Bullying. Just say the word, and most people have a story to tell. Bullying always leaves its mark. For some that mark may be small and insignificant, but for others it can be a huge scar that twists the psyche. Bullying is a form of abuse that has received considerable attention lately, and it’s an important issue for Sunday school leaders. When churches and their ministry leaders ignore this problem because they’re convinced that bullying doesn’t happen in Christian communities, they’re hiding their heads in the sand. Bullying happens everywhere children gather.
Bullying and its effects will hamper your efforts to build community with God, with fellow learners and leaders, and with families. It is neither a normal “rite of passage” nor a challenge that will make kids stronger (or “tougher”) in the end. Repeated incidents often become pivotal memories in the faith journey of bullied children. The results can be especially harmful when such behavior happens at church.
Although adults in charge of children’s programs believe they intervene and resolve most incidents of bullying, kids beg to differ. In one study, 70 percent of teachers but only 25 percent of students said adults, “almost always” intervene to stop bullying (“Bullying at School,” Education Canada). Children are generally afraid to report bullying because they believe they shouldn’t be “ratting” on their classmates. Instead they often withdraw from the unhappy situation. It’s possible that some kids who have quit coming to your program have dropped out for this reason.
So what can you do to ensure that bullying doesn’t happen on your watch? Here are some pointers gathered from organizations that have studied the issue of bullying and its effect on kids:
- Create a climate of openness: talk openly about bullying; tell children that you will listen and take action if they tell you about instances of bullying.
- Enlist children’s cooperation in putting together a list of rules to make your classroom a “no-bully zone.”
- Ensure that there is always adequate supervision in hallways, restrooms and other places where children gather.
Creating a healing environment:
- Bullies need to be held accountable follow the three R’s: Restitution (paying for a broken toy, giving back extorted money, apologizing for malicious words); Resolution (figuring out a way to keep it from happening again such as counting to ten when the child is angry, or recognizing the stimulus that caused the bullying behavior and deciding on a better coping mechanism); Reconciliation: (finding a way to heal the broken relationship).
- Check out any resources your church offers that can help hurt kids recover; bullied children need a place to tell their stories and help in putting the incidents behind them. Bullies need healing too. Often these children are victims themselves, and have been taught poor ways of relating to others.
Studies show that empathy is the antidote to bullying. When we begin to identify with poor, hurting, and disadvantaged people, we learn healthy, Christ-like ways of relating that bring hope instead of fear. Here are ways to nurture empathy in your kids:
- Practice positive discipline: help bullies identify when they have done wrong and take ownership of the problem; help them develop a process for solving the problem while leaving their dignity intact.
- Spotlight feelings. Questions about feelings can be a part of every session; encourage children to imagine the feelings of the Bible characters or to voice their own feelings about stories they hear or events they experience. Teachers and leaders should not feel as though they need to “fix” feelings as soon as they are expressed; allow children to be honest and help them work through to the positives.
- Role play is an excellent strategy that helps kids identify with the feelings and ideas of others. A word of caution: lead up to role plays by talking with the group, describing the scenario to be dramatized. (For example: “One of the characters in this role play has been tripped in the hallway. What might he be thinking as he gets up off the floor?) Once children are into imagining the scenario, assign roles and proceed.
- Encourage journaling or writing exercises that focus on another person’s perspective: What did the little boy who gave his lunch to Jesus tell his mom when he came home?
- Teach about real-life people who model empathy, and how this empathy resulted in great things: Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Plan service projects, especially hands-on work with people who have a disability or who live in poverty. Often bullies believe they are entitled to whatever they wish; working for others and learning about their lives often teaches new attitudes.
- Invite kids to practice empathic reactions: present a hypothetical situation a child might encounter (a friend’s parents have divorced or a grandpa is dying). Ask questions like these: How is he or she feeling about it? What could I do in response?
- Praise positive behavior: watch for examples of kids being kind and loving to each other and reinforce that behavior!
- Provide opportunities for fellowship and friendships: parties, celebrations, projects, eating together, pen-pal relationships, and other activities offer warm and nurturing antidotes to negative experiences and may go a long way toward filling up empty places in a bully’s life.
Have you talked with your group about bullying?