Sunday 13 May 2012

Bullying: A Learned Behaviour - Children Aren't Born Bullies

I am reminded of this truth every time I watch a super hero movie - children aren't born bullies.  Bully behaviour results from relationships and situations.  In every super hero movie - The Avengers, Batman, Spiderman - there is always a villain.  As the movie progresses, it is revealed to the audience that these villains have a history of neglect, abuse, over indulgence, and what I like to think of as too much or too little attention - thus creating an innate craving to have the attention on them at all times, even if it is negative.  In The Avengers Loki, adopted brother to Thor and son of Zeus, could never compete with his brother, and never live up to his father's expectations.  Batman's Joker was abused by his father who carved slits, extending his mouth into a super grin, leaving scars, both physical and psychological.  Harry Osborn, as the Green Goblin, was the spoiled rich kid who could never please his father.  This classic theme is a thread throughout history and literature, in film and in life.

Recently, in education, the term "bully" has been a real catch-phrase and hot topic. Once a continuing pattern of negative behaviour from a student towards other students becomes apparent, teachers and parents become concerned. As a result, both parents and educators attempt to solve the bullying problem.  From a teaching perspective, educators implement anti-bullying programs, have guest speakers, provide extra playground supervision, etc. in hopes of supporting parents, as well as changing student behaviour.   The questions remains - why are children exhibiting this frequent bad behavior?  Both educators and parents must reflect on their own practices to discern whether or not children are learning these bullying behaviours from themselves.  What is happening to that child in their life that is causing them to exhibit bullying behaviour?  What does this child experience, see, hear, participate in on a regular basis that is causing them to react in a negative way to others?

What is bullying?  Bullying is a form of aggressive behavior manifested by the use of force or coercion to affect others, particularly when the behavior is habitual and involves an imbalance of power. Bullying consists of three basic types of abuse – emotionalverbal, and physical. It typically involves subtle methods of coercion such as intimidation

Ok - so let's talk about this bullying definition above.  First of all, I would like to reinforce that bullying does not manifest out of nothing.  Bullying is a learned behaviour.  Bully behaviour is learned from other bully behaviour.  Every sentence in the definition above could end with - "and is a behaviour I learned from my brother, sister, teacher, cousin, dad, friend, babysitter, etc."  Second, let me emphasize the word "habitual".  Everyone has experienced some teasing, rough play, annoying behaviour, etc.  from a sibling, family member, friend, or classmate.  When the experience happens on a regular basis it becomes bullying, especially when the victim has asked the bully to stop or it is obvious that it is too much for the victim to handle.  Once again, therefore, the "bully" must have experienced habitual bullying, conditioned at the hands of someone else.  Third, the imbalance of power that is created between the person that is bullying and the victim can swing both ways.  The victim who has no power will often bully others to create that feeling of having power over others.  The victim who has too much power will often bully, sometimes without realizing what they are doing,  simply to get the attention they are used to having from others.  Both parents and teachers walk a fine line when raising and teaching their children and students.  The goal must always be to find that balance - the consequence of imbalance can be a rebellious child.

Now let's talk about the three types of abuse - emotional, verbal, and physical - and how they manifest themselves in school and at home, specifically with primary aged children, as well as some ways to handle such situations.

Emotional Bullying:  Students who bully play off the feelings of others who want to belong and be part of the crowd.  Students will say or suggest with their actions, "If you don't do this for me, you can't play with me or be my friend."  Where does this behaviour come from?  Some would suggest that a child who receives love and acceptance only when they do as they are told might utilize this technique on others.  Children need to know that they are loved even if they behave badly.  I often begin with, "I love your great sense of humour or I like how excited you are about learning, but I do not like your behaviour right now."  Teachers and parents might question as to whether or not their child feels part of the family at school or at home.  Is one child or student valued above others for their achievements?  Is there sibling rivalry?  Do older siblings make younger siblings feel left out unless they do as they are told?

Some tips to combat emotional bullying: 

Friendship Partners: Pick popsicle stick partners for recess and center time.  Students must play with their friendship partner for the duration of that time.  They may play with other partners as well but they are encouraged to care about the feelings of different children, possibly outside of their group of friends.

Older Sibling, Younger Sibling Activities: Encourage activities where all siblings, no matter what age, can be involved in - games night, movie night, reading time, etc.  The other day I saw the cutest example of bromance.  Two older brothers and a much younger littler brother were all enjoying themselves on scooters.  The pride and acceptance on that little brothers face was priceless - he belonged!  He was having fun just like his older brothers.

Verbal Bullying: Name calling and teasing is the typical form of verbal bullying that is seen displayed by primary children.  Children replicate what they see, hear, and experience.  Often see their older siblings, friends, or even adults modeling this behaviour.  For the most part, this type of communication is a natural part of growing up.  However, the difference is kids who name call and tease on a regular basis often don't know when enough is enough, perhaps because this same courtesy has not been given to them.  Or, perhaps some children, especially those who have been trained to seek attention, have not heard "NO!" enough.  One could easily blame media such as movies and television on poor behaviour, yet the reality is that children will always come in contact with poor examples of behaviour.  How parents and teachers utilize these examples to discuss good behaviour versus bad behaviour and set expectations for good behaviour from kids is the deciding factor.  

Some tips to combat verbal bullying:

Monitor and discuss all movies shown to your students/children.  Use examples from movies to discuss right and wrong.  Encourage discussion with your children.  Allow your children to bring up situations before discussing them.  This will make them more relevant to them and they will be more likely to remember any advice you give them.

Model Compliments:  Make sure students see you give compliments and thanks to others.  Occasionally stop the class and have everyone give each other a compliment about one other or their work.

Teach kids about "the line".  Kids need to know when they have crossed the line.  This often happens with silly behaviour that can turn dangerous.  Kids need to know when they have crossed the line verbally, as well.  Discuss with them how their words can hurt just as much as their actions.  Give consequences when necessary.  Actions speak louder than words!

Physical Bullying: Physical acts are the easiest to see and also the toughest for kids to understand.  Often parents will wrestle with their kids and this is a natural fun play time.  Hugs are given to show love - it is a natural form of affection.  However, children need to understand the difference between what is acceptable at home and what is acceptable at school.   Children need to understand when that line is crossed.  Some children are tougher than others and some families have different rules then others.  Thus, it is best to have a "No touching!" rule at school.  School, like society, is a friendly meeting ground where everyone must get along.  Kids must find that happy medium.  I often begin my year at school by telling my students that there are different rules for different places.  These physical acts turn into bullying when the acts happen on a regular basis.  Are children repeatedly experiencing physical acts that might be a little too much?  Does your child feel powerless at the hands of an older sibling, or adult?

Some tips to combat physical bullying:

Be a constant presence.  As a teacher, take some extra time to be out on the playground, even if it is not your supervision duty.  Discuss the different rules at home and at school.

Provide games and activities that will help children to express their emotions in different ways.

Have older students come and monitor soccer games to provide refereeing and positive role model examples for younger students.

To conclude, children should never be classified as bullies - that is not who they are as people.  However, they can exhibit bully-like behaviour if provided with a recurring role model.  Furthermore, as children get older bullying behaviour can become more and more severe and the consequences can result in a greater tragedy; gay teen suicide and teen murders have been frequent headliners in the news, lately.  It is best to try to remedy these bullying behaviours now rather than later.  Parents and teachers, ask yourself, "What is happening in my child/student's life that might be causing this behaviour?"  What kinds of situations are kids experiencing?  

Lastly, if your child is a victim, don't run away from these problem situations - there will always be bully-like behaviour in life for kids to deal with.  Help them to build skills now so that they will be able to successfully handle bully behaviour in the future and hopefully avoid exhibiting bully behaviour themselves!  Encourage children to be peacemakers rather than bystanders.  After all, Peter Parker always tried to see the good in his best friend Harry Osborn a.k.a. the Green Goblin.  I want my students to always look for the good in others even if they don't approve of their behaviour.   Victims of bully behaviour, along with a great support group, often develop great compassion for other people who are different or who do not fit the norm.  Compassionate people are super heros in their own right.

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