When is a playground push just childish behavior?
When is repeated hitting and biting of the same child bullying?
How do you know the difference?
Amy Smith, principal of Memorial Education Center (MEC) and preschool coordinator for Kentucky’s Pulaski County Schools, faces questions like those every day. With her recent attendance at the School Safety Advocacy Council’s National Bullying and Child Victimization Conference in February 2016, she learned she’s not alone in realizing that bullying can start at an extremely young age, and the sooner that there’s an intervention, the greater the chance that bullying won’t become a lifelong behavior.
“I see children as young as age 2 targeting a certain child, pushing him down, taking toys away, biting and hitting. The child is a specific target and becomes a victim. I hear three-year-olds using bad language and yelling,” Smith says. “People say ‘well, they’re just kids,’ but when they keep doing it continuously, that’s bullying and that’s a victim.”
MEC staff, including the school’s psychologist, meet monthly to talk about school climate and how to recognize victims through behaviors such as acting withdrawn, sad or aggressive, because sometimes the bullying may take place on the bus or at home, with the behavior surfacing at school.
“As educators, we have the advantage of observing children’s interactions with their peers as well as observing their behavior around adults. Behavioral changes are typically noticed sooner in an academic setting and can be attributed to anger or even an attempt to be socially accepted, resulting in demonstrating behaviors of aggression, outbursts and even defiance,” she says. “In certain situations, students may resort to bullying to avoid becoming bullied themselves. If someone picks on them, they start picking on somebody else and demonstrating the same kind of behavior. That way, the attention is no longer on them as the victim.”
When staff members at MEC identify a problem, they work with children to provide guidance and support, helping to protect victims and reduce bullying. Since returning from the conference, Smith says she’s worked to refine programs and increase support: “Several sessions I attended at the conference discussed how and why we should help children keep from becoming bullies or being victimized. The main message learned was listen and take interest in the child as an individual.”
Smith came away particularly impressed by keynote speaker Dr. Sameer Hinduja, director of the Cyber-Bullying Research Center at Florida Atlantic University, and with Chief Joseph Solomon and Sgt. Joseph Aiello of the Methuen (Mass.) Police Department, who gave a presentation on Police Response to Students with Spectrum Disorders: “The police officers talked about how to communicate with students with disabilities and autism, about how to use pictures. They focused on communicating, being patient and respecting each other’s space. I have an enrollment of approximately 260 students and 30 to 40 percent have IEPs [individualized education programs), so our program is definitely an at-risk program.”
The National Conference on Bullying and Child Victimization also referenced school programs that use the Positive Behavior Intervention System (PBIS) and Response to Intervention (RTI) models, both in use at MEC. Smith explains that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA 2004) allows school districts to use scientific, research-based interventions as a way of identifying students with specific learning disabilities, generally through following the RTI process. RTI uses a three-tiered approach to identifying and assisting at-risk students, and PCIS incorporates a parallel three-tiered system of service delivery in which each tier represents an increasingly intense level of services. In practical terms, that means implementing approaches like the school’s “Be Safe Be Kind Be Helpful” campaign that includes posters, daily announcements and colorful bees appearing on t-shirts, the website, the Facebook page and pretty much everywhere throughout the school.
“We have rules for the classroom, for the hallway, for the cafeteria, for the bus. During the first two weeks of school, we always teach expectations, routine and expected behaviors. However, that does not mean that we do not see behaviors that need to be corrected,” Smith says. “Yet just this morning, we had a kid punch another kid in the stomach. We’re talking about 4-year-olds. So it’s back to PBIS and reteaching expected behaviors and talking about how to replace that behavior, so we can nip this kind of activity in the bud. The information I gained from attending the National Bullying and Child Victimization Conference has provided me with new ways to help children who are bullied or victimized, and to help those who do the bullying. I’ve learned new strategies for building self-confidence and creating positive reinforcement.”