School bullying is a widespread problem throughout the United States. Research shows that at least 20% of children in U.S. schools experience frequent bullying. And while specific data is hard to come by, it is widely acknowledged that children with special needs make up a significant proportion of that group because of their unique vulnerabilities and challenges.
In many school systems, parents, teachers, and administrators are attempting to create environments that are safe for all children, yet thousands leave home each day fearing the school-yard bully. “Everything depends on the school culture,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Joel Haber. Known as “The Bully Coach,” Haber is a nationally recognized expert who has spent more than 20 years working to identify and prevent abusive behaviors. His experience has led him to conclude that the key to bullying prevention is consistent responses from schools, families, and the community.
What Is Bullying?
According to Haber, bullying occurs when someone with more power repeatedly hurts someone with less power, intentionally and unfairly. While the typical image of bullying involves physical confrontations, bullies also use their social and verbal skills to create an “imbalance of power,” making themselves feel better at someone else’s expense.
Contrary to popular belief, a small percentage of bullying involves physical confrontations; a higher percentage is comprised of verbal and “relational” bullying. Relational bullying aims to exclude the victim from friendships or activities, and may, in fact, be the most painful. Statements that focus on leaving a child out of a group (“You can’t play with us.” “Everyone is invited but you”) marginalize that child and minimize his self-worth.
What Makes A Child A Target?
Children are vulnerable to bullying because they are “different” from the majority of kids. Children with special needs are particularly vulnerable because of the imbalance of power between them and more typical kids. Traditional targets tend to be painfully shy, physically small, and not assertive; they lack motor coordination, are not good at sports, and often have learning disabilities, social challenges, and few friends. Bright kids—especially those who are socially awkward—may inadvertently cause bullies to be jealous of them, provoking behavior aimed at diminishing their worth.
What Makes A Child a Bully?
While some bullies are insecure, the majority have high self-esteem, popularity, above average intelligence, and are verbally and socially adept. Characteristically, they have a strong sense of contempt, entitlement, and lack of empathy. They believe they have a right to hurt others and they do not understand the emotional suffering they inflict. While there is no gene that predisposes a child to bullying, a child with an aggressive personality may be prone to bullying behavior and easily influenced by environmental factors.
Just as targets need to be taught the language to respond and given opportunities to feel good about themselves, bullies must be taught acceptable, alternative behaviors and given chances to gain positive attention. It’s especially important that they’re taught empathy (“How would you feel if you were in his shoes?”), see respect and conciliation modeled at home, are disciplined in a consistent manner, are taught the importance of taking responsibility for actions, and that they develop a better understanding of consequences.
A Shared Responsibility
“Bullies bully when there are people around to react,” says Haber. Bystanders often feel uncomfortable intervening; they’re glad they’re not the target and don’t want to be picked on next. But without bystander support, the targets feel abandoned while bullies feel supported. Over time, targets begin to rationalize the bullying, thinking there must be something wrong with them. Similarly, bystanders justify their failure to respond by rationalizing that the targeted child brings it on himself.
Haber emphasizes that bystander training, a touchstone of a respectful culture, should be an integral part of the school curriculum. Kids must be encouraged to be allies. To develop a successful bullying prevention program, schools, homes, and communities must set the tone by declaring, consistently and clearly, in a top-down approach, “You are as responsible as the bully unless you stand up and be an ally.”
- Parents must help vulnerable children build a range of empowering skills to prevent them from being easily targeted. Conflict resolution, friendship-building, assertiveness skills and involvement in activities at which they can excel are especially helpful. Friendships need to be developed to serve as the prime buffer against bullying.
- Kids don’t want to make their parents angry or sad; if you respond to a bullying situation with anger/sadness, they won’t confide in you. Instead respond calmly and express empathy: “That must have been pretty upsetting…” “You must have felt…”
- If bullying isn’t discussed, it will get worse. Give kids a way to talk about it naturally. Find out the specifics, and validate their feelings.
- Talk the problem through; don’t fix it. Fixing it will reinforce feelings of powerlessness. Help children form a plan so they can feel safe. Role-play and rehearse using scripts so they can internalize responses. Use “I” messages: “I want you to stop.” Be proactive: “Who else can you play with?” “What else can you do during recess?”
- Talk with school staff. If need be, have someone watch your child anonymously.
Learn more about Haber’s work and the Respect U Program at www.respectu.com
Eve Kessler, Esq., a criminal appellate lawyer with The Legal Aid Society, NYC, is co-founder and President of SPED*NET Wilton, Special Education Network of Wilton (CT), www.spednetwilton.org, and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.