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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Kids Who Are Bullied

There are some people who advocate focusing on building up the confidence and skills of kids who could be victims of bullying.  I support all efforts to boost the skills and abilities of all kids.  Providing kids with concrete strategies, comeback lines, and ways to avoid being bullied can only help these kids.   Like many other solutions that are primarily directed towards changing the students, this approach also ultimately falls short of significantly addressing the problem of bullying.  The main problem I have with this approach is that it fails to change the environment/social world of the school.  A program to boost the skills of vulnerable kids could support efforts to transform the culture and climate of the school, but by itself it will do little to prevent or reduce bullying.

There are several reasons why this focusing on skill building of possible victims is not the way to go:

It assumes that the characteristics of kids who are possible victims of bullying are innate and operate independently of the social context of the school.  To put it in more simple terms kid who might be vulnerable in one school could be a lot less vulnerable in a different school.  If a school has a culture that emphasizes cooperation rather than competition, where differences are not just tolerated but valued, then kids in general are less vulnerable that in other school cultures.

It mirrors the workshop model of professional development which has been proven to be ineffective.  Teachers who attend workshops and then return to their schools hoping to use what they learned at the workshop almost never do so if the school is not committed to systematically supporting the goals of the workshop.  The same holds true with students who could receive one to one counseling or specially designed lessons. When these students return to the classroom and school environment and are treated the same way as before they are not likely to transfer what they learned to the actual environment.

If a culture views "difference" negatively, there is very little that the person who is different can do to overcome the perception of others.   When kids sees differences as normal and adults treat kids who are different with respect and as full members of the community,  the way everyone acts towards those kids change.  When kids with severe physical disabilities are part of the school community and that is a common thing not an exception, kids respond in a matter of fact way and treat those kids as classmates not as "others".

Very often kids who are bullied are bullied because of how they look and not what they do or say.  It can be very disheartening to kids who look different to be led to believe that if they said or did something different that maybe they wouldn't be bullied.  Since these kids are vulnerable to begin with, any hint that the bullying is because they failed to do what they were taught to do, can be devastating to them.

It doesn't account for how adults in the environment feel about the kids who are potential victims.    There are some kids who are victims of bullying who are not well liked or accepted by many adults in the building.  Kids can easily sense who is liked or not liked by adults.  If a kid is an annoyance to a teacher, bystanders are more likely to think that the kid might deserve the bullying.  Kids would only be doing what they think the teachers would probably like them to do.

Sometimes the best defense is not what you do or say but rather who your friends are.  Getting one or two kids who are fairly well liked by most of the kids to sit near a kid could be a possible victim is a much better strategy than trying just to boost the possible victims skills.

Ironically the best way to build up kids social skills in fostering more interactions among all the students in the classroom-getting them to work together academically on tasks.  This is why cooperative learning is a leveraging strategy-it has a positive impact on many levels.  Kids are learning social skills as they learn any other skills.

Most schools are "stuck" in an individualistic culture where people should just suck it up, or pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  Schools should be more than a physical place when groups of individuals happen to be together following a similar schedule and moving toward individual outcomes.  They can and should be communities-places where every member is valued and every member cares about what happens to every member.  Schools that are strong communities where every member is valued and cared for  have less bullying and higher levels achievement for every student.  Focusing on community and how we all treat each other should be our focus and where we direct our energy for change.

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