I Feel Completely Helpless

Kwick/ January 29, 2013/ Sharing Stories

“I feel completely helpless,” said the mom who called me. “My son Michael is absolutely miserable, and I don’t know how to help him. There are a bunch of kids at school who are so cruel. They really know how to get him worked up.”

I arranged to do both a parent interview and a classroom observation, to see what was going on. Michael was in fifth grade—a year when teasing can become a real issue—and there were a few things that made him a target. He was a little bit round. He had attention issues, so he tended to shout out answers and to interrupt. He really liked math and was good at it, but he wasn’t very quick, verbally. This led to frustration when there was any kind of disagreement, and sometimes he would push other kids because he just couldn’t get the words out. He had some social issues, but when I tested him he could understand visual cues and read faces. He was just so impulsive he didn’t stop to do so. But he was basically a sweet kid.

His arch-nemeses were three kids he called the “J’s”– Joey, Jackson, and Jose– who bullied him constantly. They called him “Gordo” which means fat in Spanish, or Geeko, or sarcastically, Einstein. They told other kids he was too weird to play with, and if another child ignored them, and played with Michael anyway, they’d say, “You must be weird too.”

Michael’s problems with attention and sociability were definitely things that could be improved with treatment, but it would be a gradual process, and in the mean time, he would continue to suffer. Furthermore, he was only one of three boys who seemed to be the butt of classroom teasing. We needed to find a systemic rather than a personal solution.

I felt this would be possible because this was a school and a principal and a teacher I knew and respected. When I called, the teacher said she was worried about Michael. Only the week before he had not just pushed one of his tormentors, but given him more of a punch. She described Michael as sad and angry. “Obviously I can punish the kids who are bullies,” she said, “but that only seems to make them more aggressive.”

The principal said that she had been thinking of holding an anti-bullying meeting the following week, and asked if I had suggestions. I told her I did.

“Building positive behaviors is usually more successful than attempting to make negative behaviors go away,” I said. “Anti-bullying campaigns make people who already feel insecure, feel worse. Naturally they aren’t likely to behave better. So talk about the opposite of bullying. Have a meeting about fostering cooperation and thoughtfulness. If you can build a classroom culture in which kids are more compassionate, this problem should improve.”

The classroom teacher began each day with a greeting circle in which each child turned to the child on his right, greeted that child by name, and shook hands. Children hung up each others’ coats and hats and sharpened each others’ pencils. Time was set aside at the end of the day to mention good things other children had done: “When Jack twisted his ankle, Bobby helped him go see the nurse;” “Frances told Emma she was a really good artist;” “Michael made an amazing catch in dodge ball.”

At first the children had to work to come up with things. It felt, one of them said, “a little phony” although that child admitted that all the things people were saying were actually true. But after a few weeks, kind was getting to be the new normal.

Michael benefitted. He became a lot less tense, less impulsive, less unhappy. But he wasn’t the only one who calmed down. So did his fellow victims and so did the perpetrators, the infamous “J’s.” Because they had never been singled out as perpetrators, it was much easier to integrate them into the more cooperative classroom and to treat them as if they were like everyone else, trying to be more helpful and more thoughtful. And by the end of the school year, they actually were.

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