Recent headlines of school shootings, violence and suicides express the concern the nation has in regard to the mental health of its youth. Childhood exposure to severe bullying, in particular, often is cited as the cause of serious long-term effects that ultimately can lead to anxiety, depression and suicide in adults.
No one is less concerned than Amanda Hamm and her corps of prevention specialists working their hardest to ensure that Kyrene kids learn about bullying, how to spot it, how to prevent it.
“The statistics on bullying are sobering”, says Hamm. Almost 30 percent of young people participate in bullying behaviors or are bullying victims. Every day, around 160,000 students do not attend school because they are afraid of being bullied. Young people who have been bullied are two to nine times likelier than their non-bullied peers to consider suicide.
National policymakers, school administrators and parents no longer consider bullying just a youthful rite of passage. Anti-bullying campaigns that came into play a few years ago are being re-examined, and schools are ramping up their efforts to help students and families.
Todd Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In, says:
“Suicides are still happening, and that’s not even mentioning the thousands of kids whose lives are destroyed or diminished—but not ended—by bullying.” It’s not enough to institute zero-tolerance policies against bullying. Parents and teachers are striving to teach all kids to not participate in or tolerate bullying behavior. In the Kyrene schools, Prevention Manager Hamm said the district utilizes myriad programs to help build personal social skills that all kids need.
“If you can get all students on the level of ‘bullying is not ok’ and to speak words of kindness, that reduces bullying on campus,” Hamm said. One example is “Rachel’s Challenge,” a program based on the life of Rachel Joy Scott, the first student killed in the Columbine massacre. All Kyrene middle schools participate in the program, which presents students with five challenges that train them to look for the best in others and choose positive influences. Another program, “Mix it Up Day,” is a national event in which students wear mismatched clothing and sit with different people at lunch.
“By mixing it up and sitting with people you don’t know, you make a personal connection and find things in common,” Hamm said. “This increases the social network of the school in a positive way.” For parents, Hamm advises starting young to develop empathy and emotional resiliency. “We need to teach skills immediately and not just to kids who need it,” Hamm said. “All kids need to know how to handle emotion and how to be kind. Empathy is a thinking skill, which means it’s learned. It’s not natural.”
There are several processes involved. Hamm passes these tips on to parents:
If you as a parent can recognize your child’s triggers, you can teach it to them. For older kids, do it at a time they are willing to talk. If you see your child come home upset, the child needs to talk. But some kids need processing time. That doesn’t mean you don’t talk about it; you just offer a time in the future to listen. “Talk to them about solutions and help them come up with their own solutions,” Hamm said. We have to give them skills to help themselves. You have to spur that thinking.”
Hamm advises talking to your kids every time an opportunity comes up, whether it’s prompted by something they’ve seen in daily life, movies or books. “Ask, ‘How did you feel?’ How do you think they felt?’ ‘Could you help your friend?’ “Just listen to your kids and ask more questions so that they talk instead of instantly providing the solution. They’ll find the solution. “There’s nothing more important to middle school kids than their social relationships. It’s a time you’re thinking about who you are as a person and so we need to help our kids emotionally using many situations.”