Principal John DiNicola of William H. Ross Elementary School is a veteran in character education.  He had this to say about helping his students deal with bullying:

Just as important as reading, writing, and arithmetic is how we treat each other as people.  At an elementary school, educators see first-hand that empathy is a character trait that has yet to be fully developed in young children.

Bullying has become a major concern as we head into this school year. New legislation and the required establishment of clearly-defined procedures and timelines for addressing complaints will now be a part of school life in 2011.

Although schools have preached the gospel of positive behavior for a long time,  their efforts have not  eradicated the problem. The truth is that there have always been and always will be mean people in the world.  At a recent workshop I attended on suicide prevention, the speaker opened my eyes to an area that most anti-bullying and character education programs seem to overlook. Most of the aforementioned programs focus on positive behavior toward each other, in other words – the potential bullies. The Clique In Valuing Positive Behavior Program is different.  It not only focuses on behaviors that will reform bullying, it helps all students create the building blocks needed to cope with challenges.

While changing bullying behaviors are a necessary component of any anti-bullying strategy, when one looks at the young people who have committed single acts of horrific violence in schools (Columbine, etc.) or have committed (or attempted to commit) suicide, we see that the victims of bullies need training and assistance. I have since come to the conclusion that better coping skills should not be ignored in any anti-bullying or character education program.

In many of my character education assemblies, I make the point clear to even the youngest of my students that no matter how hard they may try to be nice to other people, someone may still be out there being mean to them.   I teach them their first line of defense to teasing:  Say “So what” and walk away. I practice with them by putting them down in different ways (“You’re ugly.” You’re fat.” “I have better clothes than you.” “I have more toys than you have.”), and they all respond by yelling back at me, “SO WHAT!” I also teach them that they can confuse young bullies by laughing.  While the “so what” approach may work in some instances, it isn’t always an option (physical bullying, social bullying, cyber bullying).  Bullying behaviors can be pervasive and persistent and it is therefore  important that we develop youth coping skills sufficient to deal with the problem.

My main lesson in all this is to promote more positive feelings of self respect. Self-esteem building is very important, but I don’t think that alone prepares children for adversity.  The Clique In approach develops skills and assets needed for youth self respect by encouraging students’ uniqueness, individual talent and capability through service.

When a young person learns to respect him or herself, it makes it easier to put the negative behaviors of others in perspective. When I was a high school teacher I encouraged students to get involved in activities that made them feel happy and fulfilled.  Clique In is working with all students to ensure they have that opportunity.

Having respect for oneself is the first step in respecting others. Our students are always told that they do not have to like everyone, but they must respect everyone. I believe this is an extremely important lesson for young people to learn.

By John DiNicola