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“Stop picking on me!” What you need to know about bullying

Hi, guys,” says Robert, the after-school program specialist, greeting his first graders. “Anybody hungry?”
The children take off their backpacks and help themselves to granola bars, apples, and milk. Willie, the smallest boy, gets pushed aside by bigger boys but manages to grab a granola bar before they’re all gone.
“Willie is a weenie. Willie is a weenie,” chants Jake, a large blond youngster with red cheeks. Two boys behind him chuckle, and most of the other children settle down into eating their snack.
Willie, his chin quivering, turns to Robert in a silent plea for help. Jake sees the gesture and smirks, “Willie is a tattle tale.”
If you were Robert, what would you do in this situation?
a) Ignore the teasing. After all, “Kids will be kids.”
b) Say to Jake: “Cut it out. Words can hurt, and we don’t allow teasing.”
c) Take Willie aside. “Hey, if someone is bothering you, you need to learn to stand up for yourself.” Brainstorm ways to respond to future taunts.
d) Plan a learning activity on how to stop hurtful behavior. As a group, read and discuss books on teasing and bullying. Empower all children to speak out against hurtful behavior when they see it happen.

Many of us can remember being in situations like the one above when we were children. Or perhaps we ourselves were the target of such behavior. Experts say teasing and bullying are commonplace in schools, not just in the United States but around the world.
Bullying in particular has gained increased attention in recent years. Hundreds of books and research articles have been published on the subject, and at least 30 states have passed anti-bullying legislation (National Conference of School Legislatures 2008).
Why the attention? Research in the aftermath of school shootings, including Columbine High School in Colorado, has found that the shooters had been severely bullied by classmates. A study of school violence by the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education found that “almost three-quarters of the attackers felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked or injured by others prior to the incident” (2002).
Research indicates that boys do most of the bullying, and they target girls as well as other boys. Among girls, bullying is more likely to take the form of emotional hurt, such as spreading hurtful rumors about another girl or excluding her from a group.
Most bullying takes place at school, typically in places with little or no adult supervision, such as the playground, cafeteria, and restroom. According to research, when teachers and other adults see or hear about bullying, they generally do nothing to stop it.
Teasing and bullying begin in the early grades and peak in middle school. The timing is linked to development. By fourth grade, children are comparing themselves to each other and become self-conscious, especially about appearance and ability. Consequently, a perceived difference is sometimes—not always—a trigger for teasing and bullying behavior.
Research findings like these have spurred the call for improved disciplinary policies and prevention efforts in schools as well as after-school programs, youth clubs, and summer camps. The fact that teasing and bullying can show up in the primary grades suggests that the precursors of this behavior may be found in early childhood and that parents and child care professionals also play a role in prevention.

A continuum of hurtful behavior
According to Barri Rosenbluth, director of school-based services at SafePlace, a domestic violence and sexual assault center in Austin, teasing and bullying can be viewed as part of a continuum of intentionally hurtful behavior. At one end of the continuum is hurtful teasing, which can include making fun of someone, name-calling, put-downs, insults, and negative gestures. At the other end is abuse and assault, which can include the use of weapons.
Teasing becomes bullying when it is repeated over time. Like teasing, bullying can take many forms—name-calling, threats, hitting—but it usually involves an imbalance of power. The bully is often bigger, older, smarter, or more popular than the targeted child.
Sexual harassment may seem out of place in a discussion of preschool and primary school behavior, but all educators need to be aware of it. According to a study by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, one-third of students who experienced sexual harassment said it first occurred in sixth grade or earlier (2001).
Sexual harassment is teasing or bullying of a sexual nature using words, gestures, pictures, or actions. Boys as well as girls can be the targets, and the harassment can be about the body, boy-girl friendships, or speculation about homosexuality. Sexual harassment may occur once or many times.
In the public schools, sexual harassment is serious because it’s a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Under this law, school officials must take reasonable steps to prevent and eliminate sexual harassment because it “can interfere with a student’s academic performance and emotional and physical well-being” (Office for Civil Rights 2001).

Tune in to teasing
Because intent plays a part in defining whether a behavior is hurtful, child development experts might argue that teasing and bullying don’t occur until children can understand the feelings of others.
“Preschoolers say funny and absurd things that are not necessarily targeted at anyone,” says Judy Freedman, an elementary school social worker, in her book (2002). “They are often experimenting with words they have recently learned.”
Teasing becomes sharper as children expand their vocabulary and improve their verbal skills. “They think it’s funny to rhyme a word with someone’s name, as in the case of a second-grader who was called ‘Fartin’ Martin,’” says Freedman. But as children develop empathy, they are less likely to ridicule someone for a name or other qualities beyond a person’s control.
Experienced teachers also recognize that much teasing is good-natured and friendly. Best friends may josh each other for fun, and children might tease another child as a sign of welcome into a group.
What’s harder to discern is teasing that’s iffy, as though the teaser is testing for a reaction. If the targeted child cringes or punches back, the teaser may continue, delighted at finding a hot button. But if the targeted child tosses it off, the two may continue joking around, or the teaser may look for another target.
Experts say teasing becomes hurtful if the teaser intends to be cruel or if the targeted child feels upset, angry, or afraid as a result, regardless of the intent.
How’s a teacher to know? “Talk to the targeted child privately,” advises Rosenbluth. “Don’t just assume the child will come to you.” Ask: “What did you feel after Marianne’s comment about your freckles?” or “How did you feel when Aaron shoved you?”

Why it matters
For children targeted by teasers and bullies, school is miserable and frightening. They may experience headaches, stomachaches, bedwetting, and restless sleep. They can feel depressed, inadequate, and lonely. Other children may avoid them, fearing they may also become targets, leaving the targeted child with no friends.
Targeted children may resist going to school out of fear for their safety. They may develop a dislike for school and fall behind their peers in learning. In extreme cases, if the bullying continues into the teen years, students can react by harming themselves or seeking revenge.
Children who do the teasing and bullying are usually popular and confident. But experts say they lack empathy and believe that such behavior is OK, even desirable. They need positive role models and help in learning social skills. Without that, they become at risk for other problem behaviors.
Bullying also affects bystanders. Non-targeted children can feel afraid and vulnerable at school. Their learning may falter as well.

Why it happens
Many authorities say teasing and bullying are part of the larger issue of aggressive behavior in much of modern life. Studies attribute aggression to media violence, poverty, poor child-rearing practices, abusive home environments, and other factors.
Researchers Pamela Orpinas and Arthur Horne (2006) say the roots of hurtful behavior are better described as , not . Risk factors refer to personal or environmental characteristics that indicate a greater likelihood of behaving a certain way. For example, harsh parental punishment by itself does not make a child tease and bully others. But several risk factors taken together may indicate a greater tendency to hurt other children.
Orpinas and Horne argue that in addition to risk factors, educators must also consider protective factors—that is, characteristics that help diminish the likelihood of teasing and bullying. See the table below for an abbreviated list of both factors.
Teachers and caregivers can do a great deal to prevent hurtful behavior, but no one can do it alone. The most effective prevention, says Rosenbluth, is a “caring community.”