Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Are Anti-Bully and Zero Tolerance Programs Sending Children Mixed Messages About Bullies and Fighting?

Who Is This Sign Intended For?  Who Does It Help?

Anti Bully - No Bully Zone - Bully Free Zone 
Are Our Children Trapped Between Rules? Are Yours?
Is it possible that anti-bully training sends a bad message to kids and has unintended consequences?

I had Mother come to me in confidence to ask for help with her son in "how to handle a bully".  This a relatively common occurrence for a Martial Arts teacher.   My first role before handing out advice is to listen. I listen so that I can, in the words of Dr. Stephen Covey, "Seek first to understand, then be understood."  

The anti-bullying movement is failing in a similar way to the stranger danger movement.  Unintended consequences and a lack of research bed based methods and common sense.

Her son, let's call him Joshua, had been "bullied" ie pushed, hit, tripped and called names over a period of weeks.  Josh told his Mom that when he walked away and did what he was supposed to, it just made things worse.  She explained that he feared speaking up for being thought of as weak or a "rat" for telling. 

Zero Tolerance Policies - Unintended Consequences?
Her dilemma was that her son was told in clear terms that he would get in trouble if he fought.  This school had a 'no bully zone" and a "zero tolerance policy against fighting".  The message he received was that he had to tolerate the abuse, teasing and torment because he wasn't allowed to fight back.   Nor would he tell for fear of retribution - physical and social consequences of being even more ostracized and labeled a "tattletale" (something teachers cannot completely control).   The bullying was done when teachers weren't looking or around so he quickly learned that teachers were powerless to help him deal with the bullying.
From the boys perspective, he felt trapped.  Over time, this lead to anger, then frustration, and feeling depressed.
It was only because of his attuned, inquisitive and insisting mother that Josh told what was going on.  She noticed that he seemed withdrawn a bit and was reluctant to go to school - sometimes faining illness.  The bullying behavior from several boys had resulted in his grades slipping, missing school, and even getting in a bit of trouble with his teachers for emotional outbursts.  To the teachers credit, they did ask him what was going on before punishing him.  He concealed the truth and covered so as to not make waves and "make it worse".  The consequences were mounting and he was feeling the stress.  I later would confirm these sentiments with her son.

I am seeing an increase in the number of children experiencing this trapped feeling.  Part of the impetus for my starting the Arizona Bullying Intervention Initiative -The AZ Bully Prevention Project was to offer some of our highly successful bullying solution strategies we've taught over the years.  We've helped thousands of children successfully deal with bullying.  It is clear that the school systems are struggling with this and already over-loaded with other responsibilities.  When I researched bullying prevention programs I was surprised to find out that his school, and many others in Arizona were using a very popular "anti-bully" model. 
Thank goodness! Now that these are posted at schools, bullies can read them and stop being bullies.  Am I the only one shaking my head at this politically motivated, feel-good, non evidence method nonsense?  Where's the research that shows this has any impact?  Bullying is a behavior - not a child.  Have we resorted to vilifying children now out of fear?  Another emotional pacifier with unintended consequences? My experience is showing that it is. 

It is naive to think that school rules or parent rules are the only influencing factors in a child's life. They have to live by the social rules of their peers or experience social and sometimes physical consequences as well.  Are your children prepared to handle those?  
  • Do you discuss them?  
  • Have you equipped them with the best information to handle these situations? 
  • Do your rules as parents work with the school rules?

Anti Bully = Anti-Child
The problem I see in the Anti-Bully approach is that the "bully" is still a child.  Statistics indicate that many children exhibiting bullying behavior are or were bullied themselves.  To vilify a child as a "bully" in my view is a problem.  Hey people, that's somebody's kid!  They deserve the same love and consideration as every other child.  Children are supposed to make mistakes and we, as adults and mentors are supposed to be there to guide and teach them, right?  
  • So why are so many well intentioned people jumping on board with this stuff and not questioning it?  
  • Isn't one of the most fundamental parenting and teaching lessons to separate the behavior from the child?  
  • Shouldn't we be protecting children's individual dignity?
  • Shouldn't we be getting these children help at an early age?
  • Doesn't this make more sense to keep children safe?
  • Are we in danger of over-protecting children and making them more vulnerable?
  • Are we truly equipping our children with the tools they need to succeed and be happy in the future?
  • Are we teaching our children to be too easily offended?
  • Is this another control mechanism of the political correctness movement that may damage the exercise of constitutional rights of free speech?
One of the few programs I saw that I would advocate is called "Bullies to Buddies" and mirrors much of our same findings and recommendations.  Kudos to them.  However, it is a rare gem in the sea of bully programs available.  

Our proven 3 pronged approach treats the bullying child as someone crying out for help.  It also treats the targeted child and the social environment that permitted the behavior.  

One of the lessons I learned in Army Leadership Academy was the principle of Unity of Command.  It is imperative to have a united leadership command structure with a clearly defined mission that leaves no room for guesswork.  The message to children needs to be clear and one that works.  Everyone needs to be on the same page, unified with the same directions.  Teachers and parents cannot control every situation a child is in.  Doesn't every child have a fundamental right for self defense?
The value of communication is in how it is received.
Although it may not be the intention, the message that an increasing number of children are receiving is that they are not able - nor worth - defending.  They know they will get in trouble for fighting but they are ill-equipped to handle bullying any other way (at least in their minds).  The good news is that we have effective options that can help children deal with bullying without resorting to physical fighting.  Plus if push comes to shove with physical bullying, we can introduce them to effective blocking and escape maneuvers that protect both children but reduce damage and danger.  Children need to know that they are precious and have a right to protect themselves.  They must be taught and reminded that they can and should protect themselves because nobody has the right to injure them.  

Of course, physical self defense is only used as a last resort, but there are many, many options leading up to that time.  Using our program, it rarely gets to physical self defense.

Why Anti-Bully Training May Be a Danger To Children

Anything "Anti-" raises red flags for me.  Have you ever noticed that people involved in anything anti- seems to be filled with anger, hate and lots of emotion?  Anti movements or viewpoints seem to get stuck on blaming rather than solutions and what you want.  I can't recall any time where I have heard an "anti-fill in the blank" movement that offered valid workable suggestions.  
"I was once asked why I don't participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I'll be there."
- Mother Teresa - War - Peace
Is This Anti-Bully Thing Just Semantics?
In my experience "anti-x" is usually a politically motivated movement based on intense feelings.  Now I'm not suggesting that those feelings of outrage aren't valid, nor that the movement doesn't have valid points.  My point is that in my experience, "anti- anything" is not the best way to find a solution.  It's like complaining or criticizing without offering a solution on the job - soon you find yourself labeled a whiner, losing respect and the validity of your argument along with it.  

I think this is more than just a case of semantics and we need to be much more careful about how we label, and potentially vilify children in an effort to protect.  This is based on my experience in working with thousands of children over the past 25 years and successfully negotiating and managing the mild to the most extreme human conflict situations.

It's easy to be against something but harder to be for win-win solutions.  Solutions require more work and a sense of responsibility.  I have learned that it often takes seeing another persons side to show empathy, respect and gain cooperation toward a mutually beneficial end.    

I would describe our program as Pro-Children's Safety and Pro-Children's Life Skills.  Our method emphasizes the ABC's of Conflict Avoidance, Verbal Diffusion Techniques, Leadership and Social Skills that equip children with the tools they need to handle life's challenges.

Children Feeling Trapped In The Rules

  • Dad says hit him and teach the bully a lesson
  • Mom says just walk away from bullies
  • Teacher says tell on the bully
  • School says zero tolerance for fighting means you get suspended
So it's no wonder why children are telling me that they are confused.  The unintended consequence?  They get abused to avoid the other consequences of getting in trouble with Mom, the school, the teacher or disappointing Dad for looking weak.  They would rather take the torment than deal with the shame or pain of the alternatives.

To cut through the bullying dilema The Arizona Bullying Intervention Initiative - AZ Children's Bully Prevention Project is working with Nottingham Sword and Shield Security and USA Martial Arts Phoenix to offer a series of bullying solutions - Victim-Bully Proof Workshops.  Free Bully Prevention "5 Step How to Handle a Bully Without Fighting" training is being sponsored FREE to all Arizona Children.

What: How to Handle a Bully Without Fighting
When: 5-6pm Wednesdays during the month of March
Where: at USA Martial Arts Phoenix Tatum/Greenway Albertsons center
How much: Fully sponsored by Nottingham Sword & Shield Security,, and USA Martial Arts Phoenix
How: Contact or call (602) 896-8721 to register.  Limited space available.

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