Willow Finds a Way
Stop bullying. Stamp out bullying. Stand up to bullying. We all want it. The Ontario Ministry of Education declares the week of Nov. 15-21st to be Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week. https://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/safeschools/prevention.html During this time we are sure to see lots of slogans and calls to action to ‘stand up to the bully’. But if we really want to stop bullying, here’s where we start-
Stop Labeling Children-We need to ban the bully label in our schools! A child will become the label you give them. When examining an inappropriate social situation, we need to look at what has happened and who is involved. But when we label a child, “You are a bully,” that child can take on this character, and live up to that expectation.
Yes- we need to stop hurtful behaviour. Yes- anyone who is victimized absolutely needs to be heard, understood, and protected against further abuse. But in order to stop conflict from re-occurring we must recognize that each child in the scenario is an individual who is struggling.
I’d like to point out that my picture book; Willow Finds a Way (Kids Can Press, 2013) is often described as an anti-bullying book. It is on Publisher’s Weekly’s List of Anti-Bullying Books and is on the Canadian Children Book Centre’s List of Books for Pink Shirt Day. But the word ‘bully’ is never used in the story. You can acknowledge inappropriate actions without placing labels on a child.
That kid you are calling ‘a bully’ needs help-If we want to stop bullying we need to acknowledge that the child acting aggressively or in a hurtful manner to others is an individual who needs and deserves help in recognizing their behaviour as hurtful and then given tools to help change that behavior. If we label a child as a ‘bully’ and teach everyone else how to stand up to that child and stay away from that child, we are giving up on that child. The bullying will only continue because that is what that child knows. This is not only hurtful to that child’s peers but is also hurtful to the child who needs and deserves guidance in acting appropriately. We are constantly preaching to children how to put out the fire of bullying, without trying to figure out where the fire is coming from.
If we are successful in helping a child understand that in a particular situation, they acted inappropriately, and we then give that child tools to change that behavior, strategies to try, different words to use, then we stop bullying.
In “Willow Finds a Way”, Kristabelle creates a list of all the children who can come to her birthday party. Everyone is invited. But then Kristabelle begins ruling the class, crossing names off her list if anyone crosses her.
Why? Kristabelle is a child desperate for friends. But she’s going about it the wrong way. She needs help. Whenever possible, we need to find out why a child acts out in a hurtful way to others. Is it because they lack impulse control? Does it stem from anxiety? Or is this child’s ability to perceive how others are feeling (empathy) not as developed as it should be? These are not easy fixes. They require dedication, commitment, understanding and consistency on the part of adults working with young children. But if you can help a child act in a more socially acceptable manner you not only stop the bullying, you also help that child lead a more successful social life.
Find the Root Cause According to Robin Rettman, Director of Research and Communications for CPI, an international training organization committed to best practices and safe behavior management methods that focus on prevention, and the editor of the Journal of Safe Management of Disruptive and Assaultive Behavior and the Supportive Stance, bullying is a learned behavior. In his article, “What to Say to Stop Someone From Bullying” http://www.crisisprevention.com/Blog/October-2015/Stop-Bullying Rettman states that, in every situation there is a root cause for inappropriate behavior. It’s our job, as educators, to figure out what that is. In Willow Finds a Way, Kristabelle wants friends.
What is the Child Gaining from This Behaviour? There is a function that this behaviour is serving for the child, according to Rettman. They are getting something out of it. Is it a feeling of control when they often feel out of control? Whatever it is, we need to find out. In Willow Finds a Way, everyone is doing exactly what Kristabelle tells them to do when she threatens them. She perceives this as having friends.
Develop Replacement Behaviors– Children are developing social skills as they mature. It is common for children to have an immature perception of what they need. Sometimes they learn inappropriate behaviours that appear to be helping them succeed at reaching their perceived need- their goal. If a child has learned an inappropriate way to get what they want, and doesn’t or can’t acknowledge that it is wrong, that these behaviors are harming others, then we need to step in and help them establish different behaviours. Rettman refers to these as replacement behaviors. In Willow Finds a Way, Willow gets the message across to Kristabelle that when she acts in a mean, threatening, demanding way she won’t have friends. But when given the chance, Kristabelle learns new behaviors that include genuine apologizing and inclusion, that allow her to experience the rewards of true friendships. As educators we need to allow children to move past their inappropriate behavior and help them develop new words, new actions and new behaviors that help them achieve healthy social goals.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could solve every problem within the pages of a picture book. This is not easy work. In my more than 25 years as an educator I find teaching empathy to a child who does not naturally obtain it to be one of the biggest challenges- but one of the most important! Picture books, like Willow Finds a Way, can help in this effort, as they speak to the child in a scenario they relate to. They can spark conversation, can be the springboard for setting new goals, and can inspire a feeling of hope and a desire for change. Every child is worth the effort.