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Lois M. Collins: Schools and families can do more to fight bullying

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 20 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Sixth-graders show posters with anti-bullying rules to the students gathered in an assembly. Teachers and administrators addressed bullying issues and instructed students how how to interrupt a bully in the act while in the classroom or on the school bus.

Gillette News Record, Joy Lewis, Associated Press

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My friend's daughter is frequently taunted by a small group of kids who call her names and make her life miserable. They ostracize her when they're not making fun of her. The nicknames they've given her have no logic and are apparently selected simply to be mean and make her feel bad.

It works.

But when my friend finally asked the fifth-grade teacher for help near the end of school last year, she was told there's nothing the teacher can do to help the child or end the behavior.

If it's not physical abuse, it's not actually bullying, the teacher said. School policy doesn't cover it.

Bunk. I hope that's not a widely held perception.

Children have been driven to desperate and immature acts or even suicide by bullying — including belittling that takes place only online, where "physical" is impossible. Why do experts warn repeatedly of the dangers of cyberbullying, for instance, if you have to be able to pinch and push and poke in order to hurt someone?

As a society, we have not gotten a very good handle on bullying. Doing so requires commitment on the part of not only schools (easy to blame because that's where much of it occurs), but of families, as well. Teaching children not to be bullies really begins well before the tykes ever head to school, with lessons in sharing and sibling cooperation and more.

Perhaps simply banning bullying has failed because it's not the most effective way to counter the hurt that occurs when children pick on each other.

I have talked to my children at length over the years about not picking on other kids, whether it's physically or simply by belittling them. I believe — and hope fervently that I'm right about it — that my girls seem to be growing into lovely young women. If so, it may not be because of those efforts as much as because we've praised positive things, like kindness and sharing and including kids who might feel left out.

Try as they might, schools have not been able to eradicate bullying by simply saying it won't be tolerated. Even outlining specific punishments hasn't forced bullying out of existence. Perhaps a different approach needs to be formally added to the mix.

Parenting experts always point out that praising good behavior is a more effective way of reinforcing how small children should act than is punishing bad behavior. Maybe that's an effective tool specifically for bullying, too.

You can't ignore bullying. But if rewards and accolades were handed out for examples of excellent behavior — the random acts of kindness, the examples of making sure that others are included, the nice things that some children seem to do instinctively — that might turn the tide.

Kids crave attention and some experts believe that bullies act out because even bad attention is better than no attention.

What would happen if all kids knew that behaving with decency and human kindness was the real way to stand out? Teachers often know which kids are more apt to hassle others, whether they can prove it or not or they choose to deal with it or not.

What would happen if teachers looked for examples of good behavior in those youths and remarked on it? Periodically, police departments try something similar, pulling over and rewarding drivers who exhibit good on-road behavior, like buckling up or consistently signaling before turning. Could that translate to changing how some children and teens interact? Would kids vie to be noticed for the positive they do?

I don't know what will turn the tide on bullying, but I do know that we haven't figured it out yet.

What clearly doesn't help is refusing to get involved or try something new. Telling a desperate parent that "it's not my problem" does nothing to make that bullied child's life better.

Deseret News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by email at lois@desnews.com. Follow her on Twitter at loisco.

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