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.
Sometimes, the best way to go forward is to look back. History is an excellent teacher of what works, what doesn’t work, and what can be possible. That is why the next subject in our series on integrating bullying prevention throughout the classroom is history.
History is chock full of examples of individuals who were bullied or different, but succeeded despite the odds. It is filled with people who chose to respond to cruelty with kindness, and ended up changing the world.
History can serve as a warning, but it can also serve as an inspiration for what is possible. The activities below have been designed with this in mind. I hope they get your students excited about the past and inspire them to create a better future.
Atticus Finch once said “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” What better way to do this than to LIVE history? Allow your students, for one day, to completely immerse themselves in the experience of a time gone by.
For example, hold an Ellis Island Day. Allow your students to feel what it would be like to come to a new country where they didn’t know the culture or the language; a place where they looked and acted differently than others and didn’t fit in with those around them. Assign students nations of origin and allow them to only speak to other students that are from the same country.
Set up an inspection station mimicking the inspections immigrants went through upon arrival. Encourage your students to dress in the traditional garb of their nations and read personal accounts of people who immigrated to Ellis Island as children. Afterwards, talk with your students about how it felt to look different than their peers, to be inspected, and to be cut off from communication. Discuss how this experience can translate into their lives today. Will it change how they treat new students? Or how they interact with others who might look or act differently?
You can also use this opportunity to talk about all the wonderful foods, innovations, and traditions we have as a result of immigration in the U.S. If you have the participation of parents, hold a party at the end of the day with each student bringing in a dish representative of the nation they were assigned or even a family recipe. Your students will leave the classroom with a greater appreciation for the struggles faced by their ancestors, greater empathy for those who are new today, and a better appreciation for the benefits of differences and diversity.
Wall of Upstanders
Despite research which reports that, 57% of the time, bullying stops within 10 seconds when someone interferes, over 80% of children continue to stand by silently while their peers are bullied. Why is this?
Studies show that children choose to be bystanders for a multitude of reasons, including fear of retribution, uncertainty of how to act, and just plain shyness. While skits and books make good starting points for teaching children how to stand up to bullying, they can also feel fake or forced. This is where history can be helpful.
The wonderful thing about stories in history is that they aren’t just stories; they really happened. You don’t need to look far for examples of individuals who stood up against injustice or helped the oppressed. Why not give your students real people to emulate? As you learn about upstanders throughout history, create a collage filled with their pictures, quotes, and articles about them. Talk about what it means to be an upstander and why they are so important, drawing connection between the past and the present. As you learn about different upstanders throughout history, add them to the collage.
When issues such as bullying and unkindness arise in the classroom, refer students to the leaders of the past. How did they handle conflict? Why do we admire them? What can we imitate?
BE an Upsatander
This project is a combination of the first two. When I was in elementary school, one of my favorite projects was an oral report on a figure from history. Each student was assigned to research the life of a well known historic figure and then make a presentation while dressed as that individual, speaking from his or her perspective. We were allowed to choose anyone we wanted (within reason) and it was with great enthusiasm that I spent the next several weeks immersing myself in the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
By the time presentation day rolled around, I was an expert on all things Laura Ingalls Wilder. Since the assignment required me to speak in the first person, my presentation was more than a regurgitation of facts; it also included Laura’s personal thoughts and reactions to the events of her life, providing a far more rich and full portrait than any written report ever could. As the other students presented, I was fascinated to hear them speak like their characters and learned so much, not only about the historic figures, but about the students who had chosen them, as well.
What I love about this project is that it’s fun for students but it also works on a variety of important skills such as research, writing, reporting, and public speaking. To incorporate bullying prevention, narrow the assignment to upstanders or individuals who overcame obstacles or found nonviolent solutions to problems or spread kindness in their communities. As students step into the shoes of these leaders, they will gain a better understanding of the fears and struggles upstanders of the past faced and how they overcame them, internalizing these lessons in a way they never would if they simply read out of a textbook.
If you lack the time to do such a research-heavy assignment, simplify it to a short before-class discussion. Write a bullying issue or scenario on the board along with a historic figure at the beginning of class. When students walk in, discuss how they think that figure would react to the situation. Assignments such as this not only help connect the past and the present, they build the all important skill of empathy.
Bullying, unfortunately, is nothing new, but neither is courage or justice or kindness. Human history is filled with people who stood up for the oppressed, overcame obstacles, and made the world a more peaceful place.
With the many tests and standards that must be met in schools today, adding lessons on bullying prevention can seem daunting, but it doesn't need to be. Lessons about acceptance and tolerance are all around us and, with a little creativity, you'll soon discover that you had the tools right in front of you all along!
I hope you enjoyed this series and that it helped take some of the apprehension out of bullying prevention. Let us know in the comments if you try any of these activities or if you have your own creative ways of integrating bullying prevention into the classroom!
Check back here next week as we dive into National Bullying Prevention Month!
At Laughing Leopard Press, books are one of our greatest tools for education. Our newest book, This is A. Blob, by L.A. Kefalos combines powerful text with vibrant illustrations to help children learn that bullies come in all shapes and sizes-- and there is usually more to people than meets the eye. The first in a series of picture books, This is A. Blob introduces young children to vital topics such as empathy, kindness, and differences. Find it on Amazon.com or right here on LaughingLeopardPress.com!
I don’t know about you, but when I think of summer, I think of blockbuster films. I’m instantly transported back to warm summer nights at the drive-in, sitting under the stars and watching epic stories unfold. As a child, it felt like I could be and do just about anything as I watched those fantastic characters dance across the screen.
As we discussed in an earlier blog, while filled with many wonderful things, summertime can also be filled with bullying and unkindness. Even during the summer months, it is important to continue working on building kindness and empathy. This doesn’t mean fun has to take a backseat, though! There are plenty of ways to build social/emotional skills while enjoying all your favorite summertime activities—including going to the movies!
One fun new movie that recently hit theaters is an animated film called The Secret Life of Pets. In this movie, we humans are given a rare glimpse into what our pets think and do when we aren’t around. Children get to see how their animals might feel when they get left at home and how they might react when placed in a difficult scenario, providing the perfect opportunity to begin a conversation about empathy and the importance of considering the thoughts and opinions of others.
Inspired by the movie, I decided to create another movie-based empathy-building activity called:
The Secret Life Of…
In The Secret Life of Pets, we get to look at life through the eyes of our pets. This activity takes it one step further and allows children to step into the shoes of any character they like best!
Step 1: Choose a character
Have your child pick a character from a book or movie. This can be any character, however, it works best if children choose someone they have seen or read about recently.
Step 3: Tell the story
Keeping in mind the details outlined in the previous step, write out the character’s backstory using the first person perspective. The story should include details from the movie or book, but also fill in gaps that were not included in these tales. When writing the story, children should be sure to include how their character feels about the things that happen to him or her and why he or she chose to do certain things. For younger children, you may pick specific scenes or events for them to focus in on while older children may be given more free reign to explore character’s story and choices.
Again, you may get as creative as you like with this step. Stories may be illustrated, acted out, told completely in Tweets, or recorded in a diary!
Step 4: Continue the story
Create several different scenarios, with everything from bullying scenarios to everyday classroom situations, or even extending a scene from the character’s movie or book. How would your child’s character respond and why? What thoughts would run through their head? How would they feel?
As your children imagine their character’s responses, they are practicing, not only how to respond to different situations, but also putting themselves into the shoes of others.
Have conversations about why your children’s characters would respond the way they do. Ask if this is different than how they themselves would respond. Open up about how you would respond, as well. By the end of the activity, your children will have experienced at least three different thought processes, reactions, and responses to the exact same scenario.
So there you have it! A fun, simple little lesson in empathy that your children will think is just playtime! And really, aren’t learning and playing the same things?!
Would you try this activity at home? Which character would you choose? Let us know in the comments!
This is A. Blob is a masterfully illustrated picture book suitable for children ages 4-8. Written by Lori Kefalos, author of several animated shorts, including “Who’s that Knocking,” “Chug,” and “Croc, Pots and Wildebeests,” which was nominated for Best Independent Short Short, Ages 5-8, at the 2009 Kid’s First Film Festival and for best short at The Los Angeles Women’s International Film Festival, 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 A. Blob may have more 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 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
$1.00 is donated to charity for each book sold on this site--half to St. Jude's and the other half to PetFix Northeast Ohio.