This past week I led a social skills lesson on bullying. Children with special needs are ten times more likely to be bullied than the neurotypical student, (“Bullying and Special Needs: A Silent Epidemic” by Sarah Beston). Research shows that kids who struggle with learning differences are not only more likely to be targeted for bullying but are also unaware of ways to protect themselves. The National Autistic Society reports that “40% of autistic children and 60% of those with Asperger’s syndrome have experienced bullying”. While those numbers are upsetting, they are not shocking. We know that our students struggle with interpersonal relationships. In social skills we specifically target the social piece.
Last week we started off defining bullying and how to identify a bully. The kids made a mind map of what a bully is and after discussing unkind words, the kids created an extensive list of nice and friendly words to use in lieu of bullying. We looked at pictures of someone being teased and took note of the feelings and body language portrayed in the images. Some students gave personal accounts of having been bullied before. The kids were able to verbalize how they have felt/would feel when someone calls them a mean name. We designated last week “No Name Calling Week at Cloverleaf.” Our goal over the week was to only use kind and polite words with people and really be aware of the way we talk to others.
We spent class on Thursday discussing how to handle a bully and how to protect ourselves. The kids generated a list of suggestions to prevent and stop bullying. We role played some of these ideas, including: 1) walking away from and ignoring the person hurting our feelings, 2) telling the person how we feel when they tease us, and 3) telling an adult (teachers, parents, etc.) about it and asking for help. The kids did a great job acting out hypothetical situations, including 1) someone pointing and laughing, 2) someone whispering and telling secrets and 3) someone name calling. On Friday we wrapped things up with a “Spider Web of Compliments”, in which we went around the room tossing a ball of yarn while giving someone else a compliment (thus forming a “spider web” with the yarn). The compliments could not be superficial, such as “I like your shirt” but had to address the other person’s character. We started our sentences with either “I like when you…” or “I like how you…” or “You are good at….” I was really impressed with their efforts!
What can we do to help?
Even though we addressed bullying for a week in social skills that does not mean our work is done. We need to reinforce this work at home and in our interactions outside of school. Most of the time our students may not even be aware that they, or someone else, are being bullied because they do not pick up on the social cues the way others might. It’s important to help our students become more aware of their surroundings. The world can be a harsh place and bullying is not unique to children, it happens to adults too. Therefore, talking to them now will not only help them in present situations but serve them in adulthood, as well. We need to prepare our students for the harsh realities of the world and not only show them how to recognize bullying behavior but also how to prevent and stop it. Instead of tiptoeing around the subject, let’s talk to our kids and let them know we support them. Growing up I was always told not to tattle tale. That message has been hammered into me since a very young age. As an adult I see how damaging that can be. Adults tend to be annoyed by the constant “nagging” that kids sometimes do, especially when they are perseverating on the issue. However, instructing them to stop tattling ultimately discourages kids from sharing with you at all. Even if it seems silly and nagging, let’s send the message that we are open to them sharing with us and invite them to talk to us. If something serious does happen to the child and we had been dismissing him/her in the past then he/she might be afraid to talk to us. I suggest we always listen to what kids have to say. Questions like “is that a big deal or small deal?” is a good prompt for the kid to stop and think about it but let’s work on not brushing it off as tattling. We can only help keep our kids safe from bullying if we know what is going on with them. If your child does not share with you to begin with, ask specific questions about his day and ask about his interactions with others. Sometimes the child is embarrassed or afraid to talk and sometimes he/she does not have the language to tell you. We have to keep our eyes and ears open. Bullying is a worldwide epidemic, affecting those with and without disabilities. We hear about it in the news all the time but what is not covered in the news is how to help these kids. Listen to them when they ask for help. We need to help empower all of our children!