By Ron Huxley
Thirty percent of American, elementary school children, bully their classmates. That might not disturb you if your child is in the safe 70% but if your child has been the victim of a schoolyard bully or has harassed children himself, it can be very unsettling. To make matters worse, most schools do little to stop a bully's behavior or adopt rigid zero-tolerance policies that do not address individual issues.
Research from the National Institute of Child Health and Development found that a bullies behavior is often considered a "rite of passage" and therefore not worth preventing. Teachers may rationalize that all children pester or tease one another from time to time. For 70% of grade schools boys and girls, this is true. This portion of academia's population will typically respond to a less intensive intervention. Maintaining line of sight supervision without direct interference allows children to negotiate conflicts independently. If things get heated (voices raised or a toy waved overhead) that signals the need for a teacher to move in and guide the children toward a cooler resolution. Unfortunately, the remaining 30% go beyond the politics of the playground and seriously intimidate and threaten other children in defiance of normal adult interventions. If not deterred, these children are headed down a road filled with emotional disturbances, academic failures, substance abuse, and criminal activity.
These serious social offenders require more intensive and insightful approaches that address the roots of the bully's problems and not simply confront the behavior itself. Hidden from casual view, bullies often suffer from depression, low self-esteem, and poor social skills. If identified early, these issues can be managed inexpensively and with minimal effort compared to the costly approaches of law enforcement and rehabilitation centers. Programs in Norway and Great Britain that have addressed these issues have successfully reduced bullying by as much as fifty percent.
In an effort to develop this type of intervention in American schools, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education has developed a curriculum on "Conflict Resolution Education: A guide to Implementing Programs in Schools, Youth Serving Organizations, and Community and Juvenile Justice Settings." This online document explores the origins of conflict and the most effective models for its resolution. The vision of the curriculum appears to be focused on creating Peaceable Classrooms that teach youth to "take responsibility for their actions and develop a sense of connectedness to others and their environment."
The document correctly targets poor social skills as the primary motivation for bully's actions. While name-calling and threats don't appear to be a way to make friends, studies show that most bullies feel inadequate around others and overcompensate to gain a sense of relationship. This irrational view on relatedness manifests itself in both boys and girls. The difference is that boys tend to bully others boys with physical aggression while girls attack boys and girls with the more subtle strategy of rumors and ostracism. For either gender, the Peaceable School Approach aims to teach more creative solutions to building a social network and resolve conflicts peacefully. This is done from a systems perspective, simultaneously implementing peer mediation, administrator training, parent education, and classroom management.
Some of the principles necessary for a peaceable classroom include:
1. Separate people from the problem to avoid taking conflicts personally and justifying physical attacks. Bullies often view themselves as victims at the hands of society, in general, justifying their aggressive acts on their classmates. They may come from difficult living environments where resources (time, money, and property) are limited and appropriate role modeling is rare. Many of the adults they look up to act aggressively toward one another illustrating and emphasize a natural social pecking order.
2. Focus on interests, not positions to more effectively solve a problem. People resist giving up their positions, which are grounded in personal values and cultural principles. People will be more willing to adjust interests that have less "permanence" than a principle. Look for and point out the underlying motivations behind a bully's behavior. Anger is rarely a lone emotion. Hurt, loss, fear, or anxieties usually drive it. Address the bully's needs for power or control over his life. Speak to his desire to make friends and offer alternative solutions to negotiating play with others.
3. Invent options that allow both parties to feel they have gained something from the conflict. Find a win/win solution or wait until one can present itself. Open up discussion where brainstorming can take place without the pressure of having to make an immediate decision. If a decision can't be made, peer mediators can be trained and used to make a bully accountable for his acts through the social group he (secretly) fears the most. Adults can also set up a reflective team where the bully and victim listen to two adults discuss various ways to resolve a conflict without having to raise their defenses through direct confrontation.
4. Teach children to fight fairly so that the bully does not have the upper hand and learns more effective ways of getting his needs met. Using "I" messages instead of "You" messages will assist bullies and their victims in taking more responsibility for their needs and request them in a less aggressive manner. Encourage humor and "thinking out of the box" to create more flexible solutions and behaviors. Adopt an environment where "words, instead of fists" are used to negotiate problems and set up ground rules for making this safe.
While American schools have been at the end of the line in dealing with grade school bullies, their time may finally be coming. It is time to let the classroom know that there are other ways to manage conflict and solve social issues. This must also be carried into the homes and society if it is to be a permanent fix. Parents may need to be more involved in these issues regardless of whether their child is in the safe 70% or their child is in the bullying 30% category. It is time to add Resolution to the three R's of Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic.
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