By Kate Bachtel
Many among us have fantasized about a world where there is only one rule: “Be Kind.” We imagine a utopic society where everyone is held in a global embrace. Connection to others is immeasurably important, especially for outliers whose developmental uniqueness is socially isolating by definition. Arguably, feeling connected to community is the single most important predictor of healthy emotional development and achievement for gifted learners. As global citizens, each of us is tasked with creating more inclusive communities.
In schools, bullying is an important topic of conversation. Gifted learners can camouflage suffering or be manipulative – the child claiming they are being bullied could be engaging in relational aggression, and likewise, the student who says nothing, may be in desperate need of help. Furthermore, gifted children’s sensitivities and perfectionism can negatively influence how they interpret social exchanges. Recently, I supported a school through a situation where a parent was using bullying policy to bully another child. Fortunately, the school caught on. Teachers continued to support both children equally. When the mother did not get her way (sadly, she was set on being right – that the other child was found to be a “bully” even though there were no indicators of bullying behavior), she transitioned to a new school resulting in a healthier classroom community for those who remained. Name calling, including labeling someone a “bully” or “evil” whether at school, home or work is bullying behavior. The bullied becomes the bully, the oppressed the oppressor. To stop the cycle of violence, we must address the behavior rather than draw divisive lines that separate and perpetuate.
Individual and collective decisions shape culture, which in turn, influences cognitive development. I have been fortunate to co-create a few magical communities where diverse learners thrived. Synchronicity abounded. There is an art to balancing responsibilities with commensurate decision making authority. When obligations and authority are mismatched, and resources do not align with priorities, the system becomes imbalanced. Nature corrects with chaos. In this situation, injustices may spread like wildfire, the smoke signaling that destruction needs to occur before flowers can bloom again.
Inclusive communities proactively plan to prevent bullying; they recognize if harmful behavior is purposefully or selectively ignored, it can fuel a destructive blaze. Following are some ideas for cultivating healthy home, work and school environments.
The “B” Word: About Bullying
One way to prevent bullying behavior is to clearly define it. Stopbullying.gov describes bullying behavior among children as:
Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.
Workplace Bullying Institute defines bullying among adults as:
Workplace Bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:
• Verbal abuse
• Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating or intimidating
• Work interference – sabotage – which prevents work from getting done
Five Precautionary Measures:
• Adopt and publish communication practices and conflict resolution protocol. Consider crafting a communication manifesto – resolve to assume positive intent! Distinguish between conflict and bullying behavior. Conflict can be resolved with respectful communication and perspective taking. Is there acceptance of responsibility, expression of regret and a change in behavior? Then it’s not bullying. Additionally, tensions among individuals often highlight areas for growth. The Center for Nonviolent Communication has many wonderful resources to support dialogue (www.cnvc.org).
• Outline an investigation process and take all allegations of bullying behavior seriously. Identify and communicate consequences for bullying behavior, and also for submitting knowingly false accusations.
• Protect from retaliation. Limit interactions between individuals involved until the investigation is complete. The perpetrator of bullying behavior may try to stop the inquiry and injurious behavior may escalate. Gifted individuals can be particularly sensitive to perceived criticism; the fear of bad behavior being revealed may result in more egregious acts.
• Educate about bias. There are a variety of biases that impact human thinking and processing. Understanding the variety of factors influencing decision making supports just decision making.
• Celebrate upstanders. The Bully Project defines an upstander as “someone who recognizes something is wrong and acts to make it right.” Witnesses who do not take action are implicitly supporting and empowering bullying behavior.
The Virtual Paradox
Social media has enhanced our ability to connect with others. At the same time, the geographic distance makes it easier to bully as individuals do not experience the impact of their words on others. Individuals posting hateful words and lies online can often harm with impunity given the dearth of bullying legislation. There can also be incongruence between a person’s actions and stated beliefs. Partial data can mislead and images can deceive. The virtual world holds equal potential to empower and destroy.
The complexity of educating requires tolerance for ambiguity as we teach children to trust, while also protecting from harm. In healthy learning communities, sometimes separation is the only way to nurture inclusivity. When one child hits another, literally or metaphorically, the kind reply is a firm, “No.”
Looking to take action in your community? Here are a few resources you may be interested in:
• The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander by Barbara Coloroso
• Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change by Nick Cooney
From a family of educators, Kate Bachtel is a mother who has been teaching and studying education for as long as she can remember. She founded SoulSpark to support children and educators dedicated to accelerating positive social change. Kate is also a doctoral candidate in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in gifted at University of Denver. Prior to launching SoulSpark, Kate co-opened a K-8 school with a holistic vision for serving gifted and creative learners.