As a closing activity for workshops and trainings, I often ask participants to make a mantra out of the most important learning moment or strategy they will take from training. I challenge them to capture their mantra in seven words or less. A seemingly simple task on the surface, this activity encourages professionals to not only reflect on the entirety of their learning, but also to make their words matter. (Words matter, by the way, is a great mantra!)
While I soak in as much Summer as I can before the 2016-17 school year begins, I am thinking about my own mantras of School Counseling--the most important things I can offer my students to make them each feel heard, understood, safe, and valued. What follows are my Bullying Prevention mantras (along with their slightly longer explanations.)
In One Word: EMPATHIZE
Bullying is a purposeful act of cruelty. Kids who bully show a lack empathy for the feelings and experiences of their targets. Parents and professionals play a key role in cultivating empathy in all kids, especially those who are most likely to get caught up in moments of social whack-a-mole, knocking others down just to pull themselves up the school social ladder.
In Two Words: WORDS MATTER
Okay, I already previewed this one, didn't I? At my elementary school, many of the students call me Queen Signe. Some of them do it because they like to be silly and others do it just for fun but most of the kiddos I work with use this term because our comprehensive, Every Action/Every Day Bullying Prevention strategy means that we are always talking about the fact that words matter. The way we speak to each other, including the names we use and the words we choose, all have a huge impact on how we feel about ourselves and how we enjoy our time at school.
Important point: The same applies to how we communicate through technology. Teach kids that the words they text, tweet, send, and post should be used with the same amount of care as the words that they say to someone in person.
In Three Words: LOOK BEYOND BEHAVIOR
This is perhaps my most-used mantra. It applies to Bullying Prevention, but also to just about every troubling interaction with a young person. When a child acts out, instead of seeking to instantaneously squash the behavior with a rote punishment, make time to talk to the child (better yet, to listen to the child!). Find out about the prior events, thoughts and feelings that drove the acting-out behaviors. Most of the time, there's a whole lot more to the story than just the surface behavior. When adults are willing to take the time to make a child feel heard and understood, trust develops and a problem situation can become a learning opportunity.
In Four Words: HURT PEOPLE HURT PEOPLE
While it is so easy, so efficient, and often so tempting to label a child who bullies as a "bad kid" or "problem student," the less convenient truth is that the kids who act out in cruel, non-empathic ways are often the kids who need kindness and empathy the most. Hurt people hurt people; when we look beyond behavior (see how useful that three-word mantra is?), we can find compassion for the pain that may be driving a child's cruel behavior.
Am I suggesting that kids with painful life experiences should be excused for their bad behavior? Of course not. Kids who are held accountable for behavior learn better ways to behave. Yet finding compassion for the pain that drives bully behavior can lead adults to reach out to kids in ways that are effective in stopping future bullying, such as teaching kids empathy for their targets, helping them resolve conflicts fairly, and helping hurting young people make better choices for expressing their pain.
In Five Words: BE KNOWN FOR BEING KIND
A fun, right-brained activity I like to do with students is to challenge them to create their own personal slogans. Much like a mantra (although I don't give them a word limit), I ask them this question: What do you want to be known for? We talk about famous people and heroes and then we identify the behaviors that each of these figures is known for. After that, kids get to design their own T-shirt or bumper sticker that features the slogan and traits they'd like to be known for. My favorite T-shirt ever: the one that said proudly, Be Known for Being Kind.
In Six Words: BE A DUCK, NOT A SPONGE
It's no secret that kids can be cruel. Sometimes, their words and actions--or even their silence--can feel an awful lot like a cold bucket of water being dumped on our heads. When this happens, I tell kids that they have two choices:
1. They can act like a sponge that absorbs the hurt and becomes weighed down.
2. They can act like a duck and let hurtful behaviors roll right off of their backs.
Young people who are able to let their feathers remain unruffled tend to fare best when coping with kids who bully because their calm, cool responses make bullying boring. When a child who bullies fails at controlling the emotional responses of "ducks," his needs for social power and dominance are unmet. He quickly realizes this particular "duck" is a poor target and stops his aggressive pursuit.
In Seven Words: SMALL KINDNESSES CAN MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE
The good news about bringing an end to bullying in schools and communities is that the smallest acts of kindness can bring about the biggest changes in the daily lives of kids who are bullied. While lawmakers and administrators tend to focus on policies and procedures, the truth is that real change is what happens person to person and heart to heart. A genuine smile, a well-timed text, a hello in the hallway, a reassuring hug, an invitation to hang out, and a simple, "I saw what he said to you and that was totally not cool" can be the very best way to let a person who is bullied know that they are not alone.
What is your mantra for bringing an end to bullying--in seven words or less?
Signe Whitson is a Certified School Social Work Specialist, national educator on Bullying Prevention, and author of six books, including the upcoming 8 Keys to End Bullying Activity Program, coming Fall 2016. For workshop inquiries or other information, please visit www.signewhitson.com, follow Signe on Twitter @SigneWhitson, or find her on Facebook.