When I was in the ninth grade in the 1960s, a gang of four girls I didn’t know cornered me in a stairwell after a late band practice with an iron ball and chain and threatened to beat me up. Why? I don’t know, except perhaps it was because I was successful in academics, sports, band and had recently been presented an award at a school assembly. Or, maybe I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Fortunately, I had a good sense of self-esteem and was able to talk them down, and while they were discussing whether they should go ahead with the attack, I ran down three flights of stairs to the nearest exit. I breathed a huge sigh of relief once I got outside onto a busy street. The next day I reported the event to the assistant principal, but I was scared every time I found myself alone in a hallway after school.
Today, bullying among children has increased to such a critical level that parents, educators, counselors, state legislators and many others, including the president of the United States, have sounded the alarm that enough is enough. The White House estimates a third of the nation’s schoolchildren, about 13 million, have been subjected to bullying and at least 10 percent are bullied on a regular basis. Besides physical bullying, there is also verbal and emotional bullying. And, with the rise of the Internet, many children are bullied and humiliated online through email, chat rooms, Facebook and other social media. The number of children who have committed suicide due to constant bullying is frightening.
What’s really behind today’s bullying epidemic?
The website, www.bullyingstatistics.org, defines bullying as “a form of intimidation or domination toward someone who is perceived as being weaker; a way of getting what one wants through some sort of coercion or force; and a way for someone to establish some sort of perceived superiority over another person.”
Reading these definitions, I couldn’t help but think of how today’s political climate seems to have taken on such a hostile tone, especially leading up to and during election years. Incumbents and candidates alike seem to bully each other for these same reasons. The American public used to perceive congressmen and women as models of civility, but now these former role models seem to have earned our justifiable disdain. Their motives for bullying are as transparent as they are disgusting to me. Civility used to be a cultural value, but now it is sorely lacking in so much adult interaction today. Bullying is glorified in many action, comedy and reality TV shows as well as video games. No wonder so many children consider bullying as normal behavior.
Children have bullied other children from time immemorial, but something else is driving today’s rampant bullying. Most psychologists view school bullies as having psychological problems. As a psychologist and educator who started one of the first schools for holistic education in Northern California in the late 1970s, I witnessed normal childhood bullying dynamics firsthand, and they were easy to modify back then, except when the bully was truly an emotionally disturbed child. The solution was to teach children, both the bully and the victim, heart-based communication tools that developed empathy, compassion and understanding of each other’s worlds. This wasn’t so hard and didn’t take that long, but required genuine care and modeling by teachers and administrators as well as an integration into the classroom learning environment and dynamics.
My view is that too many children today lack compassion or the ability to put themselves in another’s shoes to feel what another feels. Social science researchers have found that babies and young children are hard-wired to be compassionate until parents, school and social pressures educate them otherwise. Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and Berkeley professor, Dacher Kelter, Ph.D, are studying this “compassionate instinct” along with Darwin’s research on the survival of the kindest in primates (cooperation rather than competition is part of Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest).
What can parents do?
In our last Care2 column on Children and Technology – Why Be Concerned, Sara Childre discussed how the constant use of technology is eating into time that children would otherwise be developing social and emotional skills, and that studies over the past decade found that a large number of adolescents and teens are having difficulty identifying emotions in people, thus creating an inability to feel empathy toward others.
While kids are immersed in social interaction through technology then loaded with homework to achieve academically in school, we are neglecting teaching them the basic heart values and social/emotional skills needed to be caring and effective human beings. Children need to learn to understand and manage their own feelings of anxiety, anger, fear and self-worth, as well as understand the feelings of others. A home or school environment indifferent to developing these heart-based skills leaves plenty of holes for student aggression (and other destructive behaviors) to slip through unnoticed, even when there is a school-wide policy of zero tolerance for bullying (or drinking, drug use, etc.). Bullying will continue like a social virus despite legislation, until we decide that social and emotional learning is as important as academics.
Fortunately, there are effective solutions and tools available for schools and parents. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We just have to turn the wheel and get it rolling. Below are a few. If bullying is a problem in your family or local school, I encourage you to share this information.
Nicholas Carlisle, Director of No Bully, suggests schools implement “Solution Teams.” Under a Solution Team, an adult team leader brings together a team of students to stop the bullying of one of their peers. The leader describes how it feels to be in the target’s shoes and asks the team to solve this situation. The team includes the bully, his or her followers and some positive leaders from the same peer group. The rewards that schools typically experience from this kind of social and emotional learning are significant reductions in student bullying, increased student inclusiveness and respect.
Institute of HeartMath’s research-based classroom programs for social and emotional development, called HeartSmarts®, provide children with methods to recognize cues happening inside their bodies and feelings that can lead to aggression. They learn age-specific HeartMath tools to manage their emotional impulses and shift their focus to more constructive outlets for their energy. These tools enable children from pre-kindergarten through high school and beyond to self-regulate emotional energy, such as anger, frustration, anxiety or fear, and develop compassion and respect for themselves and others.
HeartMath’s emWave® technology is also highly effective in teaching children emotional balance and coherence, an optimal state in which their heart, mind and emotions are in sync and harmonized. Emotional balance is essential for managing personal stress, maintaining self-control and overcoming anger, fear and a lack of self-respect, all of which can contribute to bullying and other destructive behaviors.
Counselors, psychologists, educational therapists, social workers and other healthcare professionals are using HeartMath® Interventions Certification Program to teach HeartMath about their therapeutic work with children. The program’s protocols help them to help children establish a new baseline of inner coherence that results in sustained attitude and behavior changes.
Free Tools for Well-Being for ages 3 – 18, and techniques for parents.