By Dr. Steven Richfield
Despite increased awareness of the various forms of bullying, and school-based programs to combat it, countless children continue to perpetuate intentional mean-spirited actions directed at peers and adults. Whether it takes place in the home, school bus, carpool, playground, or classroom, preying upon sensitivities of others and/or harsh rejecting efforts aimed to exclude others have become commonplace. Perhaps it’s time for parents and teachers to coach children in practicing socially inclusive behaviors that create conditions where bullying and exclusion are not reinforced by peers.
So how can we coach social inclusion behaviors to children so that they demonstrate acceptance and belonging towards others? Here are a few ideas:
Speak to the verbal and nonverbal messages that children send to one another, and the likely interpretations others arrive at about them. Emphasize how a smile or the lack thereof, friendly vs. caustic tones of voice, initiation vs. absence of warm greetings in group settings, and other social signature behaviors are quickly assigned meaning by observers. In simplest terms, these behaviors lead others to view them as either nice or mean. Explain how sending social inclusion signals, and putting an end to social exclusion, can make children caring and compassionate leaders in their peer groups.
Expose typical exclusion behaviors and suggest ways to respond with inclusion. One of the most insidious patterns is the “messenger of mean information” when a child deliberately delivers another’s hurtful words to a third person with the intention of either destroying a friendship or vengeful retaliation. Another example is incessant ridicule designed to elicit laughter from bystanders and instill humiliation upon the target. Challenge children to stand up to these negative patterns with strong inclusion signals, such as telling others that badmouthing reflects poorly upon them or expressing support for the target within the group when the mistreatment is going on.
Educate children about the harmful social and personal costs of groups that build bonds by badmouthing and excluding others. Certain words—such as weird, nerd, or annoying—can quickly place a caption under a child and subject him or her to exclusion. Similarly, intentional “forgetting” to include or invite a supposed friend sends a clear signal of rejection. Explain how subtle social forces within friend groups may make it hard to speak up in support of the excluded. Encourage them not to give in to these negative rules but to be the advocate for the “forgotten friend,” who wants very much to be included. Ask that they step up to make the call that others won’t.
Build a two-way dialogue where children can ask questions and make comments about the social world of adulthood and childhood. Highlight the ways warm and caring people send inclusive signals to others, and see if they can make some of these behaviors part of their social repertoire. Explain how it is especially vital when meeting new people to make a social first impression of warmth and acceptance, no matter what mood they are in or what they have been told about the person.
Dr. Steven Richfield is a clinical psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA. He has developed a child-friendly, self-control/social skills-building program called Parent Coaching Cards and is coauthor of The Parent Coach book. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 610-238-4450. To learn more, visit www.parentcoachcards.com.
Products by Steven Richfield: The Parent Coach