Why Teachers Should Care about Flint

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Maybe you’re not so interested in lead exposure in children.

I have to admit I wasn’t, even though I’d known for a long time that it’s an important risk factor for challenging behavior. We’d written about it in Challenging Behavior in Young Children, but somehow it seemed less sexy to me than other risk factors like temperament or media violence.

But now that I’ve actually spent some time learning about what happened in Flint, I’ve become obsessed.

I notice all the tiny places where the paint is chipped or peeling in my house, which was built long before lead paint was banned.

I remember how we lived in this house with our 4-year-old daughter while our painter meticulously sanded each wall, creating clouds of dust that were certainly heavily contaminated with lead.

I recollect that the city only recently replaced the old lead water line connecting us to the central water supply.

I can picture my children and grandchildren playing with our wonderful old Fisher Price toys whose colorful plastic—unbeknownst to us—was filled with lead.

Fortunately, my family is all right. But a great many other people aren’t as lucky, so I think you should know the story of lead and how it affects us all.

 The story of lead

Once upon a time—when cars ran on leaded gasoline, buildings were covered with lead-based paint, and water came into our homes, schools, and work places through lead pipes—the air and water were filled with lead. But about 40 years ago, people began to understand that lead wasn’t very good for our health, and governments passed some laws to remedy the situation.

In 1975, we started phasing out leaded gasoline, and in 1978, we banned lead-based paint. By 2006, the average level of lead in children’s blood had fallen dramatically.

Since we thought we’d solved the lead problem, our political will—and funding—for getting rid of lead evaporated. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) saw its budget for the prevention of lead poisoning chopped from $30 million to $2 million.

We were wrong        

But it turns out we were wrong. The lead from our years of using leaded gas is still resting comfortably in our soil, especially in the inner cities. Old lead paint remains on the walls and woodwork of 24 million apartments and houses where 4 million children live. And as schools in Newark, Camden, Ithaca, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and too many other cities have found, lead is often still in our plumbing.

In the meantime the World Health Organization (WHO) has determined that no level of lead is really safe, especially for children 5 years and younger. As they play, they’re much more likely to mouth or swallow its miniscule particles in dust, and their rapidly developing brains and bodies absorb a far greater percentage of it than adults’ do.

Children of color and children living in poverty are particularly vulnerable because they’re apt to live in older lead-filled neighborhoods in buildings in poor condition, and they may not be able to access or afford the nutritious food—high in calcium, iron, and vitamin C—that can slow down lead absorption. Even upper- and middle-class children whose families are renovating an older dwelling may be at risk.

What does lead do?

What does lead do when it enters the body? First of all, it affects the brain by damaging the developing prefrontal cortex—the thinking, planning, decision-making part of the brain—along with the white matter that enables cells in the brain and nervous system to communicate effectively.

As a result, children exposed to lead may lose several IQ points and suffer from impaired executive function (that is, they may have trouble with emotional regulation, impulse control, verbal reasoning, and mental flexibility). They are also at increased risk for learning disabilities, ADHD, aggressive behavior, and arrests for violent crime in adulthood.

Lead exposure also hurts school achievement, including readiness for kindergarten and reading. A large study in Chicago found that 75 percent of third graders had such poisonously high blood lead levels that they were likely to fail grade 3 and score badly on standardized tests—enough to make a difference between passing and failing. Not surprisingly, the greatest impact was on non-Hispanic African Americans, followed by Hispanics.

Lead can also affect the rest of the body—the cardiovascular, immune, hormone, and gastrointestinal systems—and is linked to anemia, hypertension, and kidney problems.

In case you were wondering, these effects are irreversible.

We could actually prevent future generations from being poisoned by lead if only we had the desire and the money. The amounts involved are gigantic, but so are the returns. One study estimated that for every dollar spent we’d gain $221 by increasing productivity and tax revenues and reducing spending on health care, special education, and crime. We might even close the achievement gap.

What can we do?

Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who first alerted the government to the high lead levels in Flint’s children, has called for funding for evidence-based interventions such as mother-infant support, literacy programs, universal preschool, school health services, nutrition programs, primary medical care, and mental health care.

These programs are vital, but ordinary teachers and administrators can also help to protect children from lead’s poisonous effects. You can:

  • Ask your administration to test the school’s water. If your school or daycare center was built before 1986, find out if filters have been installed on every water fountain and faucet and if those fountains and taps are flushed every day. They should run for 30 seconds to 2 minutes. (Collect the water and give it to your plants.) Alert families to the dangers of lead and encourage them to test, filter, and flush their faucets at home.
  • Use only cold water for drinking, cooking, and preparing formula.
  • Suggest that parents have their children’s blood lead level tested, or arrange to have testing at school, as the city of Newark has just done. Testing is mandatory in some states, including New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, and Medicaid requires testing for children at 1 and 2 years. But children in old low-income neighborhoods should be tested later as well. Those with high lead levels may be eligible for early intervention and special education services under the “Other Health Impairment” category of IDEA.
  • Provide meals and snacks that are rich in calcium, iron, and vitamin C. Avoid fatty foods, which aid absorption.
  • Be sure that children wash their hands and faces often, and wash toys regularly, especially outdoor toys.
  • To reduce lead-filled dust, have everyone take off their shoes before entering classrooms. Regularly wet-mop floors and entrances, and wet-wipe windows, taking extra care with sills and wells. Thoroughly clean mops and sponges.
  • Don’t let children play in bare soil. Instead plant grass or cover the ground with grass seed, mulch, sod, or wood chips.

Flint did one thing that’s positive: It put the problem of lead exposure front and center. Let’s keep it that way. —Judy Sklar Rasminsky


The Paris Terrorist Attacks and Other Catastrophic Events: How Can We Help the Children?

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Photo by Jessica Lucia

A week after the terrorist attacks in Paris, we awoke to the news that all of Belgium was on high alert and Brussels was in lockdown, with subways, malls, public markets, and schools all closed and residents advised to stay home.

Although a recent poll revealed that 83 percent of Americans believe a terrorist attack on U.S. soil is likely in the near future, most of us living on this side of the Atlantic continued our usual activities, worrying more about Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas shopping than about terrorists.

But what about our children?

But what were our children thinking and feeling?

In families with a direct tie to Paris or Brussels, even the youngest children knew something was terribly wrong. They could feel it in the air.

It was in the tension in people’s faces and voices, in the way their parents were glued to the news, their attention scattered, their tempers short, their usual rules relaxed or more strictly enforced. It’s hard to keep a secret in this global village of ours, where news is constantly available and social media connect us all.

And children who have links to Europe may not be the only ones affected. If you’re listening to the news or even discussing the possibilities of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil while your children are present, your child may react.

Terrorist attacks, riots, shootings, hurricanes, earthquakes, and other disasters create a sense of helplessness in everyone, and children are particularly vulnerable because they depend on the adults around them to make them feel safe. Their ability to recover is intimately connected to their family’s sense of well-being and the ability of their families and teachers to comfort and reassure them.

How do we know when children are upset?

Some children react right away; others need weeks to show their fear, anger, and sadness. Some bounce back relatively quickly; others take a long time. Boys tend to recover more slowly and act more aggressively; girls express their feelings in words and ask more questions.

Certain children have a particularly hard time and need special attention:

  • Children who are directly affected by the event or very close to it
  • Children who are very sensitive
  • Children already struggling with stress
  • Children who’ve experienced previous losses
  • Children who were barely coping before
  • Children whose behavior was already out of control.

Children five years and under may cry, whine, throw tantrums, or fear strangers. They may want to stay home, cling to their parents and favorite objects, and dread new situations. They may eat or sleep badly and regress into behaviors they used when they were younger, like thumbsucking or having toilet accidents.

School-age children may also become aggressive, disruptive, angry, and irritable and have trouble paying attention. Or they may withdraw and feel depressed or anxious. Children who are surrounded by angry people looking for revenge may respond angrily to their peers.

In all of these cases, challenging behavior is often the result.

How can we help the children?

What can we do to help our children feel safe? And what can teachers do to help children and parents when any catastrophic event takes place?

You can certainly provide parents with information. They may not be aware of what’s developmentally appropriate for their child to know or how much he can understand. Although watching the news and talking to others may alleviate their own anxiety, they probably don’t realize the impact it has on their child. Gently help parents to understand the need to limit what they watch and talk about when their child is present.

Families also need to know how to recognize their child’s anxiety and what they can do to assuage it.

Jim Greenman tells us that children want to know three things:

  • Will I be okay?
  • Will you be okay?
  • Will everyone I care about be okay?”

Remind parents that their primary job is to let their children know that they will take care of them and keep them safe. Parents are like the flight attendants on a turbulent flight. If they continue to walk calmly down the aisles, politely serving drinks and snacks, the passengers feel safe. Their relaxed demeanor communicates that the turbulence may be uncomfortable but it isn’t dangerous. When parents are calm and demonstrate coping skills, children feel more secure and may even imitate them. (Teachers should also keep this in mind.)

Talking about feelings

Children need a chance to ask questions and express their thoughts and feelings. But they will take their cue from the adults they trust. If we don’t speak, they will conclude that the events were too dangerous to touch. They may hide their feelings or think something is wrong with them for feeling as they do. They won’t have the courage to ask us questions or tell us how they feel.

If a child’s behavior at home has changed, suggest that parents find out what the child knows (or thinks he knows) and base their replies on what he says. (If a child is behaving differently at school or daycare, teachers should gently question him in the same way.) Diane E. Levin suggests, “Answer questions and clear up misconceptions, but don’t try to give children all the information available. . . . The best guide is to follow the child’s lead, giving small pieces of information at a time and seeing how the child responds before deciding what to say next.”

Parents (and teachers) need to listen calmly and without judging and validate the child’s feelings. Make it clear that it’s normal to feel upset or angry. Children don’t have to think their parent or teacher has all the answers, but they need to feel they’re understood, that their concerns are valued, and that the grownups in their lives will keep them safe.

Caring adults should emphasize children’s strengths and remind them of how they’ve coped with problems in the past. It’s also reassuring when adults show that they’re all right even if they feel sad or worried or angry. Children who see that their parents and teachers can handle the situation are more likely to handle it, too.

Here is an example of how one parent helped his six-year-old son deal with what happened in Paris.

Play as therapy

Play is one of the best ways for children to express what they feel and move toward recovery. It is normal and therapeutic for them to recreate the same scenes over and over—it helps them to gain control of the situation. They want to be big and strong; they want to be heroes who save the world; and sometimes they even want to be villains. Play is how they acquire this power.

Look and listen carefully so that you can support their efforts. Talk with them about what they’re doing and create opportunities for them to identify with the people who helped—firefighters, police, doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and technicians.

Drawing and writing are also extremely effective ways for children to deal with their feelings. And you can help them to release tension by planning lots of physical activity and tactile play with sand, water, or play dough.

Routines and activities

When life feels insecure and unpredictable, children need routine. Consistency brings comfort and the sense that everyday things haven’t changed. Both teachers and parents can calm everyone’s nerves by slowing things down, playing quiet music, and speaking in a calm voice, but as soon as possible they should return to normal activities.

Some children will find it hard to make choices, but others will need choices to feel more in control. Some will need lots of hugs, hand holding, and chances to sit on your lap; others will find it hard to meet demands. Be sensitive to what each child needs and adjust activities accordingly.

When there is so much anger and pain, children need positive ways to express their feelings. Parents and teachers can remind them that there are many adults working to protect them and they can help by making cookies, writing letters, or drawing pictures for the rescue workers, the police—or the President or the Mayor. These activities direct negative energy constructively and offer a sense that one person can make a difference.

When you work together, children, families, and teachers all benefit, and a deep sense of community is likely to emerge.

What do you think?

Are the children around you showing signs that they’re upset by the Paris terrorist attacks and the lockdown in Brussels? How are you handling this situation? Have you talked with them, and what did you say? Have you talked with their parents? We’d like to hear about your experience.

These resources can help:

Chandra Ghosh Ippen, Alicia F. Lieberman, & Patricia Van Horn. After a crisis: Helping young children heal. National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Diane E. Levin. When the world is a dangerous place. Educational Leadership.

Paul Myers. Tips to help children cope with disasters. Teaching Young Children.

National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Parent tips for helping preschool-age children after disasters.

NAEYC. Coping with violence. A list of resources.

Tragic events. The Fred Rogers Company.


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.


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