What if your child, an enthusiastic student, suddenly doesn’t want to go to school? Or maybe she or he stops eating lunch or complains that they are the last picked when kids pair up for work in class? For parents, these events can cause worry and concern that a child is being bullied. While not always the case, parents who notice that something doesn’t seem “right” with their child will want to take action. The key is to do it in a way that won’t stigmatize your child or make the situation worse.
I hear a lot of difficult stories from the teachers, school principals and parents who attend my anti-bullying workshops, but the mom who approached me after an evening information session for parents this week has lingered in my mind. She was a single mom of three boys, two in high school and one in sixth grade. Her older boys had experienced a fair amount of harassment and bullying in school, she said, but they seem to be mostly handling it. It was her youngest that worried her.
“He’s such a quiet boy. Into books and computers. I’m terrified about what will happen to him next year when he starts high school,” she confided, recalling with tears in her eyes some of the abuse her older sons had endured. “I’m especially worried about the school bus. I’ve called the school in the past and nothing has changed.
“My older boys made it through OK, but my youngest? They are going to eat him alive.”
We spoke about how she might intervene with the school and transportation company. How Bill 56, Quebec’s new anti-bullying and anti-violence legislation, might provide parents and schools with new policy tools and protocols to help deal with these stories.
One of the requirements of the new legislation is that all schools put together an action plan to combat violence and bullying in their schools. And implementing prevention initiatives is to be a critical part of that action plans.
The 60-odd educational professionals brainstormed a list of some excellent prevention programs, ideas and initiatives, which I jotted down as a list. I’d like to share that list with you here, with links provided to resources wherever possible. I’ve also added a few of my own to the end. Although this is by no means an exhaustive list, it offers a snapshot of some excellent programs and ideas. Please feel free to let me know of any additional programs or protocols that have worked for you – I’ll be happy to add those in as well.
Some of the entries on this list are well-known formal programs, while others are suggestions for more short-term strategies or smaller things that can be done on a daily basis. It’s my sincere hope and fervent belief that a combination of formal programs and small, every-day strategies together can help keep many more of our children from dealing with bullying on a regular basis.
Olweus Bullying Prevention Program: Developed 35 years ago in Norway, this program is now established in schools around the world, and has emerged as a research-supported gold standard in the area of bullying prevention.
Pacific Path: This program aims to reduce violence in schools by encouraging social skills development and conflict resolution strategies in children 4-12 years old.
Second Step: Second Step is a classroom-based social-skills program for children 4 to 14 years of age that teaches socio-emotional skills aimed at reducing impulsive and aggressive behavior while increasing social competence. The program consists of in-school curricula, parent training, and skill development.
CommonSenseMedia.org: This site is chock full of resources for educators, parents and kids. Lesson plans on bullying include “Screen out the mean,” “The power of words,” “Cyberbullying: Be Upstanding,” “Reality of digital drama” and more.
Special Needs Anti-Bullying Toolkit: Students with special needs are at far greater risk for being bullied. This toolkit looks at why this is the case, and what educators, parents and students can do to prevent and/or deal with bullying issues.
PREVNet(Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network): This umbrella network of 65 leading Canadian research scientists, more than 90 graduate students, and 52 youth-serving organizations maintains as its mission the prevention of bullying and promotion of safe, healthy relationships for Canadian youth.
Don’t Laugh At Me (Operation Respect): DLAM is designed to inspire students, along with their teachers and other educators, to transform their classrooms and schools into “Ridicule Free Zones”. The program materials include a curriculum guide, CD, video and pre-and-post implementation questionnaires for both schools and summer camps. The school program consists of two separate curricula; one developed for grades 2-5 and the second developed for grades 6-8.
Stand up! (Be a friend!): An initiative of www.bullying.org with a variety of activities for an Anti-Bullying Week at school.
Finding Kind: A documentary, movement and school program aimed at encouraging kindness (and discouraging relational aggression) among girls.
Tribes: This research-based, whole-school program builds Tribes Learning Communities in schools around the world. Lesson plans, teaching resources, posters and videos round out a program at teaching collaborative behavior and respect in children.
Bullying.org: This association offers educational programs and resources to individuals, families, educational institutions and organizations. This includes online learning and educational resources in order to help people deal effectively and positively with the act of bullying and its long-lasting negative consequences.
TeachingTolerance.org: This project of the Southern Poverty Law Centre includes resources on a wide variety of subjects, including bullying. There are teaching kits, lesson plans and educational resources for professional development.
Define The Line: Excellent resources on cyberbullying for educators, parents and students.
Connect For Respect: The U.S. National PTA has put together this prevention program to involve parents in school initiatives to prevent bullying.
BeWebAware: This Media Awareness Network site offers resources for educators and parents on promoting cybersafety and digital citizenship.
Develop an accessible social media policy for students and staff at your school. Check out this template here for how to get started.
Developing an excellent Code of Conduct for students and staff, written in accessible language.
Integrating key concepts of dignity, respect, manners and civility in existing curriculum through books, theatre, videos, classroom projects, etc. (check out the NFB’s Bully Dance animated short and accompanying Teacher’s Guide).
Visits with pro-social messages by sports figures (such as the Alouettes).
Organizing sessions with officers from your local police station.
Sensitizing staff to issues related to bullying, handling bullying incidents, re-integrating students involved in bullying.
Secret friends: An informal program concept linking compassionate student volunteers with counterparts who have been bullied, to aid social re-integration.
Students trained as peace ambassadors for their peers.
Public recognition of outstanding citizens in the school community (in an assembly, with certificates, etc.).
Focusing on self-esteem and self-confidence in an ethics class.
Hiring character education consultants as resource professionals in the school.
A 12-year-old girl befriends a group of people in an online community dedicated to nurturing teen artists. Although she will never meet them face-to-face, speak to them on the telephone or engage with them in any other way, she quickly forms what she feels are meaningful friendships.
When she is away on a school trip, her mom picks up her daughter’s iPad, notices the site is open and begins reading through the messages. In between the many messages about various art projects, experiments with watercolours and collage and mostly constructive feedback on each other’s artistic creations, she sees messages with words that alarm her: cutting, drinking, fighting, drugs, suicide attempts. One of the boys claims he is 18 and is virtually “dating” a 14-year-old girl (who told him she was 16).
When her daughter comes home, mom brings it up. Her daughter blows off her concerns, saying it’s all just posing online. These are not her REAL friends, the ones she sees every day. They are just teen artists using funky avatars (images chosen to represent their persona) playing around online.
Mom is mollified but concerned. They talk about the references to drinking, drugs, mentions of suicide attempts. Cutting. She has her daughter’s password to this site and they agree to keep talking.
A week later, daughter comes to her mom in tears. Someone on this young person’s art network just posted a notice saying one of their online friends has died. She is distraught. Mom is freaked out. She doesn’t know what to do – does she ban her daughter from this social network and risk her defiance? How can she intervene in something that seems to be completely out of her control?
So she emails me for advice.
The Internet, for all its wonders of information, access, creativity and connection, also exposes our kids to communities of influence they might not otherwise know. We can move to a good neighbourhood, put them in good schools, get to know the parents of their friends and their soccer coaches. We can try to stack the deck in their favour with good influences and positive role models.
And while the Internet can offer many wonderful things, it is also an open door to stuff that kids will find difficult to handle. Hard core pornography. Violence. Information about sniffing, huffing, car surfing or the “monkey game.” But aside from all of these things, it also offers connections to new people whose real identities can be easily disguised. Most of them really are 14-year old girls interested in art or 16-year old boys with a genuine interest in online role-playing games, as they claim to be. But some of them are pretending to be what they are not, whether for kicks (just because they can) or for more insidious reasons.
When I speak about the deceptive ease with which someone can “pass” as someone else, most people laugh it off. Everyone seems to think they would somehow know if someone is lying. Others may be taken in, but they are too smart. Too savvy.
And you know what? They aren’t. Adults as well as kids tend to take what people say about themselves at face value. It’s super easy to be fooled, especially when our friends believe it too.
What does this have to do with my story? When I spoke with the concerned mom about the details of this supposed online death, a lot of inconsistencies and strange facts threw up red flags. The dead boy had claimed to be working with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency on a drug bust (yeah, right). He had proposed marriage to another 16-year-old girl on this network even though they had never met. The stories of fights and wild parties all had an unreal edge. He regularly let others post notices from his account. He had been banned by the site administrators before, and had registered for a new account.
So while the circle of teen artists invested in this community posted their grief in dark charcoal drawings and angst-ridden poetry, we discussed the very likely possibility that this was all a sham. She was relieved, and her daughter — though she didn’t want to believe it at first — gradually (and grudgingly) admitted the stories may have been exaggerated or made up.
Upset about the whole ordeal, Mom said she wanted to ban her daughter from this site. And although my first instinct as a parent would be to do the exact same thing, I urged her to reconsider.
Here’s why: A 12-year-old banned from a website she finds extremely compelling will be very tempted to sneak on when her mom isn’t watching. On a friend’s computer. At school. It’s extremely difficult to enforce that kind of ban, and extremely tempting to a kid to defy it. If they do, then a parent has to react decisively. You are setting yourself up for a battle that will be hard — or even impossible — to win.
But in this case, the daughter hadn’t done anything wrong. She didn’t need punishing — she needed guidance. The biggest takeaway from this episode is that fact that she came to talk to her mother when she saw something upsetting. Isn’t that ultimately what we all want with our kids? If mom banned the website, her daughter would no longer be able to discuss it with her.
So mom allowed her daughter to keep her account, but with some new conditions: that they go on together to review her messages and postings. She praised her daughter for keeping a cool head and coming to talk to her. She told her that she was giving her the freedom to stay on this site (with guidance) precisely because she showed good judgment in speaking to her mother.
So far, it seems this very upsetting situation evolved into an opportunity to learn some more about managing relationships – both online and off. Some important guidelines about kids and online communities:
Parents of kids and young teens need to give their usernames and passwords to parents
Kids and young teens have no right to privacy from their parents when online. These accounts are not the same as private diaries. There is too much need for guidance around potential pitfalls. They can earn this privacy over time by showing consistent good judgment.
Kids and young teens don’t think they can be fooled by people pretending to someone else. This needs to be discussed regularly. Point out examples whenever possible.
Look into the online communities your kids want to join. Are there moderators? A contact for support if someone acts inappropriately. A way to flag inappropriate posts?
Go online with your kids every once in a while to see what kinds of things are being posted. Discuss what you see.
Steer kids to some of the excellent online communities for their age and interests. Spend a bit of time on Google checking them out – there are many wonderful, creative and reasonably safe online spaces for kids to interact.
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"What a crucial conversation, and what a talented speaker! Dr. Alissa Sklar’s presentation to Akiva School’s parent body was full of clear, relevant, down-to-earth facts presented in a highly engaging manner. No jargon, no scare tactics – just solid information and excellent advice. A no-risk program for parents." -Frances (Cooki) Levy, Head of The Akiva School ("The Power of Positive Parenting: Preventing Risky Behaviors for All Ages")
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RiskWithinReason is intended as a support and information resource. If you need counselling for your child, consider contacting a trained child psychologist. Your family doctor or CLSC can recommend one, or you can also visit Collage Therapies at http://www.collagetherapies.ca/en