I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the upcoming 9/11 remembrance ceremonies, the new New Jersey law requiring anti-bullying efforts, and the connection between these two. And of course how this all affects young children. In many ways, terrorists are the ultimate bullies and our nation’s political and military response to 9/11 has been one of violence and anger. We can’t let that happen in our classrooms. Bullying needs to be conquered with caring, not violence, not anger. What makes the conditions for bullying in school? A fatal misunderstanding that punishment can cure inappropriate behaviors. Our response to bullying will never be successful if we only respond to bullying once it occurs. We need to PREVENT bullying in order to have supporting, peaceful, and positive classrooms.
Preventing bullying requires a strong, focused effort on building a sense of community in a classroom. This happens by helping the children to get to know each other, by giving them opportunities to work together on shared projects, by reducing competition in the classroom, and by teaching children the social and emotional skills they need to be kind, caring, and supportive. Added to this is the most important prevention – modeling support and caring by the teacher. A positive classroom is built on positive relationships that the teacher develops with each and every child – even the children who are difficult to relate to. I should say ESPECIALLY the children who are difficult to relate to.
Here’s what happens to children who become bullies. They enter school lacking the social and emotional skills they need. Because of this, the other children begin reject them, or avoid them. And the teacher begins to reject or avoid them. These are the children that teachers hope will be absent -the children that are hard to connect with and to like. They also might have parents who are hard to connect with or a home environment that has not been supportive of their social and emotional development. Because the children are being rejected or avoided, they don’t get opportunities to practice the social skills that are already under-developed. A vicious cycle develops in which the children learn that they only way they get the social interaction they want is through grabbing, pushing, teasing, fighting. This can be made worse when other children justifiably respond with anger and more avoidance. Punishing bullies will not help, because it doesn’t not teach them (or their classmates) the social and emotional skills they need.
Anti-bullying requires a commitment on the part of the early childhood teacher to make the social and emotional curriculum just as important as early reading and math. The peace of our future society might depend on it.
Photo by Flickr user LaughingSquid/ Creative Commons licensed