By Ruth Wells
So much attention is focused on bullying right now. In fact, in our workshops, when we ask participants to identify the top cause of school shootings, bullying is usually named.
There is no doubt that bullying is a huge problem in nearly any setting where children and youth congregate, but you may not be able to stop or moderate the bullying by focusing on that issue alone. Yet, often that is what happens. When youth professionals focus solely or primarily on bullying, it may be a bit like seeing the forest but not the trees. Or, perhaps another analogy-- one that might resonate especially well with mental health workers-- is that a primary focus on bullying is a lot like just focusing on an alcoholic's liquor consumption while neglecting to address any of the factors that caused the excessive drinking in the first place. Here is a completely different way of viewing and addressing bullying, one that you may find far more effective than conventional approaches that focus on the symptom of bullying while often overlooking the factors that cause and sustain it.
MYTH To address bullying, use character education or values clarification approaches.
TRUTH While character education and values clarification approaches can have merit, as a reader of this internet magazine, hopefully you have learned that these methods always fail with about 11-14% of youngsters. Do you remember the information presented in past issues on this topic? If you have been to our workshop, you definitely should know the truth on this topic, because we devote hours to it during class. As any of our workshop past participants should be able to tell you, character ed and values clarification approaches will fail with conduct disordered youth. These youngsters lack a conscience or remorse, so character ed and values clarification methods simply won't work at all since those methods require that the child be able to care and have compassion. Since conduct disorders are the most misbehaved students of all, they are also often the bullies. Now, you know why conventional approaches may have limited success reducing bullying.
MYTH Bullying is the primary cause of school shootings.
TRUTH The media loves simple, black and white explanations, and this very simplistic sound bite is just not a very accurate or thorough explanation. While some school shooters were partially motivated by being bullied, to zero in on just the bullying misses the point-- and misses the point on how to prevent an incident. A more accurate way of viewing these youngsters who shoot, is to note that they tend to be clinically depressed, and that in addition to the bullying that they may endure, they are very sad and extremely frustrated. Better than viewing them as worn down by the bullying, it is far more accurate to view them as worn down by many things. Let me explain why this distinction is so important. This distinction is critical because it doesn't require an act of bullying to set this child off. Like a pressure cooker, this student is building up to blow. Certainly bullying could be the thing that causes the blow up, but it could be any event that lights the fuse. When you train your attention on seriously depressed youth (who may be bullied a lot, irregularly, or not at all) you can more readily and precisely identify the youth who could some day explode.
Further, there may be other populations of youth who are statistically far more likely to cause an extremely violent incident. However, having three types of youngsters at risk of extreme violence is a more complicated concept, and not one that the media will necessarily capture for youth professionals. Ironically, although you won't hear it in the media, the bullied child is probably not the one who is at highest risk of extreme violence. If you want to read the details on who are the three highest risk populations, visit our web site at http://www.youthchg.com/hottopic.html. Access to this article is free, and can make a big difference in your understanding of youth violence.
MYTH When teaching bullying prevention, keep the focus on the bullying.
TRUTH While it is fine to focus directly on the bullying, if you stop there, you may be unhappy with the results. To stick with the analogy used earlier, it is like focusing on the amount of liquor consumed rather than helping the alcoholic to learn about self-medicating. In addition to teaching that bullying is wrong, there needs to be a greater focus on teaching the skills youngsters need to behave differently. Further, you need to modify the skills of not just the bully, but also the victims and peers. Typically, we do not necessarily provide specific skill instruction to all three of those groups. The bully needs training to learn new peer interaction skills, but so do the victims and bystanders. If you focus solely on one or two of those groups, you may not get the results you sought. Remember, teaching skills does not mean re-stating expectations or rules. Teaching skills means that you creatively and effectively show students the exact skills that they need to be different. So, for example, you might teach the bully some new "Opening Lines" to use when initiating peer contact, perhaps aiding the youngster to stop threatening, and instead say something less aggressive.
Here are other key areas that are often not taught as part of bullying prevention programs: personal space and distance, interacting with peers who are different, managing hands and other body parts, and how to avoid peer set-ups. There are many more critical skill areas that often are overlooked and left unaddressed. All unaddressed areas will be an endless source of bullying problems so be sure you cover it all.
MYTH You can't significantly reduce the aggressiveness of youngsters who come out of homes and neighborhoods that are very violent.
TRUTH Just because a child is raised around hitting, screaming and threats, does not condemn that youngster to be that way. Certainly, teaching peaceful behavior is a much more difficult task when a student's dad is threatening and coercing his offspring, but it is not the law that children raised in violence inevitably will be violent. Part of the problem is that youth professionals still use one-size-fits-all methods to work with students. Students are not all the same, and until professionals learn to choose different methods for different types of students, then it may seem that "nothing works" with some out-of-control youngsters. In reality, there are methods that can make a huge difference helping children raised in violence to forgo aggression, but first, youth professionals must start using these more targeted, sophisticated approaches. Often, when "nothing works," you are working with a conduct disordered child, and switching to a different set of tools can make a huge difference. Sadly, only mental health workers are usually taught to take this step, and other youth professionals are often not provided this vital information-- information that can literally change the future for many youngsters.
Get much more information on this topic at http://www.youthchg.com. Author Ruth Herman Wells MS is the director of Youth Change, (http://www.youthchg.com.) Sign up for her free Problem-Kid Problem-Solver magazine at the site and see hundreds more of her innovative methods. Ruth is the author of dozens of books and provides workshops and training.