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

Friday, October 28, 2016

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. In addition to modeling empathy,  provide frequent opportunities for your children to practice empathy. Talk about characters from television and books from an empathetic lens. The more they practice empathy, the more it becomes a natural occurrence. 
  4. Zoom out to expand your child's circle of concern and encourage them to consider multiple perspectives. Zoom in to help your child develop strong listening skills. This will also help build tolerance and respect, in addition to empathy.
  5. Nurture social-emotional development, and help children develop self-awareness and self-monitoring. Children will begin to identify and redirect triggers; they will learn to manage negative emotions. Additionally, they will be developing stronger relationship skills.
Dr. Gwen Dewar, founder and director of Parenting Science offers additional strategies for parents to use in fostering empathy in their children. The following are some examples: 

  1. Address your child’s own needs, and teach him how to “bounce back” from distress. This helps to build resilience.
  2. Be a “mind-minded” parent, and teach children to be cognitive of their emotions. Help them to see how emotions influence both pro- and anti-social behaviors. 
  3. Show children how to “make a face” while they try to imagine how someone else feels. That action actually helps the brain to trigger the emotion in them. 
One of Dewar's tips is for older children, but something all adults should remember; that is, to understand the mechanisms of "moral disengagement." Studies suggest that when we are given seemingly logical and reasonable rationale, it becomes possible for us to justify harming others and also to detach ourselves morally from observing acts of cruelty. Empathy requires the solid connection of people. Bullying and empathy cannot co-exist.

Adults are no less vulnerable to the influence of social messages and social pressures. As we help our children develop empathy, we must also be mindful to stay morally engaged with the world. Our children are watching.

Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.    ~Mohsin Hamid

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

"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 times throughout the year.

She explains the process to the authors of Born for Love: "When we use little babies as teachers, it's not just the babies we're watching. We're watching the baby in tandem with the parent. I believe that successful people develop empathy from receiving empathy or witnessing empathy."

While some may be quick to scoff at the Roots of Empathy approach, it is important to note the compelling evidence from nine independent research studies. Schools implementing ROE saw the following:
  • Decrease in bullying and aggression
  • Increase in prosocial behavior (e.g. sharing, helping and inclusion)
  • Increase in social-emotional competence
  • Increase in perceptions of the classroom as a caring environment
  • Increased understanding of infants and parenting in ROE students
  • Lasting results
The Roots of Empathy curriculum is used extensively in Canada, but is also used in England, Ireland, New Zealand, and some US states. For more information about Mary Gordon and the program, the first chapter of her book, Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child, is available free for download here.

Will increasing empathy solve all the world’s problems? Of course not. 
But few of them can be solved without it.     
 ~Born for Love

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 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,, 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 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, 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. (
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