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Why bullies rule and how to encourage kindness and empathy

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When I was in school, bullying was an accepted part of the climate. There seemed to be a commonplace attitude back then that “kids will be kids,” so victims felt that there was no one to turn to.

Fast forward to 2009: I attended an assembly at my daughter’s middle school called “Ryan’s Story.” John Halligan spoke about his son, Ryan, a 13 year old who committed suicide in 2003 after being bullied at school and online for several years. Halligan found that the best way to deal with the enormous pain of losing his son was to use his story to inspire change in schools.

These types of assemblies are common in schools today because there is more awareness about the sometimes dire consequences and long-term effects of bullying. All 50 states now have anti-bullying laws or policies (to explore state laws see: www.stopbullying.gov/laws/).

However, bullying is still rampant in our schools and communities. So, where are we going wrong?

The bully problem

Bullying is defined by aggressive, repetitive behavior toward another where there is a perceived imbalance of power. Bullying can be verbal, physical, or social — exclusion or spreading rumors. Cyberbullying (online bullying or bullying using electronics) has brought bullying to a whole new level. Students can no longer return home to a safe haven. With cyberbullying, the torment continues, and there is a feeling of no escape.

“Bullying is always a problem with social relationsh­ips,” explains Dr. Michele Borba, the author of “UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World” (Touchstone: Simon & Schuster, 2016). “In middle school, bullying is at its peak, and anonymous texts contribute to stress, anxiety, and fear because kids don’t know who is sending them.”

According to results of the 2013 School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey by the U.S. Department of Education, in April 2015, approximately 22 percent of students ages 12 to 18 were bullied at school. The Cyberbullying Research Center (cyberbullying.org) reports, “Overall, about 25 percent of the students we have surveyed over the last eight studies have told us that they have been cyberbullied at some point in their lifetimes.”

What is going on in our communities that so many children are reporting that bullying has affected their lives?

Dr. Jessie Klein, an associate professor at Adelphi University, founder and director of Creating Compassionate Communities (www.creatingcompassionatecommunities.com), and author of “The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools” (NYU Press, 2012) shares, “Statistica­lly, anxiety and depression are more prevalent and present at much younger ages. People are more isolated and are so goal-oriented that friendships are not as important.”

Long-term effects

The consequences and long-term effects of bullying can be devastating, and the disturbing cases reported in the media seem all too prevalent, such as when 13-year-old Zoe Johnson, a cheerleader from Michigan, committed suicide in 2015 after being cyberbullied relentlessly. Stopbullying.gov reports that even though a small number of bullied children react by using violent measures, “In 12 of 15 school shooting cases in the 1990s, the shooters had a history of being bullied.”

Dr. Ellen W. deLara, an associate professor at Syracuse University and author of “Bullying Scars: The Impact on Adult Life and Relationsh­ips” (Oxford University Press, 2016), reports, “There are numerous long-term effects of bullying that plague people throughout adult life. Bullying victims show an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. Both victims and bullies demonstrate greater lifetime anxiety and depression than those not involved in bullying. Other effects include difficulty trusting others, difficulty maintaining friendships or intimate relationships, very low self-esteem, and two to five times greater risk of suicide attempts over a lifespan. Of course, not everyone has long-term effects. However, in my study of over 800 people (as well as in the research of others), enough demonstrate these effects that we should consider bullying a public health crisis.”

The bystander problem

Unfortunately, we’ve all seen disturbing videos taken of incidents on buses and in hallways which depict a child being harassed or physically harmed while a gathered crowd simply watches or encourages the behavior. Bullies won’t rule the school if the general population (both students and staff) takes a stand.

“Students, just like adults, are reluctant to intervene when there is a physical altercation or a verbally abusive interaction between other students,” says deLara. “The main reason students cite is that they will be the next target if they get involved.”

Dr. Rachel Annunziato, a child psychologist and associate professor at Fordham University, reports, “There is research out of Europe showing that bystander intervention — defending the victim or ignoring the bully to remove reinforcement — is associated with bullying frequency.”

Adults need to teach kids how to respond to a bullying situation when they are not the target.

Klein clarifies that students need to be taught the difference between being a tattletale and getting help for someone who is in distress. She asserts, “We need to encourage communities where kids are committed to protect one another and are responsible for one another.”

“Bullying is reduced dramatically when kids who witness it stand up for the victim,” Borba says, “but most kids will say they do not know what to do because adults have not given them the tools to intervene.”

Students are more apt to report bullying if they trust it will be anonymous.

“Schools must have reporting boxes and the administration must read reports regularly,” Borba claims. “The majority of bullying happens when adults aren’t present, so students have to be able to report incidents safely.”

The kindness cure

“The antidote to bullying is empathy,” Borba states. She instructs teachers and parents to emphasize kindness rather than putting the focus on grades and accolades. “I mean, when is the last time you’ve seen a bumper sticker that says ‘Proud Parent of a Kind Kid?’ We are raising stressed-out kids who are scheduled to death. As stress builds, empathy wanes because you are in survival mode.”

Klein agrees with Borba.

“Deadlines and punctuality become more important than helping one another,” she says. Klein offers an example of a student refusing to help a peer find his classroom because of fear of the consequences for being late.

Teach empathy early

“During preschool, explaining bullying and ensuring there is no tolerance for it is important. So is character building — emphasizing kindness,” Annunziato explains.

Klein teaches empathy building games when she visits schools, such as I Have a Complaint.

“Students write down a complaint — ‘I am feeling lonely’ — and are prompted to work with a partner or group to work out what the student needs. The objective is to make the complaint into a dream — ‘I have a dream to have a meaningful connection.’ ” This helps students to see that a negative feeling can be turned into a positive goal.

Borba suggests, “Finding opportunities for kids to do meaningful work to learn empathy hands-on is so important.”

Mentoring peers, volunteering for charitable organizations, or simply helping those who are less fortunate are great empathy-building experiences, particularly if they are done out of the goodness of the heart as opposed to a required activity for a school organization.

Programs and awareness

Creating a bully-free environment requires cooperation between school staff, parents, and students. In March 2011, National PTA launched an initiative called Connect for Respect to help students, parents, and educators to create safe school climates.

Anti-bullying themed assemblies have become the norm, and many schools have adopted anti-bullying programs that focus on teaching and encouraging positive behavior, but the implementation, consistency, and communication between parents and school staff all affect a program’s success. Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, No Bully System, and Safe School Ambassadors Program are examples.

“There are programs that schools can implement, starting with the youngest children, that have been effective in promoting empathy called social-emotional learning programs,” deLara reports.

However, deLara adds that educators are still looking for programs that will demonstrate effectiveness over time and with diverse ethnic populations.

Parents must be tuned into their child’s emotional and social health. Annunziato reports, “Signs that bullying is occurring may be changes in anxiety level, moods, and self-esteem. Changes in peer relationships are also key indicators.” She encourages parents to contact school staff if they become aware that their child is being bullied. “Children may fear that conversations with school personnel could lead to increased bullying. So parents should be prepared to explain how steps are being taken to prevent this.”

Klein advises parents to help their kids seek an alternative culture outside of school so that in-school relationships do not encompass a child’s entire social life.

Lastly, kids need to be encouraged to speak up and tell a trusted adult if they are being bullied or see someone else being bullied.

“Occasional­ly, a student or group of students can try to intervene. This can be very successful, especially if they are well-liked and respected in the school,” deLara suggests.

Myrna Beth Haskell is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in publications across the globe (www.myrnahaskell.com).

Who is at risk?

Stopbullying.gov lists the following characteristics of victims and perpetrators. It’s important that teachers, coaches, and parents understand these characteristics so they can help children with self-image and modify behaviors before bullying situations develop:

Higher risk of being bullied (victim):

• Perceived as different from peers (overweight, underweight, wears glasses or different clothing, new to a school, unable to afford what kids consider “cool”).

• Perceived as weak or unable to defend him or herself.

• Depressed, anxious, or low self-esteem.

• Less popular or has few friends.

• Annoys, provokes, or antagonizes others for attention.

Higher risk of becoming a bully (perpetrator):

Two profiles of bullies:

• Those who have social power and like to dominate others.

• Those who are isolated and may also be depressed, anxious, have low self-esteem, be less involved in school, be easily pressured by peers, or do not identify with the feelings of others.

• Aggressive or easily frustrated.

• Less parental involvement or has issues at home.

• Thinks badly of others.

• Has difficulty following rules.

• Views violence in a positive way.

• Has friends who bully others.

Posted 12:00 am, October 7, 2017
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