In Conversation With…features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a staff member of the Kentucky School Advocate.
This month’s conversation is with Kaye Randall, a licensed clinical social worker and author of several books aimed at helping children, including Mean Girls: 101 1/2 Creative Strategies and Activities for Working with Relational Aggression. Randall was one of the keynote speakers at the inaugural Bullying Prevention Symposium last month, co-sponsored by KSBA. In this interview conducted before the symposium, Randall discusses the culture of bullying among today’s youth and what educators and parents can do to help kids through these difficult times.
Q. Bullying is something that has long been considered a rite of passage for most kids who go through school, but in recent years there has been a big push to change that. Why do you think this problem is finally getting the attention it deserves?
A. Unfortunately, whenever there is a tragedy, national attention is focused on it and we’ve had different situations where students who have been bullied commit suicide and it brings attention to that issue. It certainly shouldn’t have taken that, but at least at this point there is more national attention on it.
Also, with technology, word gets around much more quickly that there’s an issue, there’s a problem. And we can talk about technology and the advent of that has increased bullying, but at the same time it has the ability to solve a lot of issues, too.
Q. That’s interesting. We always hear how technology has become such a conduit for bullying. How can it help this situation?
A. Bringing awareness, attention to the issue. People are starting groups, like the “It Gets Better” campaign, after (Rutgers University student) Tyler Clementi committed suicide.
Schools around the country are creating their own video projects, anti-bullying public service announcements and they’re uploading them on YouTube so other schools can access them, so people like me can access them. So there’s a lot of amazing uses for social media that can be used to combat the problems that we have in our society. We just need to train our children to look that way at media, at technology in order to help and make a difference and not hurt.
In addition, I think people really are beginning to see and understand the impact that it’s having on students and how it’s affecting not only their social/emotional health, but also the school’s, the school environment, test scores, how it’s all tied together.
Q. On the other side of that, social media is playing a huge role in what seems to be an increase in bullying. What are some steps educators can take to educate about and prevent a problem that often takes place outside of school but definitely reverberates in the classroom?
A. I think the biggest thing is to empower parents, to help parents understand that they don’t have to be smarter than their child when it comes to technology in order to be responsible for their child when it comes to technology.
That would be the biggest thing, educating parents to make sure their children aren’t engaging in unsafe behavior, making sure they are engaging in respectful behavior. One of the ways that they can do that, there is software out there that can track what your child is doing on their computer. It can give parents an edge because they can see, ‘OK, my child is being respectful and respected,’ or, ‘Oh, my gosh, my child is being bullied or is engaging in bullying behavior,’ because they’ll be able to see the instant messaging conversations, they’ll be able to see what the online behavior is because they’re watching it.
There’s only so much schools can do. You can educate, you can help empower the kids. Teach them that if they’re part of a conversation that is starting to go south, (sign) out, don’t engage. Giving them the tips and tools to use for social responsibility online.
Q. Does bullying through social media affect girls more than boys? In other words, is it used as a bullying weapon of choice for one gender more than the other, and if so, why?
A. I would say it affects girls more because they seem to be the target more often than boys. Girls tend to engage more often in bullying behaviors online than boys do. Girls at a young age are geared toward the relational connection, whatever that might look like. They are more socially connected and more social than are boys, because that is just a different need that girls have.
You may talk to some boys who say, ‘Gosh, I haven’t checked my Facebook in a month.’ But if you ask a girl, ‘I check it three or four times a day.’ They don’t want to miss out on anything, they don’t want to be left out of anything, they have to be in the know.
It’s about empowering the parents to be responsible for what their child is doing. It’s also about empowering the students because sometimes they’ll get caught in this quicksand of an IM conversation and get so hurt and not even realize that they’re getting twisted in the quicksand.
Q. Boys and girls bully in different ways. How are bullying prevention strategies aimed at girls different from those for boys? Or are they?
A. There are a lot that are the same, but where it diverges is, boys are more physical in their aggression, in their bullying tactics. Sure they do the name calling and all of that, but they tend toward the more physical aspects of bullying. Girls are more stealth-like, everything is kind of on the DL (down low) and they learn at an early age how to use their words, how to wound.
Girls’ language centers develop more quickly than boys’, so they learn to use their words and how to either manipulate a situation, how to protect themselves or how to survive. So for girls, it does look different and that informs treatment and strategy and intervention.
When you’re talking to girls, what’s so important is to get them to see each other as girls, as the female gender, as a sisterhood and really connect from the heart rather than the superficial competitiveness that seems to permeate this generation. It’s not all girls, but as a general thing, I do see a lot of things like that.
Q. Is it tougher to address girl-on-girl bullying than boy-on-boy bullying?
A. Yes. One of the reasons is, boys get in an argument or fight, they deal with it and are done. Girls hold grudges. They are a little resistant. And part of it with girls, it’s all relational. They live it every day. It’s not necessarily one instant that you have to react to; it could be a look, it could be an attitude stance, a heavy sigh and all of a sudden you are off to the races because you are feeling that disrespect.
Q. What do educators need to be aware of, on the lookout for before these things escalate?
A. I think they need to watch groups in general. You kind of know who’s in what group and tune in to what the kids are saying, tune into what’s going on in what I call the front line kind of stuff.
One of the biggest things to really help with this issue is create opportunities for connections and leadership. There are a lot of things that kids need that they’re not getting and one of them is real leadership skills. I would say that every child is a leader; they just lead in different ways, so we need to encourage and enhance their leadership skills.
The other thing that I think is so important that I hope schools will focus on as much as on bullying is emotional literacy. Because these are digital natives, they are losing the ability to effectively communicate, to effectively process their feelings and emotions. They’re losing the ability to identify what those feelings are, so when they have a feeling – they are angry, they’re hurt, they’re upset – they just react. It could be with retaliation, it could be with withdrawing instead of processing and dealing with it.
Q. Statistics show that lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual students are often more likely to face bullying and harassment. Given the controversy this topic often evokes in communities, have you found any strategies or approaches that schools can use?
A. Teaching awareness, and I hate to use this phrase because it’s so old, but teaching tolerance. For some students and some families, I think they think that, if I accept the person, I accept the behavior. You don’t necessarily have to agree with someone’s behavior in order to accept the person. I think that trips some people up because I think we all get to be accepted as human beings because we should all get to live our lives.
Sometimes schools get so caught up in being politically correct that it’s damaging to all students. I think a common sense approach is what works. You don’t name call, you don’t insult; we all get to be free from that in this learning environment regardless of your sexual orientation, regardless of your gender. We get to be free to learn and free to grow and express who we are in the world. It’s for everyone in the school and the focus can be: Where are we different that could be potential triggers for someone to get bullied? Those are the kinds of things that come up.
Q. You travel all over the country, speaking with students and educators. What are some of the best success stories you have witnessed?
A. One of the places where I had spoken, this young man, after listening about bullying behaviors and focusing on do you see yourself in any of these behaviors, he came up to me and said, ‘I’m the bully of my school and from this point forward I’m going to commit to you that I’m never going to bully again.’ I asked him if I could check back and keep tabs on him through his school counselor and I did. She said he had turned out to be an amazing leader in the school. That he really stands up for those who are being bullied, he watches out for those who are being targeted and because people were scared of him before, now with this new leadership they’re really listening to him. It was because of the conversations we have with students; you need to look at your behaviors and the impact your behaviors can have on another human being.
That’s just one of I can’t tell you how many success stories I’ve seen.