October 23, 2013

Adventist Life

Imagine this true-to-life story. Can you relate?

Caleb had been legally blind as far back as he could remember. Born with a genetic disorder affecting his eyes, Caleb had poor depth perception and was unable to focus his vision on specific objects. Even with corrective lenses, his eyesight was 20/70 at best. Despite the visual challenges he faced, Caleb’s parents were determined to help him live as independently as possible.

When Caleb was 5, his parents enrolled him in kindergarten at their local elementary school. Caleb was placed in special education classes where he was guaranteed to receive additional help from a trained worker. He learned to read and write using braille tablets, and quickly showed an aptitude for math. Caleb was so skilled in math that when he reached the sixth grade, he was allowed to take advanced math classes with the rest of the student body.

Unfortunately, some of the other students in Caleb’s advanced math class were not accepting of his visual impairment. Whether they were intimidated by his ability to do the problems in his head, or because they just didn’t like him, two of the boys in the class began to bully Caleb. Sometimes it was something small and irritating, such as moving his backpack. Other times it was more intrusive, such as hiding his braille tablet or talking calculator. Every day the two boys would find some way to make Caleb feel as if he truly was handicapped. 

Frustrated and angry, Caleb withdrew socially. He brought home poor report cards and finally asked his parents if he could drop the advanced math class. Concerned about his welfare, Caleb’s parents questioned him about school. Caleb admitted that he was unhappy because he was being bullied. Caleb’s parents immediately called the school to request a meeting with administrators to discuss the bullying that was taking place.

After an action plan had been implemented, the school counselor recommended that Caleb attend a week of blind camp at Leoni Meadows, one of the National Camps for Blind Children. The counselor felt that Caleb would benefit from being around other children who were also visually impaired and that it would provide opportunities to boost his self-esteem. Caleb was enrolled and quickly made friends with other kids at the camp. He participated in archery, canoeing, horseback riding, and even climbed the high ropes course. His camp counselor taught him that if he could ride a horse, then he could “do just about anything” he wanted to.

Are We Surrounded by Bullies?

It seems almost monthly now that we hear reports of severe bullying in the news. It comes in many forms: children bullying teachers, teachers bullying children, and children bullying each other. We learn about these events because someone recorded them on their phone and then posted them to YouTube or Facebook. There are dozens of cases of bullying, however, that go unreported every day across the nation. As a parent I wonder what more can be done to help protect our children.

Childhood is supposed to be a time of learning how to socialize, and developing creativity. It’s when we, as parents, take a few steps back and give our children the freedom to discover the world around them. As a mother I want my children to be safe, but I also want them to be curious and independent. When I see reports of bullying occurring in our schools, it makes me wonder what steps can be taken to ensure my children will be both empowered and protected.

It’s estimated that thousands of kids experience some form of bullying every day in schools across the nation, whether it’s physical, verbal, or social. According to the National Bullying Prevention Center1 and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry,2 about one quarter to one half of all children are bullied. If the child has a disability, particularly one that is easily noticed, then the child is two to three times more likely to be bullied regularly.

Consider the case of Caleb, a child like any other except that he is legally blind. His visual impairment made him a target for the bullies in his school. Caleb did not know how to cope with the bullying he received, and as a result he suffered emotionally and academically. Caleb’s parents were not aware he was being bullied until his grades began to suffer.

Because bullying can occur in many nonphysical forms, it may be hard for adults to recognize when a child is being bullied. In the case of children with special needs, the removal of helping aids, social exclusion, and verbal teasing are typical. Usually the type of bullying depends on the child’s gender. Boys tend to favor physical forms of coercion or intimidation, while girls tend to use social tactics such as verbal abuse or social exclusion. Both types of bullying can be extremely hurtful to the victim on the emotional level.

As if this wasn’t enough, cyberbullying is on the rise. The Journal of Adventist Education points out that cyberbullying allows bullies to harass their victims beyond the boundaries of the school building and school hours. Cyberbullying allows the perpetrators to use an “invisible” attack that parents and teachers may not know about because it takes place via texting or on social networking sites. “It is possible that the damage caused by cyberbullying may be greater than the harm caused by traditional bullying. Online communication can be extremely vicious” and allows for others to pile on their comments, without having to face the victim. “Once it is distributed worldwide, it is often irretrievable.”3 Furthermore, cyberbullying diminishes the child’s ability to escape the harassment. The message the child receives is: “there are no safe places.” 

Children who do not know how to cope with the bullying may develop mental health problems such as depression or anxiety, which can affect the child’s ability to do well in school. In Caleb’s case, he withdrew from his favorite school activities, and his grades began to drop. Since his grades were dropping, a meeting between school officials and Caleb’s parents was the best first step to help end the bullying behavior. Caleb’s parents also chose to send him to a week of blind camp with National Camps for Blind Children to help restore Caleb’s self-esteem and confidence.

Since 1967 National Camps for Blind Children (NCBC) has offered free-of-charge esteem-building summer and winter camp weeks for children and adults who are visually impaired. NCBC, a program of Christian Record Services for the Blind (CRSB), gives campers access to outdoor physical activities, spiritual enrichment through worship with Adventist pastors, and the camaraderie of friends and staff members.

At camp Caleb was able to participate in activities such as waterskiing and horseback riding with others who were visually impaired. During campfire time he was able to sing and talk with other kids who understood the challenges he faced at school. His new friends provided Caleb with the emotional foundation he needed, and the camp counselors were there to help him when he became discouraged.

Proactive Measures for Parents

There are many things we as parents can do to help our children learn to cope and hopefully avoid bullying. One proactive measure is to make yourself known to your child’s school. By learning how the school implements their policies, what the current practices are, and whether those practices are known to work, will help parents know how to address the school administration if necessary.

In her blog “Bullying: A Parent’s Perspective,” Mary McDonach states that initiating a positive relationship with school administrators increases the likelihood that problems of bullying will be dealt with immediately. Also, by being proactive as parents, the child’s school is held accountable for following through immediately.

Teaching a child to have good self-esteem is always important, and it’s also one of the best ways to help combat bullying. Children need to feel valued and important when they are part of a group. Additionally, participating in fun activities helps the child develop a sense of confidence that will combat any negative interactions they might have at school. 

Finally, teaching the child not to react to the bully is another proactive step parents and teachers can take. Bullies look for a reaction from their victims; therefore, teaching the child not to give a reaction makes the child a less-interesting target. 

Even the best proactive measures, however, may not prevent bullying. Some kids will continue to be bullies regardless of how a child acts. Therefore, it’s important that we parents be aware of signs that would indicate our child is being bullied. They include: 

  • becoming withdrawn
  • fear of going to school
  • increasing signs of depression (lethargy, loss of appetite or interest in normal activities) 
  • a noticeable decline in school performance (grades or class participation)
  • speaking of another child in fear
  • noticeable decline in the child’s self-esteem or self-image
  • indications of physical violence, such as bruises, scrapes, or other marks

Immediate Action Needed

If there is any suspicion that a child is being bullied, immediate action is best. There is nothing wrong with confronting our children if we suspect something is wrong. Children may be embarrassed to talk to adults because they feel they should be able to handle a bullying situation. They may think there’s nothing that can be done to stop someone from harassing them.

By approaching the child first, we can remove some of the emotional stress for the child and also show our kids we notice when things aren’t right in their world. After talking with the child, parents should then arrange to meet with the school’s administration to develop an action plan. Action plans can include mediation between the students and increased attention paid to the situation while the child is on school grounds. If age-appropriate, it may also help to involve our children in these meetings. By being present during the meeting, the child will see that their problem is being taken seriously. It will also show the child that their parents are interested in finding a solution and that the child’s input matters.

Children can also be taught how to be assertive with bullies. Assertive does not mean aggressive. Assertive means that the child stands their ground and forcefully informs the bully to leave them alone. This may not come naturally to everyone, so practicing forceful statements such as “Please leave me alone” or “Please do not move my stuff” in a loud enough manner to get the teacher’s attention is helpful. The child should also be encouraged to seek the help of the teacher, if avoiding the bullies is not an option, and to report each incidence of bullying when it happens.

  1. National Bullying Prevention Center, 2012, Bullying and Harassment of Students With Disabilities, www.pacer.org/bullying/resources/students-with-disabilities/. 
  2. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, “Bullying,” March 2011, www.aacap.org/cs/root/facts_for_families/bullying.
  3. Susan M. Taylor, “Cyber Bullying Penetrates the Walls of the Traditional Classroom,” Journal of Adventist Education, December 2010-January 2011, pp. 37-41.