The Bright Side of Bullying
Anyone that knows me knows that I try to look for the best in every situation.
But one warm day in March when winter finally broke and the snow began to melt, our daughter came home from first grade soaked and muddy. This was more than just ordinary recess wet and muddy—it was excessive and immediately I knew… something had happened. I asked about her day and all she could say, repeatedly, was, “It was an accident.” Over and over again: “It was an accident.” I began to feel sick.
You see, despite our daughter’s challenges with learning, understanding social cues, and communicating, she was always happy. She adapted to change in schools and schedules easily because, well, she’s done it since she was 3 years old; seeing different specialists and therapists for speech, OT, tested and screened. That was her normal. So, when she started a new school for first grade, we couldn’t understand why she was having such a hard time. Not wanting to take off her jacket, clinging to a stuffed animal, and having accidents at school. She mastered the bathroom at 3, so why now? We could never get to the root of what was happening. No problems were reported from school, and with limited ability to understand and explain things to us, we were stuck.
This was new to us.
I slowly began to piece together the events of her day—of her year—by calling other parents of kids that were on the playground at recess, in her class, neighbors with older kids at the school as well. Every parent knew what happened. All the kids were talking about it. Her day and year unfolded before us. We went through hell, hearing about it. But she lived it for a year… in silence.
The short version is there was a bully. Someone who pretended to be our daughter’s friend one moment, then demeaning her the next. Relentlessly teasing her. Physically assaulting her. Recruiting others to join in the bullying. And at home, night terrors.
Bullying. It’s still hard to think about it. It starts earlier than you’d ever imagine. It’s a terrible situation and deeply affects your entire family. You feel helpless getting to the truth from a child with challenges and getting the support you need to navigate the situation.
Wait—where’s the bright side, you ask? It’s in the aftermath. Following a full investigation, police reports, and more, we were finally prepared to move forward in a positive way—for her and for other kids, too. It gave me the ultimate courage to be an advocate for our daughter to get her all the services she needed—including her paraprofessional.
This is the bright side. The bright side is also the one child who stepped in and told our daughter to come with her—that she didn’t want to be doing what the bullies were telling her to do. She helped our daughter get out of the situation when others didn’t know what to do. This child was honored for her courage in front of the entire school.
From all this came a great safety and training procedure at school. And ideas for how we could help her understand and handle situations. All kids need to be able to recognize a bad situation and what to do to stop it. To seek help from a grown-up and say, “Stop!” These are a few things we learned—things to do if your own child needs help, and suggestions for your school, to make sure it’s a safe environment for everyone.
Implement a playground policy and review it with students and families.
As part of the investigation, kids were interviewed and a common theme emerged. Many kids shared, “I saw what was happening and it made my belly hurt, but I didn’t know what to do, so I just walked away.” Recess is always supervised, but since many classrooms are at recess at the same time, teachers and paraprofessionals rotate supervision responsibilities. In doing so, we learned kids were unfamiliar with some of the adults and did not feel comfortable approaching them. After this, the school implemented a playground policy that required all supervisory adults on the playground to wear an orange vest. This vest was a clear way to communicate to kids that they should approach anyone in an orange vest if they need help or to report something. In addition, every year on the first day, every child and classroom review this procedure.
Do your homework: What makes a good friend?
We never thought that we’d have to teach our 6-year-old about bullies. But when understanding social cues is a challenge, we had to get creative. We began to play an interactive game that helped her to recognize bad situations or interactions, while reinforcing what she should or could do if she ever found herself in that situation. Here’s the game: We found some great shows that really “knocked you over the head” with the lesson. The original Full House and Fuller House were great options with each episode having a challenge or situation that ultimately ends up with a nice recap and lesson at the end.
Then, we added a level of interaction. We’d pause the show at key points and ask questions like, “Do you think DJ is being a nice friend to the new girl in school?” Then, follow up with asking some why or why not questions. Before long, she was getting the hang of things and became a pro at recognizing situations and knowing what to do. Look for those great childhood shows you loved growing up—all the important lessons are there.
Get school support.
If you think your child would benefit from additional support in the classroom for educational, behavioral, or other reasons, it may be time to consider reviewing their IEP, undergoing additional evaluations, and requesting a paraprofessional. In addition, many schools have counselors that can also meet with your child. Don’t be shy in reaching out to learn more about what your school district offers.
Of course, it’s hard to look on the bright side when it comes to bullying. It’s maybe the hardest time I’ve ever had finding a positive. But, for me, the bright side was actually the light at the end of the tunnel. Yes, it was a long, dark, painful experience. But we made it through, with a positive outlook, and important lessons to combat future challenges.
I hope some of these strategies help you find your own bright side.