Tyranny or teaching opportunity?

Recent reports of teen suicides have made the consequences of unchecked bullying and racial harassment (such as a cross burning in Fletcher this fall) painfully clear.

Bullying is certainly not a new phenomenon, and it could easily be dismissed as an unfortunate but perhaps unavoidable part of growing up. Bullying doesn’t end with adolescence, however: Childhood bullies often continue to harass others even as adults.

Bullying is a learned behavior that involves everyone in a community, notes Chuck Saufler, founding member of the International Bullying Prevention Association. In children, a comprehensive approach to bullying involves teaching new behavior models to everyone involved.

Several years ago, the Just Kids After School Enrichment Program at the Asheville Jewish Community Center made a commitment to confront bullying head on after receiving reports from children and parents that this was becoming a problem. We began by pulling together a panel of children to discuss what they were experiencing in our program. The group included children who could be classified as victims, bystanders and bullies. We asked each of them what they’d like to see changed in our program, promising that we would use their suggestions as a basis for constructive action.

We immediately began beefing up our staff training, giving them a better understanding of the dynamics of bullying — the impact on the victim, the plight of the bystander, and the motivation of the bully — to help them recognize when they should step in. They also needed strategies for leading the entire group in confronting the problem, rather than simply singling out the “bully” for ineffective punishment or attempting to alleviate the victim’s pain.

We also encouraged our group leaders to model behaviors that we hoped to teach the children, such as engaging in open conversation while eating with them, asking for and respecting the children’s opinions, and participating in activities alongside them. Group leaders are also trained to address issues that come up directly with the children, helping them identify a problem, honestly assess mistakes and discuss possible alternative behaviors. Giving children more responsibility, with guidance and support from the group leader, helps them develop the skills they need to address conflicts. The whole process gives all involved a stronger sense of self-worth, which is itself a powerful defense against bullying.

The next key step was creating a more structured environment that would limit the opportunity for bullying behaviors to occur in the first place.

A core philosophy at the Asheville JCC is that children function best when they see themselves as active participants in creating a caring community. One of the most important strategies we implemented was a staff-led group circle time at the start of each day’s after-school program.

Circle time establishes a sense of safety, with a trusted adult leader and a strong sense of community. The children have time to talk openly with one another on an even playing field. Circle time also gives group leaders a chance to set expectations for the afternoon’s activities, providing a further sense of security.

Finally, understanding that some behavioral issues were related to physical needs, we increased the amount and quality of snacks provided to the children and incorporated more physical activity into daily routines.

Ultimately, we’ve found that with clear expectations, consistent program structure and a well-planned schedule of engaging, energy-expending activities, we can usually exhaust the space where power struggles might arise. We’ve also discovered that children with a tendency to bully can often be redirected into a leadership role. We now see bullying behaviors as an opportunity to teach children that they’ll feel better about themselves when they use their influence to ensure a positive outcome for everyone in the group.

— Seth Kellam is youth director at the Asheville Jewish Community Center, a coalition partner of Asheville Safe Schools for All (diversityed.org/safeschoolsforall). To learn more about the JCC’s programs, visit jcc-asheville.org.

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2 thoughts on “Tyranny or teaching opportunity?

  1. Susan Andrew

    Great subject — thanks for writing. Bullying prevention in the Buncombe County Schools is also looking at the role of bystanders in curtailing bully behavior…I see my kids’ school trying to empower bystanders to recognize and speak up to stop bullying. It takes a village, for sure.

  2. dhjones

    A big shout out to the JCC! Thanks for being a community leader in this serious youth issue.
    Your colleagues at the YWCA salute you.
    Holly Jones

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