Director's Corner: On Bullying and Power

Bullying evokes persecution, intimidation, coercion, exclusion, threat, fear, repeated acts of physical or psychological aggression, verbal or nonverbal abuse, perception of superior power, and intent to hurt. Bullying is so totally at odds with the Magnolia Path (Show Respect, Work Together, Keep Trying, Do Your Best) that it may seem that a discussion of the topic hardly belongs to this column. Yet it is worth reminding ourselves of what bullying is, so we remember what it is not. The build of a football player and a taste for physical contact does not make a child a bully. Key words are "repeated," "intent" and "power." Bullying is a behavioral pattern.

Teachers can always miss an isolated unkind behavior, but they do not miss patterns, whether in their classrooms or on the playground. Thanks to our small size and mixed-aged activities, all the teachers know all the students soon after school starts, and they are soon aware of individual personalities and dynamics among various groups. Should we become concerned with a behavioral pattern involving your child, we will contact you. Conversely, should your child come home complaining of a hurtful incident, by all means do contact us, but please do not jump to conclusions. Let us investigate and report back to you.

Children do experiment with the notions of power and status. At two or three years of age (the terrible twos), without being aware of what they are doing, they literally set up psychological experiments to find out how they can get their caregiver to do what they want and what they can get away with. Their experiments continue at school, now involving their peers.

We see bossiness and manipulations among front roomers, harassment of older students by younger ones, exclusion and competitions of strength or speed or wit. Such behaviors may not sound desirable, but they are developmentally normal and they carry important lessons for all. So whether or not a given interaction needs to be stopped, discussed on the spot, or reported to the family, is assessed by the observing teacher.

Factors in the teacher's decision are the existence of a pattern or lack thereof, the intent, the sensitivity and degree of maturity of the children involved, and their physical and mental safety. It can be more productive not to make a big deal of certain behaviors as they occur, choosing instead to discuss them at a different time, such as in the context of our social curriculum, when children can reflect without feeling judged.

Through their experimenting (and the obsession most of our boys have with superpowers), children look for their own power, what they are good at. That is a very important part of social-emotional development, and actually a component of bullying prevention, as both bullies and their targets often share a feeling of insecurity, low self-esteem and low confidence. Empowering a child who shows bullying tendencies is often the best way to eliminate the tendency.