Bully prevention talking points for parents, educators

By Lisa Daberkow Stalp and Mary Ann Lytle

Bullying involves complex dynamics where the bully has physical, emotional or social power over the victim. Children who have a physical, mental or learning disability are in a population that many people assume may be at higher risk for bullying than their peers who do not live with a disability. However, there is not yet significant research to specifically support that assertion.

Nevertheless, about 160,000 children miss school each day due to fear of an attack or intimidation by other students, according to the website Challenge Discovery Project. This statistic is inclusive of all children. While school is cited as the place where bullying most frequently takes place, cyber bullying is on the rise.

Prevention at school
Because bullying frequently happens at school, educators, social workers and medical providers have the power to create a culture that does not give permission for individuals to be bullies. There are several bully prevention programs that schools may become involved in that model and embody the idea of an inclusive, nonviolent, nonaggressive environment. Some key components of bully prevention programs include:
• Positive behavior support
• Positive self-image
• Empower bully by-standers to speak up
• Educate parents on how they can help outside of school
• Create positive environments
• Develop and implement clear and consistent policies regarding bullying

While bully prevention programs are a great starting point, there are specific practices of schools that sometimes reinforce bullying. Often children who receive additional school services are taken to different classrooms or separated at lunch from their peers. This does not help to facilitate inclusion for all students. School administrators must create practices that support the cultural ideals of providing a safe learning environment for all students.

How parents help
Sometimes the same child can be both the target of bullying and participate in bullying toward others. All children benefit from developing stronger pro-social and self- management skills. How can parents help their child be more resilient against bullying? What should you do if your child participated in such behavior?

Start the conversation. If there is an incident or behavior that concerns you (that you either observe or hear about), start by listening. If children are reluctant to talk, give them some space and time before re-engaging in the conversation. Validate the feelings that you hear, such as: “Sounds like you really felt hurt and embarrassed.”

Help children to recognize signs of bullying and to understand that everyone deserves to be treated respectfully. Reassure them that, together, you will come up with some ways to make the situation better.

Include other responsible adults as appropriate to the situation. If bullying occurred at school visit with the principal and teacher. The school likely has a bullying policy and an anti-bullying program. Interventions for bullying can also be written into a student’s IEP. For instance, a child could be permitted to change classes early to avoid passing in halls when they are crowded. They might also be able to walk with a buddy. When a plan is established, it may be helpful to engage other adults who are significant to the child including coaches, youth pastors, etc.

Teach emotional awareness. Help your child to label and develop a rich language for their emotions. As they understand their own emotions, they will be able to communicate them to others more effectively. Emotions come and go. We can sometimes have more than one emotion at once. There are no emotions that are bad, but the way we choose to manage or express our emotions can be healthy or unhealthy. Different behaviors have different consequences. Watch for healthy expression and management of emotion and give verbal reinforcement for this.

Encourage self-advocacy. All people need to know how to tell others what they need and how they feel. They need to be able to ask for help when they need it. They need to be able to say no when they feel uncomfortable in a situation. Being assertive means speaking or behaving in a way that you advocate for yourself, while also being respectful of others. This takes practice and support. Encourage your child to act with courage even when they are nervous.

Teach empathy and respect for others. Understanding someone else’s feelings is a developmental skill. With young children, we can start with the message that everyone’s feelings count. When reading a book or watching a movie, talk about how different characters might feel to build their ability to take the perspective of another person. With older children, it is helpful to model social situations as they arise, such as “How do you think she felt when you said that?”

As always, parents should watch their own words and behavior to be sure that they are modeling respect for others. Reinforce by giving verbal praise for specific pro-social behaviors, such as kindness, considering the feelings and needs of others, generosity, and sharing.

Build peer social connections. There is benefit to becoming involved in a group or club where your child can get to know others with a shared interest on a deeper level. It might also be an opportunity for a child to work on social skills, develop leadership skills, or provide service to others. Parent might talk to the group leader ahead of time, so that person can support the goals of group attendance.

Often, having just one good friend can make a difference in a child’s sense of self and confidence. Help them think about their friendships and what makes a good friend—respect, compassion, honesty. Also talk about red flags in friendship—put downs, disrespect.

“Bullying can result in physical injuries, social and emotional difficulties, and academic problems. It can hurt the overall health and safety of schools, neighborhoods and society,” reports the Recently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Educators, social workers, medical providers, and parents have a duty as role models to display nonaggressive, positive behavior and to teach our youth effective ways of communicating, how to self-advocate, and be inclusive of others.

Lisa Daberkow Stalp, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and attained her undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln. She began as a rehabilitation psychologist at Ability KC (then The Rehabilitation Institute of Kansas City) in 1996. She works with individuals of all ages, families, and groups in counseling related to neurologic and other medical diagnoses and adjustment to change.
Mary Ann Lytle serves as the pediatric and adolescent program social worker. Mary Ann earned her Masters in Social Work from the University of Kansas, School of Social Welfare, in May 2017. Learn more at abilitykc.org.

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