It drives us; drives us to succeed, drives us to fail, drives us to run, and drives us to stay. Fear can be our best friend, prompting us to flee when we sense danger, or our greatest enemy, paralyzing us into a state of helplessness. Fear can inspire us to work harder than we ever thought we could, and it can cause us to act against our own self interest and even the interests of others.
It is this dichotomy that has inspired society’s fascination with the topic. Strangely, the same biological response which causes us to shake in our boots also provides a sort of high, and countless TV shows, films, and books have been created to draw out and exploit that shivery feeling. There is, perhaps, no better example of this than the month of October and its 30 day fear fest leading up to Halloween. During this season, we not only enjoy being afraid—we actually pay for it!
You see, fear is a master of disguise. It hides behind bravado, prejudice, and violence, fueling these harmful actions so quietly that it is often ignored and thus allowed to fester.
From bully to victim and everyone in between, bullying is riddled with fear. The children who are bullied are afraid of harm, their parents are afraid of doing the wrong thing and seeing their child hurt, bystanders are afraid of becoming outcasts or being bullied in return, and children who bully act largely out of underlying fear. While it may express itself in many ways, it is indeed fear which often drives bullying scenarios.
But why does any of this matter?
Until we recognize the root cause of bullying, we will continue to simply treat symptoms, never truly eradicating the problem.
Giving children bullying-solving skills may work for a while, but when fear crops up, if they don’t have the tools to properly recognize and address that fear, they will very likely succumb to it. Fear is designed to keep us safe so, unless we understand where it is coming from, we will have a difficult time turning it off.
While rationalizing through fear is difficult for anyone, it is especially difficult for children. One portion of the brain which plays a significant role in our bodies’ response to fear is the prefrontal cortex. It is this part which interprets the event we are experiencing and compares it to past experiences, helping you decide the level of threat and appropriate response. However, many studies have shown that the pre-frontal cortex, the rationalizing part of our brain, doesn’t fully form until age 25.
This means that an elementary aged child is going to have greater difficulty rationalizing the reasoning behind and consequences of his bullying behavior. One way you can help create context for your students is through reading. Studies show reading fiction helps develop empathy, which is recognized as a core life skill and the foundation for sound relationships and classroom climate. Additionally, books provide entertaining and safe ways for children to explore emotions and consequences, storing these lessons away for a later time.
Picture books, such as The Weird Series, by Erin Frankel and This is A. Blob, by L.A. Kefalos, are excellent examples of books that help students identify and work through the fear behind bullying and standing up to bullying. By reading why these characters might be bullying or why other students are standing by, students are given a framework of reasoning on which they can later build using their own experiences.
Another way to help your students recognize the fear driving their bullying is to provide a visual aid that helps them walk through the steps we take mentally when dealing with fear. On a sheet of paper, have your students draw a picture of a bullying scenario. Ask the students to create a general caption written in the first person, such as "I pushed Jane".
Next to the picture’s caption, write “I did this because…”. With the students, look at the drawings and talk about what that “because” might be. Maybe the answer is “I didn’t like her”. Draw this out, as well. Next to the new caption write”…because…” again, prompting the child to explain why he or she doesn’t like the other child. Perhaps it is because she is new. From there, write “I didn’t like that she was new because…” And onward until the true reason, “I was afraid she would take away all my friends. I was afraid I would be all alone”, comes out. Now that the root fear has been identified, you can begin to discuss solutions to the fear.
Coping With Fear
In addition to helping children recognize their fear, it’s important to provide coping skills to deal with those fears in a healthy way as well as work to create an environment of safety.
Let your students know that they can talk to you about anything without fear of punishment. If you are able, set aside time to check in with each child for a minute or two each week to talk through any issues they might be having or to offer some words of encouragement. Even taking the time to write a small positive word for each child on his or her desk daily can have an enormous impact on the classroom climate. When students feel accepted and important, they will be less likely to feel the fears that lead to bullying.
Finally, one of the best ways to cope with fear is to talk about it. Talk with your students about why they find the situation frightening. What is being done to prevent it from happening? What steps can be taken to bring about a solution if the frightening situation does occur? This helps students take control of their fear and provides positive tools for confronting it.
Bullying is a complex issue. Not only do factors outside of fear contribute to bullying, overcoming fear is a process that will not happen overnight. These are simply suggestions to help you begin searching beyond the surface of bullying and bystander behavior to heal the root of the problem rather than the visible weed of actions it produces.
Fear isn’t all bad. In fact, it can be very good and even entertaining. That’s what Halloween is all about, right? So, this October, this month in which we recognize fear, both good and bad, let’s try to build environments in which everyone feels safe and cared for and may the scariest thing in your classroom be the ghost on the door!
Books are excellent tools for helping children build empathy and become upstanders! This is A. Blob is a masterfully illustrated picture book suitable for children ages 4-8. Written by Lori Kefalos, author of several award-nominated animated shorts, This is A. Blob is the first of a series following this bully. This first installment follows the antics of A. Blob, a slimy, purple, blob-like creature who wreaks havoc on the elementary school playground with its bullying ways. As the story progresses, however, readers learn that there might be more to A. Blob than meets the eye. Along with its powerful illustrations and rhymed verse for early readers, this story invites children to put themselves in the shoes of another. The book demonstrates that a bully can come in any shape, size, or color and encourages readers to consider why bullies behave the way they do – and start to consider what can be done to help.
About Laughing Leopard Press
Hello! We are Laughing Leopard Press, an independent book publisher from Akron, Ohio. At Laughing Leopard Press, we’re interested in publishing works that contribute to our understanding of this wonderful world. Through this blog, we hope to add to that understanding with commentary on life, literature, and a few things in between. We hope you enjoy the blog and take some time to talk with us in the comments or on our social media sites. Happy reading!
This is A. Blob by L. A Kefalos. $14.95
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