Showing posts from 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 devel…

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? Trust. As 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 the…

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 th…

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.
Build social-emotional skills at an early age. Begin your child's social education …

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.
Strong social-emotional skills and competenciesHealthy relationships with adults outside the familyParents with high educational expectationsFrequent, shared activities with parentsStrong and positive relationships with people at scho…

For Parents: Developing Empathy in Your Children

Developing empathy is a powerful and simple way to reduce bullying and aggression in children. In addition to the research- and evidence-based approaches to empathy development available to educators, wonderful evidence-based methods are also available for parents.

The Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education is one such resource for parents. The project offers the following guidance for cultivating empathy in our children:
Empathize with your children, and let them see you empathizing with others. Let them learn through experience and observation. This will build trust between you as you model concern for them and for others.Set high ethical standards for you and your children that make caring for others a priority, and make this priority a part of your daily lives. Convey a clear and consistent message that we have a responsibility to tend to those around us.In addition to modeling empathy,  provide frequent opportunities for your children to practice…

"Catching" Empathy

Mary Gordon, Founder and President of the Roots of Empathy organization, describes empathy as something contagious that spreads from one person to another. She says that empathy is caught, as opposed to a skill or ability that is taught. Empathy development is experiential. It must be observed or witnessed; empathy is not learned from a textbook.

As a Kindergarten teacher, Gordon was very concerned about some of her students and how troubled and sad they were. She realized early in her career that schools must reach out to families before their children enter school and that schools could still be instrumental in developing empathy in children already in classrooms. From this realization, she developed Roots of Empathy (ROE). ROE is a Kindergarten through 8th-grade curriculum that unites a classroom with a family and their baby at the beginning of the school year. The curriculum is divided into  nine themes, and three lessons support each theme.  The family visits the classroom nine t…

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 imag…

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.

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.Students seen as inferior or "less than." These young people are perceived to be fragile and unable to protect themselves from aggressive behavior.Students perceived to be sad and/or nervous. These students also may suffer from a poor self-image and seem unsure of themselves.Students socially isolat…

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 su…

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,, provides a wealth of information for awareness, prevention, and intervention. While many sites provide toolkits and action plans, the 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 jewelryFrequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or faking illnessDifficulty sleeping or frequent nightmaresDeclining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, or not wanting to go to schoolSudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations Another valuable online resource is the site for the National PTA's pr…

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 sch…

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, 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?

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.Bullying changes with age, growing in frequenc…

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 i…

Criteria for Bullying Prevention Programs

A quick Google search of bullying prevention programs this week gave me 5,970,000 results. When I qualified the search with the terms "research-based" and "evidence-based," the list was reduced to 598,000. A flood of programs exist that promise to reduce a problem that is still too high, despite our efforts. The money and time invested already discourages many from continuing bullying prevention initiatives that do not seem to work.

We must continue to reduce and then finally eliminate bullying in our schools. But where do we begin? Perhaps a good first step is to use the following criteria when identifying high quality programs.
Research-Based. Effective programs have been through rigorous examination that show they work. The results are published in peer-reviewed journals.Evidence-Based. The programs should be implemented in a new context and then undergo additional evaluation to have evidence that they are effective.Comprehensive. The programs include diagnosis, …