Students learn not to bully, or let others act as bullies

January 1, 2013

By Michele Mihalovich

Pam Ridenour, counseling specialist at Challenger Elementary School, is surrounded by students from Haley Davis’ first-grade class as they declare they want to turn thumbs down on bullying. By Greg Farrar

What can parents do when their child is being bullied, or — gasp — when their child is the bully?

Pam Ridenour, a guidance school counselor for the Issaquah School District, offers sage advice and tools for both sets of parents.

The first thing, she said, is to create a regular routine of talking and listening to your child.

These days, parents are busy and trying to juggle multiple tasks at once, but this one should be handled routinely and cell phones, computers and radios must be turned off so that the child knows he has your undivided attention, she said.

When parents talk regularly to a child, whether it’s at dinner time, bedtime or while driving in the car, parents will be able to recognize when there is something different going on with the child and can deal with it at the earliest stage, Ridenour said.

Preventative measures

Ridenour said that during talks, parents might try “advice column” conversations.

This would be a good time to ask a child what she would do if someone were bullying her, or what advice she would give a friend who was being bullied.

“It’s a good way to gauge a child’s knowledge level and teach skills to prepare them for what to do in certain situations,” Ridenour said.

The district has counselors who go into classrooms to teach some social and life skills to children.

“We practice assertiveness, how to use muscle words, use a strong, confident voice, practice good posture and how to make ‘I’ statements,” she said. “We want them to carry themselves confidently and not show a reaction when someone is pushing their buttons. We give them strategies for handling situations themselves, but we also teach them what to do when the problem is bigger than they can handle, and when they need to seek out an adult.”

Each situation is different during a bullying incident, Ridenour said.

“The child may just need to walk away, or they may need to ask a recess teacher for help,” she said. “They may be able to handle it by firmly saying ‘stop’ or just ignoring it. But by giving them a variety of choices, we’re empowering them.”

If it’s too big to handle by themselves, like when a situation is dangerous or destructive, kids are being taught that they have to report the situation, she said.

“We teach them that it’s not tattling,” Ridenour said. “Tattling is when you want to get someone in trouble. Reporting is trying to get someone out of trouble.”

District staff members have also been trained regarding what to do when a child reports a bullying incident.

“We can give kids all these skills, but if there isn’t follow through with the staff, then it does no good,” she said.

Another important preventive measure, she said, is developing friendships with others, because it has been shown that children with friends have a less chance of being bullied.

If a child seems to prefer being alone, Ridenour said, parents should try to get the child involved in something that he or she would enjoy.

“Find out what they are passionate about,” she said. “There are lots of after-school activities — Spanish, art and Lego clubs, organized sports or, literally, schedule play dates. Kids are better able to develop social skills in these types of groups rather than at recess.”

Getting that dreaded phone call

Learning that your child has been bullying other children can be very hard news for parents to hear.

Ridenour made it clear that not all mean behavior is bullying. What makes it bullying behavior is if mean behavior is happening repeatedly.

“We need to be careful that we talk about the behavior, and not just labeling kids with bad behavior as bullies. Once kids are labeled as bullies, it can be tough to get rid of that label,” she said.

Parents of a bully need to listen to the child and try to understand the reason the behavior is happening.

“Usually, something else is going on in their lives, and a parent or counselor needs to explore that,” Ridenour said. “But even if there is a reason, like a stressful family situation — the child needs to understand that it’s OK to be mad or upset, but it is not OK to hurt someone else just because they are angry.”

Ridenour said parents need to be honest with themselves when they ask questions such as, “Am I involved enough in their lives? Do I know their friends or who they are hanging out with? Am I involved in their activities and talking to other parents?”

She said as adults, we need to be good examples for our children, show them how to deal with emotions, how to cope with feelings appropriately and how to express empathy and compassion for others.

When faced with that phone call, Ridenour said, parents must also know that it is OK to seek outside help, especially if a family is going through a stressful situation, such as divorce.

“The behavior won’t stop on it’s own,” she said. “But I strongly believe that any bad behavior that can be learned, can also be unlearned.”

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