The start of school means different things to different kids, but for a lot it means fear. Ninety percent of elementary-school children said they had been bullied or victimized in the last year, researchers reported in the April issue of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.
The study involved just 300 children in third through sixth grades at three schools in California and Arizona. Still, I was astounded by the findings, and called a friend, an elementary-school counselor in Mount Laurel. She said those numbers were pretty consistent with what kids in her school would say, but cautioned that children often label as “bullying” what adults would not – calling a classmate a derogatory name, for example, or intentionally annoying another student and then pretending not to hear his request to cut it out.
We know repeated bullying can leave lifelong scars. Shy children may become withdrawn; some targets of bullying will be at higher risk for depression and anxiety for the rest of their lives. And we know bullies, too, tend to be anxious and insecure. While some children deal with their insecurities by withdrawing, bullies do so by aggressing.
No parent wants to leave his child open to attack. When my daughter told me she was bullied on the bus to elementary school, I called every number in the book to make sure this girl was punished and kept away from my child.
That was 25 years ago, and the girl I wanted punished was 9. I was so angry that her age didn’t sink in: She was a little girl like my daughter. I don’t know if she was punished, but if she was, I know now it probably didn’t help. Punishment, including zero tolerance policies, interrupts behavior but does not resolve the original conflict.
Punishing the bully might give the hurt child a temporary sense of relief, but it denies both an opportunity for healing. Conflict is unavoidable. How it gets resolved is critical.
My counselor-friend told me that a number of elementary schools around the country have begun starting the day with meetings where a group of children can simply talk in a relaxed setting. They are taught to listen carefully and respectfully. When there is conflict, each child airs his feelings while the larger group discusses the conflict.
Other schools have successfully implemented a program called restorative justice. Like Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s truth and reconciliation hearings in South Africa, restorative justice brings both parties together in front of a group. The aggressor listens as the victim explains how and why she was hurt. This gives the person who caused the pain a chance to understand and take responsibility. It also gives the injured party an opportunity to forgive. Being heard by the group, then having the option to forgive is empowering as well as healing.
Research shows restorative justice leads to reconciliation – and real behavior change. There is evidence, even, that the process can have a healing effect on a larger community. Just ask Archbishop Tutu.