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Ganging Up on Bullying
Researchers: Taunting Can End When Adults Step In

http://npr.org/programs/morning/features/2002/oct/bullies/index.html audio icon

Bullying S.O.S.

The least effective strategy with bullies is leaving kids to deal with the problem themselves. Education and health experts say parents and teachers must step in. And don't count on a bullying victim to come forth. The child may fear retaliation, or feel guilty about "tattling." Signs parents can look for:

Coming home from school with torn, damaged or missing clothing, books or belongings.

Unexplained injuries such as bruises, cuts and scratches.

Complains of headaches or stomachaches, especially before school.

Doesn't bring friends home from school or seems isolated from other children.

Appears fearful about walking to or attending school, or riding the bus.

Chooses a longer or unusual route to school.

Asks for or takes extra money from family members.

Appears anxious, distressed, unhappy, depressed or tearful before or after school.

Loses interest in school work and shows a decline in academic performance.

What Parents Can Do

Encourage your child to share problems with you. Characterize the exchange as "reporting" -- not "tattling."

Praise your child for accomplishments and differences. A confident child is less likely to be targeted by bullies.

Help your child make friends. Arrange play dates with other kids or encourage your child to join groups, clubs or take lessons.

Talk about strategies for dealing with the bully. Practicing scenarios with your child could help build confidence.

Work with other parents to keep an eye out for bullying in the neighborhood.

Find out whether monitoring at school is adequate.

Ask for a conference with school administrators and the bully's parents.

Source: The Colorado Anti-Bullying Project

Oct. 3, 2002 -- Bullying used to be considered an unfortunate rite of passage that was best left to kids to work out. But ever since a report by the U.S. Secret Service linked student shootings to bullying, schools and parents have taken the issue much more seriously, and are looking to social development experts for help. What they're finding, however, is that in the United States, researchers are only just beginning to unravel why and how kids bully. For Morning Edition, NPR's Vicky Que reports on what researchers have discovered so far.

Bullying is widespread in America, according to a recent study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The NICHD survey of more than 15,000 U.S. schoolchildren found that 16 percent said they had been bullied by other kids.

And other studies suggest the abuse starts right at the beginning of the school year as bullies engage in a sorting-out process, where they test the reactions of children to being hit, bit, kicked or threatened.

Gary Ladd, a psychologist at Arizona State University, has been tracking a group of 500 children for eight years, starting in kindergarten. By the third month of school, he says, the bullies have figured out who they are going to pick on:

"Children who are emitting a kind of anxious vulnerability have fearful looks on their faces -- sort of a deer in the headlights kind of look," says Ladd. That's a sign to bullies that those kids might be easy prey.

Among young children, the aggression is usually physical. But Dr. Dorothy Espelage of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has discovered they've also learned to make verbal attacks.

"What we're finding is that kids are starting to tease and taunt at younger ages," says Espelage. "And it's not necessarily the physical aggression that we have seen for many years."

Researchers say they don't know why the abuse is becoming more verbal. Espelage suspects that it's related to a growing trend among parents: arranging playdates.

"One hypothesis might be that the reliance of parents on play dates ... is sending this message that if you're not in this particular playdate you're being excluded," she says.

Researchers consider excluding other children from play a form of bullying.

Espelage has spent the last seven years interviewing elementary and middle-school children in Illinois about social cliques and bullying.

It's usually several children who are involved in the bullying, she says.

"Over and over again, when we talked to students this idea came out that in fact kids bully in late elementary school and middle school to be cool, to fit in, to be part of the group, to go along with the crowd." Many bullies admitted that they ganged up with friends to tease other kids.

Dr. Arthur Horne, a professor of psychology and student counseling at the University of Georgia, helped design a teacher-training program called "Bully Busters." It calls on teachers to be fair and more aware. But bullying usually occurs in hallways, bathrooms and the school bus -- places where teachers won't see. He suggests teachers conduct surveys and have drop boxes where students can write about problems they're having.

Parents have an active role to play, too, say researchers. Parents can organize a neighborhood watch to keep an eye out for bullies close to home.

If their own child is the victim, they can act out scenarios and develop strategies to deflate bullies.

Horne also recommends that parents should help children make one or two good friends. Research shows, says Horne, that "bullies don't pick on people who have a support system."