Summer programs have started at Toas Behavioral Health (TBH) and these 5 weeks will emphasize those behaviors that impact us life-long but are often not highlighted. The academic year is over—with all its frustrations and challenges and students can look forward to a fall with friends and teachers in their presence.
Now it is social/emotional learning that is practiced and rewarded—the skills that many employees declare are more important than any technical knowledge a person possesses. How do you communicate? How do you get along with others? How do you solve problems on a team? How do you express your emotions?
The students referred by parents and school personnel to the summer program all need support in building those skills. Even though recreation skills will be learned—these other learnings permeate all activities.
Now in a group setting, relationships with peers are practiced constantly. One of the presenting challenges can be bullying—for the victim, the onlookers, and the bully his or herself. One in 4 students nation-wide report being bullied in school and the highest incidence is in the middle school years. This experience can have life-long consequences for all three groups.
Victims who are subject to bullying on a continued basis show signs of depression, learn not to trust others and have a negative view of the world. Onlookers who did not intervene show depression, anxiety, and remorse. Depending on interventions used, bullies may stop their behavior, show shame, and sorrow or continue into a life-long pattern.
Clinicians dealing with TBH programs, and especially the instructors in Gang Resistance is Powerful (GRIP) report that youth often learn to bully in the family. A sibling may bully them, or they watch adults bully each other. Having learned those behaviors, they are automatic and changing takes deliberate intervention.
There are a number of myths around bullying—both who do it and how to stop. A few people believe that the bully is truly compensating for low self-esteem. The research does not support this except for a minor few with other contributing negatives. More often, the bully wants power over others, is impulsive and easily angered, is often popular with peers and critically– knows—or shows little empathy for others.
Victims often have some quality that causes them to stand out. Sometimes it may be shyness and withdrawal, anxiety, and school failure, or being of the non-dominant race, religion, culture, and sexual orientation. Some of these characteristics mean they often are not liked by peers and often by teachers.
Intervening with bullying takes deliberate system-wide actions. Schools need to accept the reality that a good part of their curriculum includes developing more effective social/emotional skills. These are the emphases of the national SEL network:
- Self Awareness (recognizing one’s own emotions and actions)
- Self-Management (learning how to stop or calm negative impulses)
- Social Awareness (observing others, recognizing positive and negative actions)
- Relationship Skills (learning how to communicate with and respect others)
- Responsible Decision-Making (Accepting responsibility for decisions and learning from mistakes)
In any setting, it is easy to make a one-time effort to address bullying: one training session for the adults, suspension for the youth, forcing a mediation between bullying and victim. These are not apt to build a caring community where everyone learns to be a “better person.”
The most critical of issue shown by bullies is their lack of empathy. Unless they are in an environment that discusses feelings and encourages positive honest expressions of reality with each other, this skill is hard to learn. Adults need to model empathy and concern for others and recognize those students who have reached out to help or comfort others.
Any continuous group session needs to jointly develop rules and discuss how to remind each member to follow them. A group that has agreed on “rules of engagement” and reminds each other to be caring and kind can demonstrate this skill. When someone violates them—the appropriate message from the adults is “How can we help you remember that rule? What ideas do you have?” Then individuals’ contributions are recognized, and greater awareness of other’s feelings can be nurtured.
Greater empathy is a key skill learned and reinforced in a social environment. TBH staff will be working deliberately on this skill during our summer program. We expect it to increase social emotional skills and reduce bullying.