booker T. Washington

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Bullying Behavior Is a Serious Public Health Problem

In October 2016 the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released Preventing Bullying through Science, Policy, and Practice. This publication provides the results of a study commissioned by the NAS that aimed to determine what we know and what more we need to know about bullying behavior and its impact. While the entire study results are available for download at the NAS site, a policy brief is also available here.

The findings of this committee are broadly based and noteworthy. For example, the committee finds existing bullying prevention programs that are effective, and it identifies programs and approaches that hold promise, including restorative practices. At the national level, it notes the important limitations of existing civil rights and anti-discrimination laws with regard to bullying. It also exposes the substantial differences in state anti-bullying laws, especially with regard to a common understanding of the term bullying and the accountability of the schools when bullying occurs.

By examining bullying as a "serious public health problem," the  seven recommendations of the committee are federally focused with an emphasis on national, state, and local partnerships. The first two recommendations are specifically charged to the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention, an interagency group that includes the US Departments of Education, Defense, and Justice, among others. These recommendations focus on the collection of more accurate information about bullying behavior and its impact:

  1. The term bullying must be consistently defined so that the prevalence of bullying and the effects of prevention efforts can be more accurately determined. This definition is the one most accepted by the research community and the CDC: intentional and repetitive harmful behavior rooted in a perceived imbalance of power. The committee also recommends cyberbullying be considered a type of bullying behavior, rather than be considered in a category of its own. Finally, with a consistent definition, the committee recommends the examination of bullying as a developmental behavior in order to see how that behavior changes through the stages of  child development.
  2. Data collection around bullying must include all types of bullying and should take into account anyone involved in an incident, meaning those who bully, those who are bullied, and those who are witnesses. The committee recommends data collection that involves all school-age children. With this broad brush, the effects of bullying on the bystanders might be determined. It also calls for a specific focus on those groups identified through the study as most vulnerable to bullying behavior, such as our LGBT youth and students living in poverty.
Bullying, in many contexts, has been normalized into a rite of passage. By labeling bullying as a public health problem, we can better understand the prevalence of this behavior and its impact. We can strengthen those preventative measures shown to be effective and collect more compelling evidence on those promising practices. Finally, we can devote our time and energy to the safety and well-being of all children. It is now a health imperative.

"Bullying is not a normal part of childhood and is now appropriately considered to be a serious public health problem."  ~The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

Monday, October 31, 2016

Strategies for Preventing Bullying

One characteristic of bullying that sets it apart from aggression in general is the perceived imbalance of power between the child engaging in bullying behavior and the child who is targeted. Those who bully focus on others they perceive as inferior in some way.

Young people who are perceived as "less than" have characteristics that set them apart from the rest. Some of these characteristics make children more vulnerable to bullying, such as our LGBTQ children and those on the spectrum, but any of a host of reasons place our children at risk, from food allergies to gender and ethnicity.

Cheryl Dellasega, PhD, and Charisse Nixon, PhD, co-authors of Girl Wars: 12 Strategies That Will End Female Bullying, offer two powerful strategies for bullying prevention. Although written for girls and young women, these research-based strategies are applicable for all young people, regardless of gender.
  1. Build social-emotional skills at an early age. Begin your child's social education as early as preschool. Instill in young children the value of their unique qualities and respect for that uniqueness in others. Also, model empathy and kindness, and recognize them in your children. The authors urge us to remember that "behaviors that are rewarded are repeated, and those that are not are abandoned." Finally, frame bullying in a "moral context": bullying hurts and can damage others. This will help to prevent the social/relational bullying that reaches its peak in middle school. 
  1. Give children and young people the courage to be kind: Help your child understand the qualities that make up a good friendship and the disadvantages of relationships that exclude others. Support your child in becoming a good friend, encouraging connections that are supportive and caring. Teach your child/young person to be assertive, rather than aggressive. Help them to see the difference between expressing feelings, thoughts, and ideas versus pushing them on others. Finally, nurture in them the confidence and courage to speak up and to speak out when they feel they should do so. 
A 2001 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association surveyed over 15,000 American young people about bullying behavior. Dr. Tonja Nansel and her associates found that those who bully and those who are targets of bullying have social and psychological difficulties making and keeping friends. In bullying prevention the importance of human connection as the context needed to build social-emotional fitness and to nurture kindness and compassion cannot be ignored.

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential of turning a life around.   ~Leo Buscaglia

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Buffering Potential Bullying Behavior

Just like having our children wear a winter coat and mittens on a cold day, we can buffer our children from potential bullying situations. This buffering helps to protect all of those involved, but especially those engaged in bullying behavior and those who are targeted.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) urges us to understand why certain children and young people have potential to engage in bullying situations. Recognizing those potential risk factors will allow us to strengthen protective factors that may prevent children and young people from engaging in aggressive behavior.

The following are some examples of the social, family, and school protective factors for those children most at risk. These are factors that are within our circle of influence.
  1. Strong social-emotional skills and competencies
  2. Healthy relationships with adults outside the family
  3. Parents with high educational expectations
  4. Frequent, shared activities with parents
  5. Strong and positive relationships with people at school
  6. Strong engagement with the school
  7. Involvement with positive, social activities outside school
Again, the importance of the school culture should not be minimized. Over and over, we are reminded that a healthy, safe, and supportive environment provides a culture where bullying cannot flourish. Students who are connected - to adults, to their peers, and to their school - are less likely to engage in aggressive behavior. The most powerful protective factors require no sophisticated training, college degrees, or additional funding. They require only for us to connect with all of our children, especially with those at risk.

“When we know ourselves to be connected to all others, acting compassionately is simply the natural thing to do. ”     ~ Rachel Naomi Remen