What’s So Great about Executive Function?

 

The Stroop test is used to evaluate executive function skills, especially attention and cognitive flexibility. Try it! Say the color, don't read the word.

The Stroop test is used to evaluate executive function skills, especially attention and cognitive flexibility. Try it! Say the color, don’t read the word.

Why is everyone talking about executive function?

To begin with, it’s at the heart of self-regulation—that is, our ability to consciously control our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. When it comes to readying children for school and helping them to succeed in both the social and the academic realms, executive function is even more important than IQ.

And according to a study of 1000 children whom researchers followed from birth to age 32, good self-regulation creates healthier, wealthier, and more law-abiding people, whereas poor self-regulation leads to trouble paying attention, following directions, and building and maintaining positive relationships.

So what exactly is executive function?

There are three core executive functions:

  • Working memory is the ability to keep information in our minds for a short period while we work with it.
  • Cognitive or mental flexibility permits us to shift our focus, adjust to new demands, information, and priorities, fix mistakes, and come up with alternative solutions to problems.
  • Inhibitory control is the capacity to control our impulses and think before we act, or in the words of neuroscientist Adele Diamond, “to resist a strong inclination to do one thing and instead do what is most appropriate.”

By working together, these three executive functions lay the foundation for the higher order skills of planning, reasoning, and problem solving.

How do children learn these skills?

Children begin to acquire executive function skills in infancy (think of the baby soothing herself with her thumb or pacifier), and early childhood is an especially fertile period for developing them. We can see this happening before our eyes as toddlers and preschoolers learn to share, wait for a turn, understand rules and directions, calm themselves, and empathize.

But executive functions don’t develop automatically. They depend on the external guidance and support of parents and teachers. By modeling self-regulation ourselves and by providing warm, sensitive, and responsive care, plentiful opportunities to practice self-regulation, scaffolding children’s learning so that they can do what we ask, and reinforcing effort, persistence, and focus, we can help their executive functions to become stronger and stronger. At the same time we are building resilience.

Children who lack these skills need our support the most. Living with toxic stress—for example with neglect, maltreatment, violence, caregiver mental illness, or poverty—disrupts children’s brain development and often robs them of the chance to develop their executive functions. But research shows that children with poor self-regulation actually make the largest gains when they have our support and guidance.

It’s important to improve these skills early because executive function problems grow over time. Diamond says that increasing children’s executive function could even help to close the achievement gap in school and health.

How can teachers enhance executive function?

Several curricula (PATHS, Chicago School Readiness Project, Tools of the Mind, Montessori) show signs of improving children’s executive function, but the research evidence is still weak. However, it is very clear that lots of practice is imperative. Here are some tips to use in your own classroom:

  • Work on developing secure relationships with the children you care for. A warm, sensitive, and responsive relationship with a child is the basis for all positive change.
  • Create a stimulating and well organized classroom environment with consistent rules. Minimize distractions, remove things that trigger impulsive behavior, and provide reminders and memory aids (such as a picture of an ear to help children listen). With this assistance, children can practice inhibiting their own impulses and following your directions instead.
  • Bear in mind that negative emotions such as anger, depression, stress, frustration, and loneliness dispose us to pay less attention, respond impulsively, and even act aggressively. Children having a hard time at home need extra support, monitoring, and guidance; and when they behave inappropriately, a calm, warm response is likely to be more effective than a harsh one.
  • Explain the reasons behind your actions and decisions. This enables children to internalize the message.
  • Give one direction at a time.
  • To help children calm themselves when they’re upset, teach them to recognize the clues their body gives them. Then teach them the turtle position (cross your arms, wrap them around your body, take a deep breath, and then plan how to respond) and/or belly breathing (lie on your back with a small stuffed animal on your belly, and breathe slowly in through the nose and out through the mouth, which rocks the animal). (If you have no stuffed animal, you can put your hands on your tummy.)
  • Teach children self-talk. To help them act appropriately, they can quietly tell themselves what to do or count to 10 forwards or backwards, either out loud or in their heads. This helps them to think more rationally.
  • Tell stories, and have children tell them, too. Write them down or ask the children to illustrate them, and discuss the feelings in them.
  • Schedule lots of time for pretend play, and ask the children to make a plan for what they intend to do. Supervise and ask questions about what they’re doing.
  • Use games and songs that require children to pay attention and remember the rules: Simon Says, Red Light/Green Light, memory, walking on a line, follow the leader, freeze dancing, dancing to fast and slow music, singing loud and soft, “Head and Shoulder, Knees and Toes,” “BINGO,” “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain,” “The Hokey Pokey,” “Five Green and Speckled Frogs,” etc. Puzzles and matching and sorting games (by size, color, shape) also help develop executive function. When children have mastered a game or a song, tweak it to challenge them more, e.g., in Simon Says, change the cue to follow Simon.
  • For more ideas, see Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence by the Center on the Developing Child of Harvard University; the November 2014 issue of Zero to Three; and this video on executive function by Alberta Family Wellness.

How many of these strategies do you use in your classroom? Have you seen any improvement in the children’s self-control? How hard is it for you to model self-regulation? What do you do to keep your cool when the going gets tough?


Social and Emotional Learning: A Great Investment

International Year of the Child (IYC) - 1979

United Nations International Year of the Child

 

If you know anything about the value of high-quality early childhood education, you know that the Perry Preschool Project provided a very substantial return on the money invested in it.

To be exact, society had reaped $7 in benefits for every dollar spent by the time the 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in the program reached the age of 27. More of them had graduated from high school, and they earned more money, owned more homes and cars, and had fewer arrests than their peers who’d acted as controls. (When they turned 40, the gains had climbed to $16 per dollar invested.)

Big payback for SEL

Columbia University researchers have just discovered another big winner. Their cost-benefit analysis of six social and emotional learning programs, The Economic Value of Social and Emotional Learning, shows that SEL delivers $11 in benefits for every dollar invested.

Although the programs they studied (Second Step, Responsive Classroom, 4Rs, Positive Action, Life Skills Training, and Social and Emotional Training) have different goals and approaches and target children of different ages and levels of risk, all of them bring benefits that greatly exceed their price tag. The children in these programs experienced significant:

  • Reductions in aggression, violence, substance abuse, and delinquency
  • Declines in depression and anxiety
  • Increases in grades, attendance, and performance on core academic subjects

213 studies can’t be wrong

A recent meta-analysis of 213 universal school-based SEL programs documented the same extraordinary results, but without examining costs. These interventions:

  • Enhanced social and emotional skills like recognizing emotions, empathy, managing stress, problem-solving, and decision-making
  • Promoted positive attitudes and social behaviors
  • Decreased behavior problems and emotional distress
  • Improved academic performance

The researchers found that SEL programs help all children, and regular classroom teachers can teach them, but this shouldn’t be an ad hoc affair. The most effective learning takes place when teachers use evidence-based programs and implement them faithfully.

An effective program includes four practices known by the acronym SAFE:

  • Sequenced—a step-by-step training approach
  • Active—active forms of learning like role-play and rehearsal
  • Focus—time spent on developing personal or social skills
  • Explicit—learning goals directed at specific social and emotional skills, rather than general ones

Head Start agrees

With such remarkable outcomes, it’s no wonder that Head Start is considering introducing SEL programs on a large scale. After testing PATHS, the Incredible Years, and a one-year version of Tools of the Mind, they found there are different ways to boost children’s social and emotional development, provided they’re evidence-based and include high-quality teacher training and coaching.

Challenging behavior and SEL

Children with challenging behavior may have trouble in the social and emotional realm. Because they’re frequently rejected by their classmates, they have few opportunities to learn and practice social and emotional skills. In fact, they may hang out with others like themselves, reinforcing their antisocial tendencies.

When you proactively teach SEL to the whole class, no one is singled out or stigmatized, and everyone learns the same concepts and vocabulary, making the skills easier to model, practice, use, and reinforce, and you can integrate them into the curriculum and everyday activities.

Clearly, social and emotional skills can be taught, and they’re worth every penny.

Here are some guides to SEL programs:

What do you think?

A nationally representative survey showed that most teachers believe social and emotional learning is important. What do you think? Are you using a social and emotional learning program in your classroom? Does it help you address behavior problems? We’d love to know your views.


“Children with Challenging Behavior” Is Back

Photo by Ryan Tauss

Photo by Ryan Tauss

We’re back! We’ve been away far too long, working on other projects. Barbara has been traveling, giving keynotes and workshops in New York City, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Dallas, Pennsylvania, New Brunswick, and—lucky Barbara—in Auckland, New Zealand. Where is she going next? Check out her upcoming gigs here.

Barbara also presented a webinar called “Out of Control Children: A Team Approach for Early Educators and Families” for Early Childhood Investigations. If you weren’t one of the more than 4000 people who signed up, you can access the webinar here.

Miss Night’s marvelous musings

Now that we’re blogging again, we’ll share some of the exciting new research and strategies we discovered while we were writing.

First of all, we want to alert you to two powerful blog posts published this winter. You may have seen at least one of them because it went viral, so far receiving more than 2 million views, 1000 comments, 100 requests to share it in school and agency newsletters, and 6 translations. The author is Amy Murray, better known as Miss Night, who in real life is the director of early childhood education at the Calgary French & International School in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Her post, “Dear Parent: About THAT kid…,” appeared on November 10, 2014. It begins:

“Dear Parent:

“I know. You’re worried. Every day, your child comes home with a story about THAT kid. The one who is always hitting shoving pinching scratching maybe even biting other children. The one who always has to hold my hand in the hallway. The one who has a special spot at the carpet, and sometimes sits on a chair rather than the floor. The one who had to leave the block centre because blocks are not for throwing. The one who climbed over the playground fence right exactly as I was telling her to stop. The one who poured his neighbour’s milk onto the floor in a fit of anger. On purpose. While I was watching. And then, when I asked him to clean it up, emptied the ENTIRE paper towel dispenser. On purpose. While I was watching. The one who dropped the REAL ACTUAL F-word in gym class.”

To read the rest, click here:

Inspired by Miss Night

The second powerful post comes from a parent—one who identified herself as “that” parent. Using her own experience in British Columbia as a springboard, Karen Copeland created a blog and founded a group called Champions for Community Mental Wellness, whose mission is to educate others about the challenges faced by the families of children with mental health problems.

On November 15, 2014, Copeland posted her reaction to Miss Night’s blog, calling it “I Am ‘that’ parent.” It begins:

Dear professionals: You know me, I am the one who asks questions. The one who seems like she is always asking for information. The one who makes suggestions on the IEP, or seems to go on and on and on about the concerns she has about her son. The one who will turn a 15 minute scheduled meeting into 45 minutes. The one who does not hesitate to let you know when things are not going well for her child. The one who can get emotional and (unintentionally) make everyone feel yucky. The one who requests documentation and wants to look at her child’s file. The one who says she wants goals to be more specific. The one who just doesn’t seem to go away and leave you alone to do your job. The one who keeps her own file.”

To see more, click here.

What do you think of these posts? Do they resonate with you? What have you learned from them? Have parents ever asked you questions like these? How do you reply? What would you like to say?


Following Up After You See Bullying: A Practical Guide, Continued

bullying-infographic1

Note: This is the fifth in a series on bullying.

You’ve seen bullying and intervened to stop it. You’ve shown that you won’t allow it. But the case is not yet closed. What do you do next?

Should there be consequences for children who bully?

Many bullying experts believe that punishment doesn’t deter children from bullying and leads to harsher—and more subtle—attacks. Children who bully may blame the child they targeted, seek vengeance, and issue new threats. Zero tolerance, suspension, and expulsion discourage both targeted children and bystanders from reporting or intervening in a bullying situation and don’t help the child who bullied. Punishment also teaches that bullying is acceptable for people with power.

So what are the alternatives?

Dan Olweus, the father of bullying research, regards a serious talk with a child who’s bullying as a consequence; and Canadian researchers Debra Pepler and Wendy Craig favor formative consequences that teach empathy, awareness, and social skills, while holding children responsible for their behavior and underlining that bullying is unacceptable.

Because bullying is a group problem, other experts advocate a group solution like restorative practice or similar interventions designed to deescalate denial and defensiveness, focus on the impact of the bullying, and redirect children to more positive pursuits.

A word of warning: Peer mediation is not a solution. Research shows that it doesn’t work, and it increases victimization. The children involved in bullying aren’t equals, and the child who was targeted is bound to be intimidated and even retraumatized by the child who bullied.

Talking with the participants

Regardless of what you feel about consequences, it’s important to talk separately with the children involved in a bullying incident. These talks will help to build trust and gather information for planning individual and group interventions.

The children also need a chance to express their feelings and their point of view, and they will feel more comfortable talking with a teacher they have a relationship with. If your school’s protocol calls for a specialist in bullying to take on this task, you might ask to sit in on the meeting—or brief the specialist—because you are the one who really knows the child.

The experts disagree about the order of these meetings. Some favor starting with the child who’s been targeted so that you understand his or her feelings and can use them to evoke empathy in the children who bullied. Other experts prefer to begin with the children who bullied to avoid accusations of tattling. In the end, personal preference—and how well you know both the group and the children involved—may determine where you start.

Meeting with children who’ve bullied

It’s not easy to speak with children who bully. They are likely to deny all wrongdoing, justify their behavior, and push your emotional buttons. But one-on-one time with a child who bullied can provide insight into the reasons behind the bullying and allow you to focus on strengths, recognize and redirect leadership abilities, and think up positive replacement behaviors to meet needs.

If several children took part in the incident, arrange to see them individually, one right after the other, so that they can’t use the group as a power source.

  • Show respect. Don’t accuse or blame. Listen to what they have to say without judging them.
  • Remind them of the rules. Tell them that bullying is serious and it must stop.
  • Help them to take responsibility for their behavior, to understand why it was wrong, and to see how it affects others.
  • Encourage them to make amends by eliciting empathy for the child who was targeted, asking them to propose one concrete way they can make his or her life better, and using formative consequences, such as reading a story that describes what it feels like to be bullied.
  • Make plans to work with them on problem solving, emotional regulation, and positive ways to use their leadership abilities.

Meeting with children who’ve been targeted

Research suggests that children rebound best from bullying when they tell friends and adults. The goal here is to build resilience.

  • Listen well, using open-ended questions and active listening. Let them know you care and want to help.
  • Tell them that they aren’t to blame and don’t deserve this treatment. You can support them best by empathizing, whereas trivializing events will make things worse.
  • Together explore ideas for improving the situation. Pinpoint bullying hot spots to avoid, and work on ideas for dealing with recess and lunch.
  • Help them to find new friends. You can start by assigning partners and groups instead of allowing children to choose their own and by frequently changing the seating arrangements for the whole class.
  • Teach self-talk, and role-play and rehearse staying calm, being assertive, and walking away. It is better if they can manage not to give in, get upset, or fight back, which promote bullying behavior. Do not suggest saying, “Stop,” pretending they aren’t hurt, or saying how they feel, which don’t work.
  • Continue to offer support. Because bullying is a relationship problem and hurts so much, it’s important to stay in touch. Children who are targeted can too easily develop—and get stuck in—a victim mentality. Work to build a relationship, and make sure the child knows you’re there for him or her.

Meeting with bystanders

Because almost all children will be bystanders at some point in their lives, it is probably most effective to speak with the whole class.

Bystanders often think bullying is wrong, feel sorry for the child who’s been victimized, and would like to help, but they fail to act. Peer norms—widely shared practices, behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes—play a huge role, but children may not know what their peers actually believe. Anonymous surveys and posters showing the results can help make them aware that others disapprove of bullying and want to intervene. Younger children may share their feelings in a circle or class meeting if there is an open and trusting sense of community in the group. Even a single defender can reduce the painful fallout for a child who’s being harassed.

  • Explain that when they’re present, even if they’re only watching, they are supporting the child who bullies. Discuss and role-play what they can do instead—walk away, tell the teacher, and if they feel safe, help the child who was bullied to leave the scene (for example, by saying, “Come on, I’ll walk with you to class” or “We need you for the game”).
  • Help them understand that fighting back puts a defender in danger, escalates the aggression, and reinforces violence as a means to resolve problems.
  • Emphasize that one of the best ways to help is by including children who were bullied after (and before!) the incident—sitting with them at lunch or on the bus, phoning or texting them, and saying that it isn’t their fault.
  • Stress  that secrecy enables bullying to continue and that grown-ups can help. You can encourage children to report it by clarifying the difference between tattling to get someone into trouble and telling to get someone out of trouble.
  • Whenever possible, integrate issues related to bullying into the curriculum, and talk about them regularly. Power, empathy, peer pressure, courage, prosocial behavior, the difference between accidental and on purpose, the line between teasing and bullying, how it feels to be unwelcome—all of these topics kindle discussion. Reinforce the anti-bullying message with age-appropriate books, drawings, and puppets.

It takes time to stop bullying, but when you intervene consistently, meet with the parties involved, build relationships, and work with the whole class to create a community, you can lessen its impact and make it less likely to reoccur.

What do you think about using consequences for bullying? Have you used formative consequences, restorative practices, or other alternative methods? What works and what doesn’t? Tell us about your thoughts and experiences.

*  Sources for the information in this guide include the state of New Jersey, the federal government’s anti-bullying websites (www.stopbullying.gov and www.StopBullyingNow.hrsa.gov) and work by Dan Olweus, Michael Carpenter, Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon, and Nancy Willard.


What to Do When You See Bullying: A Practical Guide

bullying

Don’t Bully Me
Photo by Phoenix Coverley

Note: This is the fourth in a series on bullying.

Bullying is extremely complex, but one thing about it is crystal clear: it is essential to stop it when you see it.

Your response—or lack of response—sends a message to every child in your class: that you will not allow bullying, or that you will. Your message may reach the whole school if you’re on the playground or in the cafeteria.

Teachers who know what to do are much more likely to intervene, so we decided to offer you a how-to guide. Although it’s drawn from evidence-based research and practice,* please don’t think it’s a bible. Not everything works every time or in every situation. The field is moving at lightning speed, much is controversial, and notions about what to do change frequently.

This intervention works best when you feel comfortable using it, so it might be a good idea to get together with your colleagues to role play and practice it.

 What to do when you see bullying

Step in at once, even if you’re not sure it’s bullying.  Stand at an angle between the child who’s been targeted and the child who’s bullying, not turning your back or facing either child directly but blocking eye contact between them. Leave some space between you and the child who’s bullying, and keep your face neutral and your body posture relaxed with your arms at your sides. Until everyone has calmed down, avoid eye contact, which can aggravate the situation.

Stay calm and speak firmly in a low, moderate tone. Don’t smile, argue, or yell. Be respectful at all times.

What do you say?

First address the child who bullied. Describe what you saw or heard and identify it as bullying, whether it is physical or relational: “That was bullying. It is not okay. We take care of each other here. It’s my job to keep everyone safe, and I won’t allow children to hurt each other.” Don’t lecture, try to sort out the facts, demand an apology, or impose consequences.

Next speak to the child who was targeted. Say, “No one should be treated that way,” or “You’re not to blame. This shouldn’t have happened to you.” Do not say, “I’m sorry,” or “Are you okay?” These words may reinjure the child who was bullied.

Don’t send away the bystanders who joined in the bullying, laughed, or just watched. Asking them to leave gives the message that the bullying had nothing to do with them, when in fact they play an important role and can actually help to increase or decrease it. Let them hear you say that bullying is not acceptable and you support the targeted child. Refrain from asking what they saw or trying to gather information—they’ll probably be too afraid they’ll lose their friends or become the next target to tell the truth.

If they defended the targeted child, thank them for trying to help. If they didn’t try, encourage them to take a more prosocial role next time by finding an adult, for example. If you don’t know them, get their names, then send them back to class.

What comes next?

If the child who was targeted seems all right, he or she can return to class, too. But when the child isn’t ready, you need backup. If your school doesn’t have a communication system, you can send one of the bystanders for help—a teacher, the school nurse or counselor, a friend of the child—who can lend support. Alternately, if you have a good relationship and your schedule allows it, the child can stay with you.

As for the child who was bullying, what you do depends on the policies, procedures, and legal requirements of your school, district, and state. Find out exactly what’s mandatory. More than likely you’ll have to escort or refer the child to the office and/or make arrangements for a meeting with you, the principal or director, or another designated person. If necessary, you can accompany both children to the office, walking silently between them.

Inform your colleagues about what happened so that they can provide support and protection and supervise more closely.

You’ll also want to tell both families, who should be aware of the situation and participate in the solution.

Complete a detailed incident report as soon as possible. The data you collect now may be very useful later. Include ideas for improving supervision and monitoring.

Bear in mind that these are immediate measures, not long-term solutions. It takes much more time, planning, follow-up, and action on many fronts to prevent and reduce bullying. In our next post in this series, we’ll guide you through the steps that follow a bullying incident, including the question of consequences and talking with the children involved.

In the meantime, let us know what you think about this intervention. Would it help you to address bullying in your classroom? What other strategies and ideas do you use?

*  Sources for the information in this guide include the state of New Jersey, the federal government’s anti-bullying websites (www.stopbullying.gov and www.StopBullyingNow.hrsa.gov), and work by Dan Olweus, Michael Carpenter, Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon, and Nancy Willard.


Bullying–Who Are the Players?

Photo by Karin Vlietstra

Note: This is the third in a series on bullying.

After years of believing that children who bully suffer from low self-esteem, lack social skills, and are rejected by their peers, we now know that the reality is far more complex.

Children who use bullying behavior come in a variety of flavors.

Who Are the Children Who Bully?

About half seem so much like ourselves that we often don’t recognize them. They have high self-esteem; they are socially competent and popular with their teachers and peers (even if they aren’t always well liked); and they’re influential leaders who hang out with kids who aren’t involved in bullying. From early childhood on they are on a pathway to success.

However, they also use bullying behavior—both prosocial and aggressive—to gain status and control. As bullying expert Faye Mishna  points out, they continually challenge the official message that aggression is undesirable.

Many other children who bully do fit the classical description, and some other familiar adjectives as well—aggressive, impulsive, hot-tempered, easily frustrated, and rule-breaking.

And at the very opposite end of the bullying spectrum lie bully-victims (sometimes called provocative victims). As the name implies, they not only bully others but are targeted by them. Researchers describe them as “socially marginalized,” “fighting the system that keeps them on the periphery.”

As the most rejected and isolated children, with the lowest social status and deepest psychological problems, bully-victims may not have any friends, which makes them more vulnerable and puts them on a pathway to more and more abuse.

Their irritating and provocative behavior also alienates their teachers, who find it hard to summon up empathy for them—a critical ingredient in responding to bullying appropriately. More than any other children, bully-victims need empathy from adults and help with social skills and relating to peers.

Who Are the Targets of Bullying Behavior?

Children who are the targets of bullying usually lack social status or are “different” in some way and reward their attacker by crying, running away, or handing over their possessions instead of standing up for themselves. These reactions signal that they’re easy marks for harassment, and by the age of 8 or 9 years they may be locked into this role.

Experts agree that most students on the receiving end of bullying share certain characteristics, though no one knows for sure whether they are the cause or the effect of bullying. Children who are targeted:

  • Have low self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Are prone to depression and sadness
  • Easily become fearful and anxious
  • Have poor social skills
  • Have few or no friends and are lonely and isolated
  • Are passive and submissive and have a sense of helplessness
  • Are physically weak and dislike fighting
  • Don’t perform well in school

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered students top the list, along with students who “just don’t fit in”—those who are different because of their appearance, behavior, race, religion, disability, aboriginal origin, or social and economic class.

On the other hand, the socially competent leaders who bully may pick on peers  whose status is similar to their own in order to climb the social ladder, and the targets may be as difficult to see as the aggressors.

Who Are the Bystanders?

Peers witness 85 percent of bullying incidents, and their presence and actions can increase—or decrease or stop—bullying.

  • Their silence and inaction send the message that bullying is okay.
  • Their laughter, comments, and assistance reinforce the power and status of students who bully.
  • Bullying lasts longer when more bystanders are present.
  • Bullying is highest in classrooms where the bystanders seem to support it—everyone believes the rest of the group accepts it.
  • The social climate becomes harsher and less empathetic as bullying becomes more acceptable.

Nonetheless:

  • When bystanders intervene, more than half of the time bullying stops within 10 seconds.
  • Students who stick up for the target are held in high esteem by their peers.
  • Watching bullying makes most bystanders uncomfortable, and many feel they should try to stop it.

But in reality only a few intervene.

Why Don’t Bystanders Report or Intervene When They See Bullying?  

They are afraid of retaliation, and they don’t want to be excluded from the group. It is easier to create rationalizations for not following moral standards, such as, “He was just joking,” “Everybody does it,” and “She deserves it,” or to assume someone else will take responsibility.

In addition, bystanders may not know what to do, may not have a trusted adult to confide in, or believe that telling will change nothing or make things worse.

Or they think: If bullying is so wrong, why don’t adults act?

One of the most important factors is the bystanders’ relationship to the other children involved. Most of the time they will loyally support their friends and follow the rules of their peer group.

Personal power matters, too. Kids who feel unsafe, disconnected, and disempowered probably won’t stand up for a targeted child—or even reach out to help after the fact—unless the peer group demands it.

Researchers are currently trying to figure out how to change peer group thinking. It is a vital clue to solving the bullying puzzle.

What Can Adults Do?

Research shows that bullying is a relationship problem that involves an entire ecology: home, school, community, and society. All of the pieces are important, and you are a primary role model: Your words, attitudes, and behavior always influence what goes on, even when you aren’t present.

When you see or suspect bullying, intervene consistently. We know we’ve said this before, and we’re going to say it again.  We’ll tell you how in our next post.

When a child tells you he or she is being bullied, the rule that you need to see it to believe it doesn’t apply. Listen carefully, try to understand, and validate his or her experience. Focus consciously on empathy, especially for children you don’t like. As Faye Mishna puts it, when this doesn’t happen, the child doubts him or herself and loses trust in all adults, with damaging effects on adjustment and functioning.

Be aware of the distinct peer groups in your classroom and understand which kids have power. Use this information to create groupings and opportunities that will help students to recognize each other’s strengths and contributions.

Make the climate of your classroom a high priority. Foster support for acceptance of diversity, moral engagement, kindness, and helpfulness through stories you read, books you assign, discussions about how people feel, role-playing, and using a prosocial curriculum such as Second Step.

Prevention is the best intervention. Bullying begins in early childhood, and it’s easier and more effective to catch it and turn it around in those years than it is later on.

What do you think? Have you seen different types of children bully—or being targeted—in your own classroom or school? How aware are you of your own reactions to the children involved? What strategies have you found to be effective?


When Is It Bullying?

girl crying

Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt

Note: This is the second in a series on bullying.  

These days most of us think we know all about bullying. But the truth is that almost any attempt to define it stirs up mass confusion and controversy.

The 49 states with anti-bullying legislation have created at least 10 different definitions. The academics define bullying as a stronger person deliberately and repeatedly harming a weaker person. And for kids and many adults, bullying is simply mean behavior.

What’s in a Name?

So does a definition matter? Well, it matters for researchers because they can’t measure bullying and figure out how to stop it if they don’t know what they’re counting.

And it matters for teachers because they can’t intervene appropriately if they don’t recognize bullying when they see it.

At this point you may ask, shouldn’t I intervene whenever I see a mean or harmful act, whether it’s bullying or not? The answer is a resounding YES! However, if you’re really dealing with bullying, an intervention for ordinary aggression—physical or relational, direct or indirect—probably won’t work in the long run, even if it stops the bullying at that moment.

Although aggression and bullying are closely related, the academic definition points to differences that make bullying a serious form of abuse. All of those involved—the child who bullies, the target of the bullying, and even the bystanders, who may experience anxiety, fear, guilt, depression, and trauma—suffer long-lasting effects.

Children who are targeted can’t shake off the bullying because it happens again and again. They can’t avoid or escape it because their aggressors are bigger, stronger, smarter, more popular, or more influential with their peers. Children who bully aren’t just angry or after someone’s lunch money. Their behavior is intentional—they know exactly what they’re doing—and their goal is to show their power by hurting and tormenting their targets, chosen because they are weak, different, or lack social status. Over time, targets become more and more frightened and isolated and less and less able to defend themselves.

What Does Bullying Look Like?

Aggression takes place in the open—the aggressor will knock over whomever gets in the way of something he wants, even if a teacher is standing right there. But bullying usually goes on behind teachers’ backs in unstructured settings such as bathrooms, corridors, and schoolyards, and children don’t often report it. As a result, you probably won’t know about it, and it may be difficult to identify. Besides, it doesn’t always look the way you expect it to.

Other factors can also affect your reaction to bullying:

  • Your own childhood encounters with bullying may influence your attitudes and responses
  • Children who are targeted may be as unappealing to you as they are to the children who bully them
  • If you don’t know what to do, you may be tempted to excuse the behavior or turn away

The experts list these signs to look out for when you suspect a child is being targeted. He or she:

  • Takes little interest in school activities and grades
  • Feels anxious
  • Has low self-esteem or feelings of helplessness
  • Suffers from frequent headaches or stomachaches
  • Loses things, needs money, or is hungry
  • Has injuries or damaged clothing, books, etc.
  • Seems unhappy and isolated
  • Suddenly loses friends or avoids social situations

When Does Teasing Become Bullying?

It is especially challenging to find the blurry line where teasing leaves off and bullying begins. Children know they’ve crossed it “when a joke isn’t funny any more,” but in practice they may be as confused as you are.

Teasing between friends is fun and affectionate, helps to resolve conflict, and enforces social norms. But when it exhibits the qualities of bullying—a power imbalance, an intention to harm, and repetition—it is indeed bullying.

The child being teased provides one clue to the distinction. If he or she doesn’t laugh or smile and is repeatedly hurt or upset, the teaser has probably crossed the line. Boys may not show their hurt feelings, so if you’re in doubt ask them privately how they feel. But because they might try to save face and not answer honestly, it is probably a good idea to talk to with the teasing child anyway.

The subject matter offers another clue. If the teasing is about a child’s appearance, the intention is almost certainly hostile. And if the teaser uses an aggressive or nasty tone, that’s probably bullying as well, and it’s time to intervene.

In fact, if you suspect any kind of bullying, even if you don’t see it yourself, it’s important to step in at once. Listen to—and believe—every child who reports it, and pay attention to your instincts. It’s better to overreact than to underreact. If children are ever going to ask for your help, they need to trust you, believe that you trust them, and have confidence that you’ll act.

In our next post we’ll discuss the children who bully, the targets of bullying, and why bystanders find it so hard to intervene. Later in this series we’ll cover what adults need to do.

In the meantime let us know what you think. Have you found it hard to identify bullying? How do you tell the difference between teasing and bullying? Have you been aware of how your own past experience and attitudes influence your response?


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 109 other followers