Solutions to Bullying Begin in Elementary School (or Earlier)

January 14, 2014

Amy Sedlis is a child advocate trained in social work and public health. She is currently serving as a community volunteer throughout Central Alabama with the national Bully Project. She serves on the Childcare Resources and Hadassah Boards. She often writes and presents on early childhood development and woman's health social policy issues. 

After reading Noah Schuettge’s recent blog Bullying, Statistics and Stories, I was reminded that the YWCA continues to be one of the few nonprofits that willingly takes a stance on controversial social justice issues including bullying. Bullying as a topic brings controversy, especially lately when bullying headlines are on the news daily. Often debated is what constitutes “true” bullying. Stories like the Incognito-Martin situation further contribute to confusion. Countless celebrities, such as Chris Rock, Macklemore and Ellen DeGeneres, have stepped up and taken a strong stance against bullying. These icons are what bullying literature calls “upstanders” or allies. Upstanders are the opposite of bystanders, which are those who are present for the bullying, but do not take part.  

Arguments often revolve around responsibility: Is it up to parents, schools or both? The answer is both. The good news is throughout the U.S. and Birmingham there are middle and high schools implementing best practice research-based models to create systemic change. Yet, what is missing is fundamental toward any attempts to eradicate bullying. Missing is the conversation in elementary schools, child care programs and parenting classes. Bullying is generally not talked about as a problem for elementary aged children. Alarming recent findings of school children ages 5 - 12 report ongoing ridicule and taunting harassment requiring costly mental health and other pediatric services. Teasing, taunting or any form of ridicule is intolerable at any age. Too often, behaviors are excused—“boys will be boys,” “they can figure it out” or even worse the situation is ignored altogether. 

Surveyed elementary school children report major fears of being labeled fat or gay.  Yet, what do we expect a 7 year old that is called “fatty,” “faggot,” “retard” or “chocolate bar” to do? Kids at young ages whether they know what these words mean or not, have heard racial, religious and gender slurs, often used in a derogatory way. Repeating what they hear, young children may not realize how such name-calling can potentially cause internal angst and psychological impairment. The thinking on tattle telling and snitching needs to be quickly reversed. Dismissive comments said to young children—“toughen up,” “boys will be boys,” “no crying wolf,” “you’ll get through this”—are simply counterintuitive and counterproductive. Indifferent and unresponsive reactions perpetuate fear and deter kids at early ages from telling teachers or authorities. We must craft young upstanders. We must empower children at ages 7, 5, even 2. Brain development literature proves it is never too early. 

Starting early and building a nurturing school culture and community that embodies empathy and cultivates diversity is crucial. It is very easy to shrug off and say “I do that in my house,” and “my school has a counselor,” but further reflection may challenge you to think that even more can be done—better. Parents, teachers and principals must lead by example every day, not just at a one-time assembly, weekly counseling session or dinner conversation. In order for true change, the conversation must be regular, integrated and reoccurring starting in kindergarten and maybe never ending. We must all think about the things we say in front of children and how we say them.

This may sounds simple and obvious, but it requires new and intentional preparation. It requires increased public awareness and dialogue. Bullying must be treated similarly to that of mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect. More programs like the YWCA’s Anytown and Heritage Panel need to be embraced and incorporated into any establishment that works with younger populations.

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