Amanda, a preschool teacher in California, contacted me about a column about bullying. “I do agree”, she wrote, “that bullying is a very serious issue but the people that usually need more support are the mortified parents of the bully.”
Let’s define bullying behavior. Bullying can be physical, verbal or excluding behaviors that include but are not limited to hitting, kicking, pushing, choking punching, threatening, teasing, starting rumors, hate speech, and telling other children not to play with others, or not be their friend. Bullying is behavior whose intent is to inflict harm.
We also need to separate the child from the behavior. It helps us look at the situation differently if we say that the child is exhibiting bullying or aggressive behavior instead of saying that the child is a bully. A child’s aggressive behavior at any age indicates that the child has lost a critical link of trust to an important adult in his or her life. This is what we must address.
The age of the child is an important factor to consider. Under the age of six, children may use aggressive behavior to get their needs met, but usually these children respond positively when they are shown alternatives to aggressive behavior. Parents of preschoolers with aggressive behavior need to be coached on how to teach and model cooperative social skills.
For the older child of elementary, middle and junior high school age, aggressive bullying behavior is much more serious, as the behavior indicates that the child has not yet learned basic social behavior, and therefore needs to be re-taught basic rudimentary social skills. This is a challenge that many adults do not step up to, and the critical link of trust remains broken.
As adults, we need to create an environment for all children where they can work and play in dignity and safety. One way to do that is to have “zero tolerance” for the aggressive behaviors mentioned above. I refer to this as the Paul Newman Rule of Zero. Back in the early 80’s Newman recommended that the nuclear arms treaty be negotiated so that all powers would have no bombs. It’s difficult to monitor if someone has 10 or 10,000 bombs, Newman reasoned, but maintaining zero is easy to monitor and to correct. With children’s behavior, a little push, a little hit, or a little teasing can get out of hand. With “zero tolerance” we can more easily monitor and change aggressive behavior.
What I mean by “zero tolerance” is different than expelling a child from school for the slightest infraction of the rules.
Zero tolerance means that we as adults do not turn a blind eye to events. We step up to the challenge and teach effective communication skills.
If the children in our homes and schools know that aggressive bullying behavior is not acceptable even at the smallest level, we empower all of us to take action and not remain silent or look the other way. Children need to know they can ask others for assistance and have the responsibility to stop behavior whose intention is to inflict physical, mental or emotional harm to others.
Unfortunately, having an attitude and policy of “zero tolerance” doesn’t mean that aggressive actions won’t occur. Amazingly, though, if the message is loud and clear that aggressive behavior is not acceptable, half of our work is done.
One well-known study on bullying, Craig and Pepler’s playground observation research, found that one incident of bullying occurred every seven minutes. Adult intervention occurred in 4% of the incidents, and peer intervention occurred 11% of the time.
Children with aggressive behavior learn that their behavior works 85% of the time. You might say we give children with aggressive behavior a B-plus in deportment when we look the other way. To change this we need to:
- Teach all of our children that aggressive bullying behavior is not acceptable.
- Show our children how to treat all people regardless of differences with respect and kindness.
- Help children learn to stop any show of aggression immediately and learn non-violent ways to react and act.
- Give lessons on appropriate behavior.
- Give children experiences where they feel more powerful by choosing how they will behave and treat others.
- Help children learn to trust others by being trustworthy ourselves.
- Help children form strong relationships with helping adults.
Children under the age of six are in a sensitive period for developing social skills. Aggressive behavior needs to be addressed with specific lessons from how to ask someone to play with you, to how to ask nicely for your toys.
For the older child who has passed this critical period of learning social skills, changing aggressive behavior may require that parents get outside help to assist in helping their child learn skills to interact effectively with others.
A child’s aggressive behavior is a cry for help. Make sure your child get the help he or she needs.