October is "Bullying Prevention Month" which is a great start but preventing bullying behaviors begins with working together and focusing on it every day, every month, every year until it is no longer an issue. Preventing bullying involves empowering targets, soliciting bystanders, engaging adults and resolving (not just addressing) matters. Preventing bullying requires helping kids who engage in bullying behavior to know they can change, helping the recipients of bullying to know they don't have to take it and helping those who witness bullying to be the voices for ending it. My philosophy is that kids need to be seen and heard at all times. To do this adults and schools need to create opportunities for them to be visible and to use their voices in ways that work for them. Focusing on bullying prevention provides by empowering these groups gives kids opportunities to be seen and heard.
Listen and Respond to Others: Most outrageous bullying behaviors are first attempted in smaller, less offensive manners. They are often spontaneous actions meant to push limits and are either encouraged or discouraged based on the reaction received. When in the presence of bullying behavior, we all have an internal reaction; it is often small, such as wondering if you heard things correctly. Wondering what to do in that moment? Ask! Asking if you heard it correctly sends the message of discomfort; clarifies acceptable behavior and communicates that you are present and vigilant - in other words "you can't try that stuff here". Not responding, not asking, not helping gives permission to not only strengthen the behaviors but to also expand the number of attempts.
Learn to Redirect: We are tasked with understanding that kids, like adults, want to belong, we have to give them skills support this goal while also changing the situation. Kids should have a “get out of the moment option” including changing the subject while using enthusiastic voice and language (“Are you going to see the new movie?”). Practice with your child getting away by excusing him/herself to go to the bathroom, getting a jacket or to get a of water drink. Brainstorm other topics to be changed, to including books, movies, games, upcoming events, etc.
Give a checklist: Teach your child to go through a checklist of options including asking for help. Self-advocacy skills often need to be taught. This can be done by breaking down tasks to small pieces, role-playing and checking with you regularly to evaluate together the success of the smaller pieces, adjusting as needed.
Listen and Respond to Yourself: Adults will benefit from learning for themselves as well as teaching kids how to identify their instinctual responses. Everyone has internal response when something doesn’t feel right. It may be fleeting, such as a clenching of the hands or longer, such as a headache. But no matter the size of the reaction, our bodies are telling us there is something not right about the situation at hand. Looking for and then listening to the messages from our bodies creates an opportunity for us to respond quickly and early before it grows to full on bullying behaviors.
Understand “Inclusion, Exclusion and Not Included”: The power of wanting to be part of the group is strong. Kids (and adults) are motivated to avoid upsetting a friend and possibly being excluded. When brainstorming ideas, suggestions for getting help need to be considerate of this powerful detractor. Inclusive behaviors include someone going out of the way to be welcoming, extending invitations, with warm facial reactions, friendly words and tone of voice. Exclusive behaviors are intentional, visible, with closed body posture, off putting words and harsh/unwelcoming tone of voice are harsh (sarcasm is often used in exclusive behavior, when called on the reaction is ‘I was just joking’). If you think of a spectrum with inclusive at one end, exclusive at the opposite end then not included behaviors are the largest part of the spectrum connecting the two. Often confused for bullying not including behaviors are not intentional, are easily misunderstood are neither welcoming nor off putting, are thoughtless, with mixed facial and body posture (perhaps smiling but with back turned away partially), confusing tone of voice and often noncommittal words. Helping kids understand differences between exclusivity, inclusivity and not including helps them discern if they should be friends with, avoiding of or appropriately uncertain of the other kid. Kids who are exclusive should be avoided but treated with care as getting on the wrong side of such behaviors can be unnecessarily painful. Kids who are inclusive or welcoming should be reached out to and kids who are not including should be given the benefit of the doubt and invited to play.
Expand horizons: Suggest your child spend a day on the playground looking not at who is playing where but what is being played and decide what he/she wants to play and then going to that activity rather than a certain person. A good rule of thumb, even when things are going well with friends, is to do this once a week to mix it up.
Know when to ask for help and to whom you should ask. Adults should go out of their way to make sure kids know they are reliable resources when help is needed. Knowing when and how to ask for help is often a learned skill. Have kids practice asking for help early and often.
Most importantly, kids who are bullied, kids who have bullied others and kids who see bullying all need support and guidance.
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