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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

How about kids who bully?

Kids who bully others are not bad kids.  They shouldn't be viewed as villains or worse yet, criminals.  All kids are capable of bullying and there are many reasons why bullying becomes an attractive behavior for them.  Many kids bully without being aware that what they are doing is bullying.  Many kids who do bully do it not to be mean but to promote their own social standing.

They are putting their own needs about the needs of others.  When it comes to that type of behavior, I can only offer the following words from the Bible, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."  I think that learning to put others first is a life long goal for all of us, so we shouldn't be so eager to condemn kids who are just beginning to learn that lesson.

This is part of the "works in progress" aspect of growing up.  That being said bullying should be a clear violation of social norms of the community.  It should be a behavior that sticks out instead of blending in.  A behavior that most members of the community should view as "that's not the way we treat people here."   Many infractions of the rules don't violate social norms, the same way that breaking social norms can be within the rules.  This is why just emphasizing rule following as the standard of "good behavior" fails to help kids in the many situations that they face where there are no clear rules to guide and/of no adults around to enforce them. 

When bullying is criminalized and kids who bully are treated like criminals, kids who bully are more likely to deny doing so because they rightfully don't view themselves as criminals.  We need to stigmatize the act of bullying but not stigmatize the kids who bully.  This distinction is often difficult for adults to understand and accept but it is an essential distinction to make if we want to make progress on this issue.  As I stated in the previous posts about the fundamental attribution error, we should avoid attributing the problem to the person and rather examine the circumstances, conditions and overall environment as the main contributing factors for the problem of bullying.  

One article that explains some of those conditions, environmental factors that promote bullying in schools is one by Philip Rodkin entitled, "Bullying and the Power of Peers"

I highly recommend this article for it explains the many social forces that contribute to acts of bullying in schools. Bullying serves a social function for all kids however that function differs significantly depending upon the status and skill level of students.  He describes some kids as socially marginalized for whom bullying can be a defense against a social system that keeps them on the periphery.  Bullying allows them some momentary respite from being a victim.  Sadly, bullying helps them feel like they have some power over others even though they might feel powerless in controlling their our lives.  These kids are often the 5% who get caught bullying by adults because they lack the cleverness to get away with bullying and they also don't have allies who help them when they get caught.  These kids get a double whammy-they often are picked on other kids for being different and then are viewed as troublemakers by adults. 

There is another class of kids who Rodkin calls socially connected.  These are kids who can be popular and socially skilled.  These kids bully often to raise their status even higher.  They know how not to get caught and if they do, they will often have many allies who will support their denials.  Many bystanders don't tell on these kids because they are popular and are more appealing socially than the kids that they bully.  These kids bully in the blind spot of adults and often are well liked by adults which only increases their power and sense of invulnerability.  Many of these kids derive satisfaction from being able to "flex their muscles" socially-they are not dissimilar to adults in positions of authority to like to throw their weight around, so to speak.

It is clear to me that the social environment of schools is almost designed to produce both types of bullying.  This social structure is built into the DNA of traditional schools so it is very resistant to the traditional approaches of addressing bullying.  Rodkin's strongly recommends that schools become more democratic and less autocratic on all levels.  When kids have ways of exercising power within the structure of school and their own learning, there is less of a need to find it elsewhere.  When adults share power with kids and involve them in co-creating the social environment of the school, kids feel a greater sense of ownership in the school and more likely to tip the social norms towards behaviors that are incompatible with bullying.  When kids receive regular, every day opportunities to practice using power in positive ways for themselves and others, there is less of a need to abuse power under the radar.   Three quotations from this article are well worth heeding and should guide our educational decisions:

"Classrooms with  more egalitarian social status hierarchies, strong group norms in support of academic achievement and prosocial behavior and positive social ties among children should deprive  many socially connected bullies the peer regard they require."  (I might add that such classroom can also give these kids other ways/outlets for using power.)

"... even the best, most rigorous and most validated intervention won't be successful without taking into account the weak social infrastructure and dysfunctional organizational environments of some schools."

"The task ahead is to better integrate bullies and the children they harass into the social fabric of the school and better inform educators of how to recognize, understand, and help guide children's relationships. With guidance from caring, engaged adults, youth can organize themselves as a force that makes bullying less effective as a means of social connection or as an outlet for alienation."

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