The National Education Association estimates that 160,000 children miss school every day due to fears of being attacked or intimidated by other students. Bullying is more than a buzzword. According to StopBullying.gov, it’s defined as unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-age children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.
Kelly Hughes, a school counselor at Bayside Academy, in Daphne, Alabama, has noticed a dramatic shift in bullying behaviors. She observes, “Kids are not hitting or punching or pushing each other as much as they used to. Rather, they are using in-person relational aggression such as hurtful words, glares, whispering and excluding individuals, exacerbated by social media and cell phones.”
While anti-bullying legislation exists in 49 states (Montana is the exception), approaches for addressing this problem vary. Hughes says, “In my job, I spend a lot of time saying, ‘Just be kind.’ More positive results come from promoting kind behaviors and being ‘pro-hero’ than from simply discussing why bullying is hurtful.”
Calmly Taking Charge
Eric D. Dawson, president and cofounder of Boston-based Peace First (PeaceFirst.org), also believes in the power of positive language. “We need to move away from harsh language that focuses kids on what not to do and instead ignite their moral imagination—call on them to be problem solvers,” he says.
To counter bullying in society, Dawson suggests that we all need to be role models, and talk about and celebrate peacemaking. “We can’t expect our kids to listen to us when we tell them to be peaceful and share if they then see us aggressively cut in front of others on the road or in the checkout line. We can also ask kids how they were peacemakers during their day, in addition to what they learned.”
Founded in 1992 in response to the youth violence epidemic, Peace First provides programs and free online tools to help teach students peacemaking skills. The nonprofit is based on the premise that children have a natural aptitude for it and peacemaking can be taught, just like other subjects; their curriculum teaches and reinforces core social/emotional skills in communication, creative conflict resolution, courage, cooperation, empathy and civic engagement.
A New York City student remarks, “Peace First teaches that even if you don’t like someone, it shouldn’t affect how you work together to accomplish something… [putting] peace first makes my heart beat lovelier.”
Good for Us and Others
The International Forgiveness Institute (IFI) (InternationalForgiveness.com), in Madison, Wisconsin, has added its support to the anti-bullying movement. Stemming from the research of IFI founder Robert Enright, Ph.D., and his colleagues, the institute works to forward forgiveness for personal, group and societal renewal. It attests that in forgiving a hurtful person, a personal transformation begins that can enhance self-esteem and hopefulness. Enright’s scientific studies further demonstrate that when children learn about forgiveness, feelings of anger, depression and anxiety are reduced.
“We believe that forgiveness is a choice,” explains Enright. “When you forgive, you may benefit the person you forgive, but you benefit yourself far more.”
Enright recalls his experiences working with incarcerated men that were serving life sentences. “The first thing the assigned therapists asked the group to do was to tell me their story; tell me about the hurts that had been perpetrated on them. One man began to cry, saying that no one had ever asked for his story.” The therapists listened to a tale of the cruel disciplinary measures he had endured at home as a child and recognized a correlation with the crime he had committed. “I’m not justifying his actions, but we can see that he was an extremely wounded man. Many bullies in school have a story, and we need to take the time to hear their story.
“Because those that engage in bullying are often filled with rage from having been bullied themselves, they get to a point that they don’t care about the consequences of their actions, including detention,” Enright continues. Instead of focusing on the prevention of unwanted behaviors, he says, “Our program is meant to take the anger out of the heart of those that bully, so they bully no more.”
An elementary school-age participant in the Forgiveness Program concludes, “Sometimes it is hard to forgive someone straight away if they really hurt your feelings. It might take longer to see their worth and show them real forgiveness… but it is worth it in the end.”
Meredith Montgomery is a publisher and can be reached at HealthyLivingHealthyPlanet.com.