As psychologist Stephen Leff tells it, solutions to bullying in schools start at home.
Leff, co-director of the Violence Prevention Initiative at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, spoke during an anti-bullying workshop at District headquarters Monday. The workshop provided parents with practical tips and information on how to recognize bullying, support children who have been bullied, and work with schools in dealing with this issue.
“If you take one thing away from here today, it’s communicating with your kids," said Leff, also an associate professor of clinical psychology in pediatrics at CHOP. "The most important thing is to know what really happened [in school].”
Leff spoke before some 50 parents and District personnel at the workshop, which coincides with National Bullying Prevention Month. The issues tackled at the workshop included:
- How to differentiate between a conflict and a real bullying incident. The main difference is that conflicts aren’t premeditated.
- How to sense when your child has been bullied even if he or she isn’t talking about it.
- Why your child may not confide in you.
- How to deal with bullying incidents as a parent. Addressing an incident with the school is the correct approach as opposed to approaching the bully’s parents.
Leff estimates that 20 to 30 percent of students are involved in bullying incidents, either as the perpetrator or victim. In most cases, he said, it happens on playgrounds, in lunchrooms, in hallways, or anywhere supervision is minimal. In classrooms, it most often occurs when there is a substitute teacher.
Not surprisingly, Leff said that cyberbullying – more common with girls than with boys – has become a major problem over the past five or six years.
“What scares me is that cyber victims often don’t tell anyone,” he said.
Even scarier was research indicating that a victim of cyberbullying, which is usually directed at one’s reputation, is eight times as likely to carry a weapon to school as the average student.
There are signs that parents should look for when trying to determine if their child is being bullied. Leff said that they include:
- Changes in eating or sleeping habits
- Headaches or stomach aches
- Complaints about lunch or recess
- Unexplained bruises or injuries
Leff and CHOP social worker Wanda Moore explained that once parents know that their child has been bullied, the best solution is to stay calm and get the facts. But this often isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Children are afraid of being labeled “snitches,” Leff said, and may fear that parents will overreact and make the situation worse. Since many bullies are popular and influential within their peer group, blowing the whistle on them could aggravate the situation. Leff also stressed the role that bystanders can play in a bullying incident, noting that they can make a bully more or less likely to continue his behavior by their reactions to that behavior.
The CHOP Violence Prevention Initiative is now running programs in four District schools: Girard Elementary, Childs, Penrose, and Hamilton.
For more information about bullying, visit the Violence Prevention Initiative page on the CHOP website. Parents should also report any bullying incidents to the school principal or adult staff member. More information is available on the District’s Student Support Services page.
This story is part of a continuing series by the Notebook on student behavioral health, with support from the Van Ameringen Foundation.Contact reporter Paul Jablow with your ideas and feedback. He would like to hear about your experiences with the system: where it has succeeded, where it needs improvement, and what you would like to read more about on this topic.