Are School Bullying Programs Just Temporary Band-Aids?

Bullied: The Fallout of No Child Left Behind?

Dr. Robyn J.A. SIlverman

Dr. Robyn–One of my daughters (I have 9 yo twin girls) is being bullied terribly. I have spoken to the teacher, principle, adjustment counselor. I have even had Tim and Kim speak with her this week because she brings it home to hurt her sister and disrespect me. How do I get the school to adopt a No Bully policy? Next year will be their last year in elementary school but these children will be moving on to middle school with my girls. It started with just a few children and now the whole class is mean to her. She says she has “no friends” and she doesn’t anymore. She has gone from a confident child to a child that thinks she is ugly, fat and deserves to be treated badly.

–Gail

I’m not a very politically-minded person. I don’t spend hours debating the current campaign or arguing about something George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or John McCain did or said. I do care about children though—and as you know, I’ve got a lot of opinions when it comes to kids and their education. Particularly, my focus is typically on ways to help children reach their potential and become generous, open-minded, respectful, confident, leaders—rather than on who’s getting the most electoral votes.

After reading a brief post in the Washington Post this morning on the importance of teaching the whole child in school, my feelings, as usual, became more acute. We talk about the need for character education and yet in many schools, kids aren’t receiving it.

It’s been difficult to see the emotional fallout regarding the intense focus on academics during the era of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). High expectations in reading and math have left children in an emotional and social funk. I’ve already started receiving requests for bullying and leadership seminars from schools who anticipate a continuation of the bullying trend that’s happened over the last 7 or 8 years. Children don’t know what to do and teachers don’t know what to do– and nothing much is being done in most places.

What’s going on now is similar to what happened decades ago– lack of knowledge, lack of no-how, lack of money, lack of listening, and lack of implementation in schools. These reasons, I believe, were the same reasons that I wound up getting horribly bullied in elementary school years ago. Are we still in the same place?

No promotion of positive values—no prevention of alienation, no expectation of character in action– even if today’s bully is tomorrow’s criminal. Perhaps it isn’t hard to believe that this is part of what fuels (and pushed me in the past) to become a child development expert in my adult life. I figured, “I guess I’ll have to figure out the answer myself.” The teachers at that time (and I don’t think it’s gotten better in most cases since), had absolutely NO CLUE what to do about bullying. There was no real protocol and a real feeling of dart throwing in the dark when it came to solving the obvious issue.

Time to let the cat out of the bag…

It was fifth grade when it first happened to me. Admittedly, I was a sensitive girl—very friendly, quite intuitive, and often, too eager to please. This social profile, along with the fact that I had become too close with a girl who was already considered “the best friend” of another bossy, albeit insecure, 5th grader, named Jenny, put me in a precarious situation. I was ready to begin some of the worst days of my life. As an adult, I can still say that with confidence. I was about to become a consistent victim of bullying during this unfortunate year. Boy, do I have some stories that would make your head spin.

While in Martha’s Vineyard this past weekend, I had a great conversation with some of my friends about the tragic sabbatical that children have taken from social and emotional education. On the one hand, the lack of character education in schools is absurd (and why we’re so grateful to Powerful Words Member Schools for supplying it in the after-school arenas).

On the other hand, the children have been robbed of natural social lessons due to the diminishing budget for gym (time when children need to work together outside of the academic world), art (a time when children can express themselves artistically and put their feelings about nonacademic things to paper), drama (an activity that allows children to act out, try out, and get out their feelings in a healthy way), music…and the list goes on and on. And let’s not get started on the fact that children have full access of the computer/internet and no education about the decorum, respect, and responsibility it takes to use it. We can say “it’s got to stop” but without the opportunities for children to learn positive interactions and the diminished focus on providing such opportunities in schools, we’ve got a major problem.

So now what?

I’m troubled and reassured by the schools that are asking to bring me in to talk to the children about bullying —in person, cyber, or otherwise. They may actually be noticing it may be a problem—or they’re simply trying to “shut up” a parent who’s complaining that their child is being bullied (something that is definitely happening in some of these schools). It’s clear that money is tight– since most of it is designated for more math or reading prep– not social education. This has to be a one-shot deal. But what can I possibly do or say in an hour that’s going to change the social climate of the school?

There have been plenty of parents who’ve reached out and written to tell me about their child who has been bullied, teased, terrorized, ostracized, and gossiped about.

I’ve already gone into school to role play strategies that are meant to help children cope when a bully “attacks.” But I’m not really sure that it’s where I should put my focus. Do you? I mean, why give the education to the “victims” when it’s really the leaders and bullies that need the social education —I guess I’d rather “promote” positive interaction rather than “prevent” (which implies the risk is still very much there), negative interaction.

So I’m at a stalemate. I admit it. Since the schools aren’t really asking for it– I’d like to ask you for your opinion. If you had someone go into your children’s school to talk about bullying—or someone who was actually going to make a difference—what would you want them to do or say? My inclination is to talk to the “leaders” in the school (the teachers would have to pick these out) and put them through leadership training.

What do you think? What would you want for your children? I’d like to help but I’m not really interested in putting a temperamental band-aid on a sore subject nor am I interested in being the walking check-mark next to the school administration’s program requirement list for the year.

As educators, our after-school program instructors that constantly keep their eyes on respect, discipline, confidence, responsibility, generosity, and more– we thank you– you are needed more than you can ever know. I wonder how many children you have saved from being the victim as well as the bully– through the consistent use of character education and Powerful Words. Now we need to know how to transfer some of our expertise and programming into the school systems that need it so badly.

Your comments and ideas are respected and very much wanted. Please comment below.

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15 Responses

  1. Hi i have 4 kids and live in the uk . All schools here have to put in place an anti bullying policy. Most would say “great no bullying in the uk” then– NOT true as my oldest son was by two young boys in his class. He didn’t want to go to school. Looked very unhappy and cried a lot. As a parent it’s not good to see your child’s self confidence and character destroyed. The school said we have guide lines ( can’t or won’t do anything), spoke to parents of other boys involved. One said “sorry they will talk to their son.” The other boy’s dad said it was a bit of “rough housing” and my son had better get used to it. After conveying how i felt about it said father told his son to stop. That still left me with building my son’s confidence. I enrolled my boy in my karate club– very good– that’s where we found powerful words. William was 7 when that happened. He’s nearly 14 now and an amazing young man that takes personal development very seriously (i.e. dr robyn, wayne dyer and tony robbins). I hope that’s some help and thank you dr robyn for changing my family’s lives. –stuart

  2. Dr. Silverman – I have to tell you (and others) that there are some schools out there who have “no tolerance” bullying policies and have learned how to deal with bullying effectively. I have three sons, ages 14, 10, and 8. Our family has attended Washington Elementary School in Raleigh, NC since the oldest was in kindergarten.

    This school has a very diverse population, both socio-economically, racially, educationally, etc. They are a nationally-recognized public magnet school that does a phenomenal job of recognizing and celebrating differences among their students, staff, and families. I would highly recommend their approach. I believe their commitments to character education and whole-child (well rounded) development can be replicated without sacrificing the no-child left behind academic benefits. This school has been studied and visited by many other schools’ staff over the years I have been involved at the school. I feel certain that they have the ability to share their knowledge with those willing to do what it takes to make changes happen.

    Please contact me if you would like me to assist you or others in obtaining information from this school. I have seen this work for 9 years now, and I would love to be able to help other children achieve the academic and character education that has been offered to the children of Washington Elementary.

    I applaud your enthusiasm and work towards helping our children. Thank you. -Lindy (aka “Mom” to three boys!)

  3. Dear Stuart,

    Thank you very much for writing and telling us your story. It’s promising to hear that UK schools have an anti-bullying policy but distressing to hear that, in some cases, it’s not working. Many anti-bullying policies are written in adult language and not conveyed clearly to children. I actually spoke about this to a principal of a school recently and she had to concur. Simply because someone has a policy doesn’t mean that the children are privy to it, understand it, and are taught (specifically and often) to practice it.

    I’m not sure if my elementary school had a anti-bullying policy of not when I was in 5th grade– but I do know that the teachers were at a loss about what was going on. I, too, cried daily and my parents were certainly distressed, just as you were. So glad you took the matter into your own hands and enrolled William into a program where he could thrive.

    I’m thrilled to hear about the success you’ve had with a Powerful Words Member School in the UK. Personal Development is just that– it helps us to take control of our own behavior and reactions– so that others, such as bullies, are unable to impact us. Like your son, children learn to be confident, disciplined, respectful, grateful and more through Powerful Words– which put them in a position of feeling like a leader, being seen as a leader, and actually taking the role of the leader.

    I imagine he’ll positively influence many people– perhaps someone just like he was– and what a help that will be to the person who looks up to him– to know that if William could do it, so could he.

    Warm regards,

    Dr. Robyn

  4. Hello Lindy (AKA Mom of 3 boys!),

    Thank you for sharing your enthusiasm for your sons’ school! It’s always wonderful to hear when schools are going above and beyond. I would love to hear more about what they’re doing to celebrate differences.

    To me, what you said about your school’s commitment to character education and the whole child only confirms the need for schools to have more of an “ongoing” approach rather than a one time seminar or presentation. I don’t believe that one hour can change the trajectory of a school when a school is clearly having a problem, do you? The children deserve the full approach!

    Thank you for your kind words. My main focus has always been, and will remain, to help all children thrive– since young people are assets to be developed not deficits to be managed. Through Powerful Words, we can bring out the best in children everywhere!

    Thank you, Lindy. It’s great to hear from you and look forward to hearing from you again!

    Warm regards,
    Dr. Robyn

  5. Dear Dr. Robyn ~ I’ve just come upon your blog and it is filled with so many great topics. Thank you for what a champion you are for young people and their parents!! I can’t wait to dive into your archives. ~ Warmest regards, Debbie

  6. Thanks, Debbie!

    It’s an honor to be thought of as a champion and a thrill to have you come by to visit. Please come by again!

    Warmest regards,

    Dr. Robyn

  7. Dr. Robyn,

    As you know, I work (I’m actually a board member) of a non-profit community group that desires to promote healthy youth. One of the prevention programs that they offer is the Olweus Anti-Bullying Program. This program has been scientifically proven to be effective in reducing bullying in schools. The towns nearby that have implemented the program have shown great results (The group tracks results).

    I also provide EZ Defense classes to many of the local schools to provide the children with skills that have been shown to be effective in handling bullying situtations when confronted, and it is a frequent part of our classes.

    I think that a short answer is that one session is not enough and the training needs to be brought and tailored to all the different parts of the school: Teachers, support staff, executive staff and students.

    Respectully,

    Andrew

    More information about Olweus can be found here: http://www.clemson.edu/olweus/

  8. Hello Andrew!

    So glad to hear from you and thrilled to hear how well things are going with the Anti-Bullying program. Thank you for the information.

    To me, and as I can tell, for you too, it’s clear that schools need an entire philosophy to help create a foundation of respect throughout the year. The students in your area are particularly fortunate because they have a whole town looking out for them– using both the Olweus program as well as Powerful Words and positive martial arts (not to mention the expertise of many including yourself). More towns need to do the same!

    In addition, it’s true, that teachers, parents, students, and staff need to be on board. Teaching and training one without the others misses the point entirely.

    Most educators are agreeing that 1 hour is just not enough–it needs to be a full philosophy.

    Thanks for offering your information-

    Best regards,
    Dr. Robyn

  9. As an author of a book on the subject (Safe School Ambassadors) using the experience we have with over 650 schools that have used a this effective model of student empowerment, I am clear that the best way to change a school climate and bullying is to change the social norms. This is best done by empowering the bystanders to address mistreatment. This must not be done as a “check-off” event but through programming that becomes part of the schools ongoing efforts. This must not just be a one time effort. It has to be ongoing with support for the students who have the training and skills to intervene in bullying and cruelty while it is happening. We are not saying use students as police officers or monitors. Give them non violent, effective skills that prevent or deescalate situations. The model incorporates 7 keys to youth empowerment programs that can be integrated into existing programs or by using the “Safe Schoo Ambassador” model itself. While Olweus focuses on the adult curriculum and has shown some effect, we cannot ignore the power of students to change the norms on campus. They have to part of the solution.

  10. I just wanted to say how much I appreciate your “fresh approach” to the bullying problem. My 5th graders school has both the ‘Character Counts’ program and an anti-bullying program, yet the problem continues. For the past 2 years he has been consistently terrorized by a boy who rides his bus & has the same recess. Sadly, many of the incidents have been reported, and school staff has decided to punish both my son and the bully…citing that it was in the interest of ‘fairness’. The bus driver, after I spoke to the principal about yet another bus incident, had the nerve to get mad at my son and tell him “You need to stop complaining to me about trivial things like “Boyx” grabbing your leg under the seat”. Why did he tell her? He’s come home 3 times with scratches on his leg.

    I am at a loss. I am screaming at the top of my lungs in defense of my son, but I only receive a pat on the head and a push on my back to get me out the door.

    This was a very long way to say that I think you can tell kids to report bullying and what do when it happens, but if the schools don’t find a better way to deal with the bully (by workshops and education…not just punishment) then this is going to continue to grow.

  11. Dr. Robyn,

    I appreciate and agree with your point of view on bullying. I have been speaking to children in classrooms and assemblies for 5 years about their words and actions, addressing the character of students as well how best to respond to bullying. So much of bullying programs focus on the victims, little is done to actually fix the problem. The problem lies in values not in reacting to children with bad values.

    All this said, I am a full time martial arts instructor, 6th degree black belt with a full schedule of public speaking and teaching classes to children and adults ages 3 and up. Many are surprised on my approach, thinking most responses will be physical. Although I am well trained in physical responses, the solution lies in changing the atmosphere of schools, focusing on values such as mutual respect and tolerance.

    Thank you for the work you are doing.

  12. Dr. Robyn,
    I am a fifth grade teacher, and I became highly concerned about bullying in our schools after reading “Nineteen Minutes” by Jodi Picoult, a book I strongly recommend to both teachers and principals. I decided it was time to talk turkey with my fifth graders and acknowledge the presence of bullying in our classroom. After brutally honest discussions and confessions, my class decided to take a stand. They signed a declaration against teasing and bullying and campaigned, through personal stories about bullying on the PA system in the mornings, to encourage other students in the school to sign it as well. Throughout the rest of the year, as situations occurred, we dealt with them together with the purpose of meeting resolutions. My students began to look beyond the act of bullying to determine what was making them bully. Some admitted to problems at home which were making them feel powerless, and that bullying was a way for them to get some power. Others admitted to bullying because they were being bullied themselves. We gained greater insight which allowed us to recognize even more subtle attempts to bully, and it was not unusual to have a student immediately say, “Oops!” and offer an apology. What a great way to end the year!

    But what I did last year was on a small scale. To wipe out bullying, the whole school, adults and students, must work together. This is my goal for this next year; to work with our guidance counselor to advocate real change. Teachers and principals need to stop turning a blind eye to bullying or excusing it away because there has always been bullying. It’s a little like saying that there has always been cancer so why bother trying to find a cure. I sure wish I could get someone like you in to motivate the staff. Do you have any suggestions as to how I make this a school-wide issue and get everyone on board?

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