In a 1961 episode of “The Andy Griffith Show,” young Opie is being targeted daily by a school bully, shaken down for nickel milk money with threats of a knuckle sandwich. Opie’s pa, Sheriff Andy Taylor, and Andy’s sidekick, Deputy Barney Fife, ponder how to help the boy out of this jam. Within a half-hour time frame, minus commercials, the issue is neatly dispatched. Opie learns to stand up for himself, and the bully learns his lesson. Problem solved.
Only … the wider world isn’t Mayberry, and dealing with bullying is seldom so cut and dried.
Bullying is nothing new, but it does seem to have taken on a heightened sense of significance and urgency in recent years. That is a reason some local educators urged Junior Auxiliary of Columbus to extend its existing anti-bullying program for middle school students to younger ages. Choose Kindness is the nonprofit organization’s response. The anti-bullying project for second through fifth grades was developed by the JA provisional class of 2017 and first presented earlier this year at several local schools. In the past month alone, JA has taken it to Caledonia, Fairview and Heritage Academy Elementary Schools. Mary Tana Garner is the current project chair and also a member of the provisional class that created Choose Kindness. She’s also the mother of two boys, in second and fourth grades.
“As we developed this, it seemed we all had had an experience, or our children had, with bullying,” Garner said. “Everybody has their bullying stories to share, and it shows how prevalent it is.”
Studies indicate that more than three million students in the U.S. are victims of bullying each year. One in 10 on average eventually drops out of school because of it. Victims of bullying, and bullies themselves, can have serious long-lasting problems from it through life.
What happens to children in childhood shapes who they become. Knowing that, JA created an age-appropriate project that breaks down bullying through visits to four stations. They clarify what bullying is, who the “players” are, the roles of bystanders, cyberbullying, and response strategies.
At the conclusion of school presentations, each student writes down a kind act, given or received, on a strip of paper before joining the strips together to form a colorful paper chain. Every child is also given another visual reminder of the important message — a Choose Kindness wristband to wear.
Fairview Elementary School Counselor Cindy Harris watched students there go through the stations Oct. 18.
“Children want help with knowing how to deal with these issues that may happen to them in a school setting or in a community setting, because it hurts their feelings when it happens to them, and when it happens to their friends,” she said. “They want to know how to proceed, and it was presented in a way that really made an impact on them.”
What is it?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines bullying as “an attack or an attempt at intimidating that intends to cause fear, distress or harm.”
At Station 1, Choose Kindness participants hear about the difference between bullying vs. conflict, in addition to learning what an imbalance of power and mediation are.
“We talk about whether a situation is just a disagreement between friends, or if it’s more of a bullying situation, which is repeated aggression from someone in some sort of position of power,” Garner explained. “They also play an interactive game where they read scenarios and decide as a group whether it’s bullying or conflict, and we talk about ways to deal with both.”
Who is a bystander?
Station 2 expands on the roles a bystander may play — as a disengaged onlooker, a supporter of the bully or defender of the target. Children learn the ABCs a bystander might use to help the target — Alert an adult, Befriend the target, Confront the bully.
“In our research, we found out more and more that bystanders have important roles,” Garner said. “Usually there is one victim, one bully, but usually several bystanders.”
Befriending the target could be as simple as saying that you support them, or sitting with them at lunch, Garner noted.
“And if a bystander feels safe, they may let the bully know verbally that it’s not OK to treat our friend that way,” she added.
There was a time when everyone knew who the schoolyard bully was. They knew the kid to avoid, and home offered a safe haven after school. Now, however, social media has given bullies a measure of anonymity, an outlet for spreading rumors, wounding remarks, pictures and videos — anywhere, any time of day.
At Station 3, students hear about the importance of never sharing personal information online, not “talking” to people they don’t know and refraining from hurtful comments. They engage in a game to assess different avenues of cyberbullying and ways to respond.
What will you do?
Station 4 focuses on response strategies. They can include walking away, offering no reaction or, especially with cyberbullying, blocking the bully and saving evidence, such as screen shots or print-outs. Students are encouraged to tell a friend, report to an adult, express their feelings, ignore inappropriate behavior and reach out to new friends.
“Sometimes we just assume kids know everything, but sometimes we have to be taught how to treat our classmates or peers,” said Fairview Elementary fourth-grade teacher Barbara Temple. Her students participated in Choose Kindness Oct. 18. “They were really engaged in what was going on when they went through the stations.”
Societal influences have changed since many teachers and school administrators grew up. Bullying often seems a more serious issue now. Some people credit that to a lessening of parental guidance, a general loss of respect for others, the explosive rise in social media activity by younger and younger users, and to the entertainment industry at large — video games, movies, music.
“It really seems to be out there more than it used to be,” Temple observed. Children learn so much of their behavior from watching adults, she added. Resources like Choose Kindness offer them positive examples and tools to help deal with challenges.
Chain of kindness
“I shared my snack with a friend who did not have a snack.”
“On the bus I helped a new student find a seat.”
“I brought a friend’s homework to them when they were sick.”
“I gave a student some ice cream money at lunch time.”
These acts of kindness are found on links of the paper chain hanging outside Temple’s classroom. Every link represents positive moments in children’s lives, strung together after the Choose Kindness project visited their school earlier this month.
“The project title comes from a quote from the book ‘Wonder,’ about a little boy with a facial deformity,” Garner explained. The quote repeated in JA’s presentation is from Dr. Wayne W. Dyer: “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”
“If you choose kindness, you’re not going to become a bully,” said Garner. “It’s our hope that through this project, children will gain confidence in knowing that no child should ever endure a bullying situation.”
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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