Friday, March 4, 2011

Bullying: Not O.K.

Recently, Colette of Jamerican Spice posted about her son's experience being bullied in his kindergarten.  (  I didn't like the solution the teacher gave.  Apparently, in the restroom some boys said that his behind smelled bad.  Predictably, he told the teacher.  Her solution was that he should pee inside of the stall, rather than in the urinal like other boys.  Why should he have to separate -- ostracize -- himself?  Shouldn't the bullies be made to stop?

I hate to hear the excuses adults give for not stopping children's bullying:

  • "He didn't really mean it."
  • "She's has a hard life; she's just acting out what she sees at home."
  • "Don't make an issue of every little thing."
  • "Can't he take a joke?"
and the worst:
  • "She's got to learn to stand up for herself."
Of course, all of these things are true.  Sometimes, it is just a joke and we are oversensitive.  Certainly kids do try to process bad situations by re-enacting them (this time turning the tables and being the ones with all the power).  And, yes, kids do have to learn to stand up for themselves.  Whatever -- allowing child-on-child cruelty is not the solution.

As a classroom teacher (preschool/kindergarten), I know that bullying can be subtle and complex.  Sometimes it's hard to detect just who the instigator is.  Sometimes, the "victim" is actually the instigator, creating a situation in which he or she can get special attention.  Yes, sometimes.

One thing I did was to be realistic in knowing that there will be bullying at some point in time, by some children in the class, and forestall it (somewhat) by putting it out there and talking about it.  Why is bullying -- or any typical childhood behavior -- just taken as it comes?  We need to think it through and plan ahead of time for the inevitable.

I always considered myself a behavior "coach."  Just like a basketball coach models techniques and skills to move the ball, then watches his team as they practice, correcting and supporting them in their efforts, I did that with behavior.

I would set up a situation, model a "script," and let the kids role play.  

"What if I were playing with the red ball and Sara wanted it?  What could she do?  What could I do?"  We'd go from there and then a few kids would act out what we decided (with my guidance) would be a good way to negotiate the particular situation.  It was always very compelling because every child had been in both positions many times before throughout their young lives.  It was also effective.  I could hear the strategy playing out over and over again throughout the days following.  

"What if Mekhi and I were painting at the easel and he called me a Cuckoohead?  Is that o.k.?"  Same thing.

I would try to anticipate situations that were brewing and stop them before they got out of hand.

When bullying did occur, I would handle it immediately.  

First, I would have the bully apologize.  Not everyone agrees with this and with good reason.  Sometimes, children take an apology as a free pass.  "What?  I said I'm sorry."  They don't really mean it and their behavior isn't going to change.  I look at the apology as a manners issue.  It's words that help us get along in a civil society.  I figure as they grow up, they will learn the real meaning of an apology through many repeated encounters both as the apologist and apologee (not a word).

After that, they needed to make an appropriate reparation.  Did they take something?  Make fun of another?  Exclude someone?  They have to restore verbally and/or physically -- in a public way -- that thing.  Then we did a role-play of the specific situation.  This time, the right way.

"Let's pretend we're at lunch.  Shala, Leah, and Georgia see Lakesha coming towards their table.  OK, girls, what might be a good thing to say in this situation?"  By now they know the only acceptable thing is, "Hey Lakesha, come sit with us."  (Catty girl behavior does not just emerge in 7th grade.  If you're a girl, you know this.)

A few more groups of kids got to practice this too.  As a coach, I did not condemn the children who got it wrong.  They were not defined by their poor behavior.  Rather, I looked at it as a practice.  They needed my guidance and support to learn the correct behavior.  Just like that basketball player, they needed a coach to teach them the right techniques, postures, and moves to score.  This is no different -- and far more important.

Another thing I considered was whether it was an incident or a pattern.  If it was one incident, it went no further.  But if I saw a pattern, I brought in parents.  I approached it as a person concerned for their child's well-being, but who would tolerate no nonsense.  We talked about how problems are handled at home, what sibling dynamics are like, etc.  Frequently kids who bully feel they have no power.  It is never acceptable to get power at another's expense.

Kids do need to learn the script of standing up for themselves.  We practiced that too.  If Sara wanted the red ball when another had it, that went like this:
Sara:  "I want to play with the red ball.  Would you take the blue one?"
Acceptable response, "I like this one the best and waited to get it.  You can have it when I'm done."

Mekhi, "You're a cuckoohead."
Acceptable response, "It's rude to call people names.  Stop right now."

When my daughter was in kindergarten, a boy in her class told her, "You're mom has a big butt."  Of course, this has nothing to do with anyone's actual hind end and everything to do with power.  Gem and I talked about it and various ways she could handle it.  Tell him to stop, ignore him, tell the teacher... The one she picked?  She laughed and said, "Oh yeah?  Say it one more time and she's going to come sit on you with that big butt."  Then kept playing with her friends (who also laughed; though one did say, "You're mommy's not fat."  Bless you, Catherine.).  And yes, we practiced it in the car on the way to school after she decided that's how she wanted to handle it.

Our children get their self-confidence from us.  When we give them our attention and respect, we are teaching them that they are worthwhile and should expect the world to treat them accordingly.  When we act justly and fairly, they learn to expect justice and fairness from the world.  When we react to the inevitable bad situations with calm self-advocacy they learn that too.

This is a hard issue with me.  The adults in my life did not teach me self-confidence and how to handle bullies effectively.  They did their best, but their best was "stand up for yourself."  (Then if you don't know how, you're somehow deficient?  Pile on the self-loathing.)  I am thankful that I came out of that dark place and now can nurture and protect the children entrusted to me.


  1. OMG, I am having the same situation right now with Amira and I don't know what to do. Of course she is in the 6th grade. I wanted to talk about it on the blog, but couldn't...yet. But the meeting that I speak about in my latest post is just that...being called in to the school and being afraid for my child.

    Thanks so much...I don't feel alone about this.

  2. Salma, in my experience, 6th grade is tough for girls. For my daughter, it was the most difficult with "mean girl" issues. Keep the lines of communication open and stay strong.

  3. The sad thing is that little bullies grow up to be big bullies and a lot of them go into politics.

  4. My step-daughter has had alot of issue with bullying. However, she was also doing things which made her the ideal "victim" by over-reacting/over-responding. Alhamdulillah since I've been here I've been able to help her, through acting-out, how to decide the best way to respond.

    She was just telling me tonight how this one girl is always rude to her, just out of the blue, walking up, telling her to be quiet. I explained how this girl has NO power over Zainab, that she can decide how and if she lets it affect her. She decided next time, instead of getting upset and verbal, to just ignore the intrusion. If she persists, perhaps an eye-roll and a sigh will be included.

    I'm proud of her for coming along way in not allowing herself to be dragged into this cycle. :-) (Hers was an issue of the attention she found she could get as a "victim".)

    Thanks for sharing...

  5. @Ron, too true. And to law school;). (I can say that; my sister's a lawyer.)

    @Umm Aami, so great that Zainab has caring parents to show her the way.

  6. Angelle thank you for sharing about this. I wish I had shared it earlier and able to act on the wonderful feedback that I received. I just assumed that the teacher would have taken it seriously and have the boys apologize to my son and do what you did, but talking openly about bullying and roll playing.
    After all. There was a paper that came home in regards to the school joining hands in taking a stand against bullying.

    It's been a month now and it still hurts that my son had to change his behaviour, but I keep wondering if I should start on the issue again or just let it be for now, since my son seems alright with using the separate stall. Sigh.

    You word this wonderfully.

    I agree that a child done wrong to another should apologize to this child. They have to learn as they grow because left untended, a little bully grows up to be a big one.

    Your daughter is quick with wit! :) I love how confidently and easily she handled the situation.

    I find that I tell my son too, that when someone calls him names. I say I know it hurts your heart sweetie and it can make you angry or afraid, but it's always ok to use your words to express yourself and say: It is not nice to hurt people with words or deeds. You will not like it when it's your turn. And walk away.
    I'm thinking I should begin roll plays with him.

    """When we react to the inevitable bad situations with calm self-advocacy they learn that too.""""

    I am teaching myself to be calm.

    Growing up in an orphanage, there is so many life lessons that I've never gotten and I'm learning as I go along. Sometimes I'm amazed at how I can do this motherhood thing and it's all because of God's love helping me.
    I had nothing to go on.
    Hugs and kisses and words of affirmation and all those things that children need, I never got as a child.

    I lived in fear most of my life and I realize that even adults are just children in older bodies and bullying continues.

    I know that today, I'm a different person and while I'll wait a long time for someone to change, I'll eventually stand up for myself when I'm calm and know that I wont fly off the handle.

    Thank you for sharing your insights and about your story and mine.


  7. Dear Colette, how wise you are. Sadly, adults are children in older bodies (so often!).

    You are so strong -- even more so because of all that you have been through. You are an excellent example for your children. That's what's going to make the difference in their growth and development.

    Just to let you know, Gem did not have a quick wit. We tried out several things to say and practiced them. That's the one she chose and we rehearsed it. Nowadays, her wit is quicker :)

    Bless you for all you do. The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.


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