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Rethinking Bullying Prevention: Moving Beyond the Label

In addition to teaching academic skills, schools have always strived to provide a safe, caring environment in which all students can thrive,
socially as well as academically. Recent high profile situations involving bullying have highlighted how difficult this task can be.  A variety of bully prevention programs exist which have been shown to reduce bullying behavior, particularly at the elementary level.  However, schools continue to struggle in particular with students who engage in repeated physical and/or social aggression toward others, and who do not seem to respond to these programs.  Typically, these students then receive a variety of consequences, including behavior contracts, detentions, suspensions, and sometimes even expulsion.  We frequently hear stories about students who continue to engage in aggressive behaviors toward others, despite
repeated consequences.  Clearly, those types of interventions are not getting the job done and we at Think Kids believe that there is a reason for that.

There is a growing research base suggesting that students who engage in aggressive behavior toward others have specific thinking skill
deficits, especially in the areas of empathy, perspective taking, and interpersonal problem solving.  Contingency management approaches are not designed to teach these complicated skills and thus the students continue to engage in this unacceptable behavior.  Further, consequences such as suspensions and the like run the risk of increasing the social disconnection in these students who already struggle with connecting with others in a genuine, empathic manner.  Sometimes, realizing that there are some lagging skills, these students will be put into
direct instruction, social skills groups.  However, we often hear problems related to the fact that the student does not buy in to the goals of the group, or that there are difficulties transferring the skills to general environment.

Our goal, like everyone else’s, is to reduce this very concerning behavior.  And because our explanation guides our intervention, we need to accurately assess the reasons for these behaviors in order to change them.  We also need to move beyond the label of bullying toward
more specific problems to be solved. Changing a “bully” can seem like an overwhelming task.  However, working on a specific unsolved
problem (such as a student hitting another student during a game at recess, or a student threatening another student in the hall or through technology such as text or instant messages) is more manageable.  By engaging the student in a collaborative discussion of the
problem, not only do we reduce the challenging behavior, but we also are able to teach the lagging skills while building a relationship with the student that could quite possibly change the trajectory of that student’s life for the better.  And by understanding what
is happening from the student’s perspective, we stand a better chance of increasing the student’s buy-in to the process, thus helping the student take responsibility for his or her actions and increasing the likelihood of coming up with something that solves the problem once and for all.  And the more of these problems we solve, the safer everyone feels.  And that is good for all kids.

Flowing from these ideas, we’re excited to announce that Think:Kids has developed our own bullying prevention program to help schools
with this pressing issue. As you can imagine, our approach represents a pretty significant departure from traditional bullying prevention plans. As we describe above, it focuses on reducing bullying through skills training, relationship building and problem solving using our unique and proven methods of assessment and intervention. Look for more information about an introduction to this training here in Boston soon. To learn more in the meantime, please don’t hesitate to contact us at (617) 643-6030.

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