by Kelly Welsh '05 (M.A.)
A lucky few get through childhood and adolescence without dealing, at some point, with bullying. The National Education Association estimates that every day, 60,000 children miss school due to fear of an attack or intimidation. The problem is age-old, but more pervasive than ever with the rise of new technology. Whether children are the bully or the bullied, the repercussions can be great. Sally Kuykendall, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of health services, has culminated a decade of research on the topic in a book aimed at exposing the causes and implications of bullying, as well as identifying novel strategies to combat this behavior.
Appropriately titled Bullying (ABC-CLIO), the book offers a unique perspective by presenting the topic as a medical issue, and examining different dimensions of physical, emotional, intellectual, social and spiritual health.
“Our society tends to focus on physical health,” says Kuykendall. “But all the dimensions of health are interrelated. Spiritual health, for instance, refers to our ability to connect with the nonmaterial world around us. When a victim of bullying is so focused on the attacks that he or she can no longer appreciate nature, art, music, and connections with a higher being, emotional health deteriorates.”
The book advocates for greater responsibility on the part of schools and communities to foster children’s emotional well-being. It encourages finding health-enhancing activities for victims that can counterbalance the social and emotional damage caused by bullying.
“There are many things kids can do to protect against bullying,” Kuykendall says. “Joining youth clubs is a good way to learn appropriate social behavior and release frustrations. Developing a skill or talent helps kids to feel valued by society.”
Kuykendall’s nursing background and prior research experience made her an ideal candidate to serve as the program evaluator of a Philadelphia Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) study on the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program and its implementation in area schools. The Olweus Program began in Norway in the early 70s after several very young children, victims of bullying, committed suicide. The program is a multilevel, multicomponent school-based initative. The experience took Kuykendall into school lunches and recesses where for more than nine years, she observed different behaviors.
Kuykendall stresses the role that adults play in addressing bully behaviors. “Adults must recognize that children are still learning social skills,” she says. “We do not punish children for spelling errors or math mistakes, so why do we punish them for social mistakes? Most bullies are just trying to figure out what they can get away with. When adults set respectful limits, they teach social skills to the bully and the bystanders.”
Support from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, a Saint Joseph’s University Summer Research Grant and another from the University’s Institute of Catholic Bioethics helped advance Kuykendall’s studies over the years. The act of writing the book helped Kuykendall put her body of work in larger perspective.
“I would like to see some truth-telling, some admission that the way things used to be is wrong,” Kuykendall says when asked what she hopes the book will accomplish. “There are many adults who have been bullied, hurt, while authorities stood by and watched, or worse yet, joined in the bullying. I would like the book to trigger a national movement that recognizes the hurt caused by bullying, understands the feelings of social isolation and rejection that occur when bystanders refuse to help victims, seeks forgiveness of past victims and develops strategies to help future generations to succeed.”
Strategies for Victims
- Don’t fight back. Bullies are manipulative and will persuade adults that you are to blame. Victims who fight back may get suspended, expelled or face criminal charges. Instead, tell an adult and keep telling different adults until the bullying stops.
Take simple steps to remove yourself from risk. Sit near the front of the bus, avoid areas where adults are not supervising, and stay near friends who will help you.
- Bullies think that victims are weak. Victims are not weak. They are simply more thoughtful, kind and considerate than others. These traits are strengths. Show your strength in positive ways, such as being a friend to others who are bullied.
Strategies for Adults
- Do not use bullying to stop bullying. Bullying a bully only teaches the bully and bystanders to be bigger and meaner. Suspension and expulsion are forms of social exclusion and model how to reject people or things that we do not like. The goal is to teach the bully how to accept (not reject) others.
Show children the attributes of a true leader, not a bully. Recognize societal power sources and model the appropriate use of power.
- Get the victim to a safe place. Gather details, ask for the victim’s input in how the situation is handled, form a safety plan, communicate the problem to other adults, and keep an eye out for further abuse.
Discourage aggression by providing a safe learning environment. Do not allow any adult to carry a gun in school. The presence of guns in schools sends the message to kids that it is okay to bring a gun to school.
- Be on the lookout for warning signs. Kids who are bullied are lonely, often afraid to ride the bus or leave school, complain of headaches and stomachaches, and have trouble sleeping. If you suspect bullying, ask.