“My child is being bullied.”

Part of our job as educators is to help parents navigate that statement. Many times, parents and guardians will report that their child is being bullied at school or at an activity. However, what is often happening is not bullying. That’s not to say that bad things aren’t happening or that a child’s upset feelings are unfounded—quite the opposite. But it’s important to distinguish what is happening.

How do you know if your child is being bullied? According to the National Centre Against Bullying and the American Counseling Association, bullying is occurring when the following three things happen:

  • There is a power differential, observed or perceived; this could be because of age, size or the number of children involved (a 3-1 ratio, for example).

  • The behavior is targeted and intentional, and is unwanted. It causes harm to another who feels helpless to respond.

  • The behavior is repetitive, often occurring on a daily basis or even many times within a day.

When bullying is happening, it’s important to document what has occurred, whether the actions are online or in person. Bullying among children is often hidden from adults; swift, decisive steps must be taken to stop the behaviors. Everything that you can provide to your child’s school will help the teachers and administration in their investigation and handling of the behavior.

So, if a behavior is unkind and is causing hurt feelings, but is not considered bullying, what is it? In many instances, children are likely trying to figure out social dynamics and their place in their peer groups. On the playground and in the lunchroom, children are trying out different approaches to getting what they want with their peers or from an interaction. A child may share a secret and betray a trust to impress others. Children feel frustrated when others do not want to join their game or let them control the activity. They may say a variety of things, such as “I won’t be your friend anymore if you don’t …” or “I’m not inviting you to my birthday party if you don’t …” and these statements can feel overwhelming and unkind to the receiver. Though steps must also be taken in those instances to help children understand their choices and the ramifications of their actions on others, it’s important not to label a child a bully for unkind, mean or thoughtless behavior. That label is harmful and is not easily lifted once it is placed.

Kids learn all about academics inside the classroom, but the learning that happens outside on a playground is powerful. Just about everything we will encounter in life is first handled in that setting. Children learn that being nice and treating people with kindness is the best way to make friends; unfortunately, that can also be learned when they find out how it feels to be excluded. Children learn about the power of their words and how they can use their words to help or to hurt. They take social risks while learning how to make and keep friends and how to stand up for themselves in positive ways. Educators spend a large amount of time each day helping children navigate through social missteps.

At Sun Valley Community School, when we revisit a conflict between children, we use the “three gates” taught through the Flourish Foundation’s Mindful Awareness program: “Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?” Often something said is unkind, but also true, so we spend a lot of time on the idea of necessity. Was it necessary to say it? Was it necessary to do it? Even though it may be true, it was unkind, so it wasn’t necessary to go forward. We carefully work backward through each action and word, talking about what could have been done differently at each step in the conflict or misunderstanding. Where could children have made a different choice, helping to de-escalate a situation rather that escalate it? What can they do to make amends and repair the damage done? We take each conflict as an opportunity to learn and to grow, strengthening our relationships with each other.

Janet Salvoni is the elementary school head for the Sun Valley Community School.

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