Positive School Climate

Myths of Bullying Prevention

Myth 3: Bullying is a problem for youth that everyone outgrows (Part 3 of 3)

By Kathleen Keelan

“What if the bully is in this room?” was a statement I remember from an adult participant in one of my workshops years ago.

This courageous teacher was not going to sit by while I went through my normal spiel of defining the bullying dynamic. There are bullies. There are victims. There are bystanders. There are “up standers”—the new term that describes kids who stand up for kids who are being mistreated. This was an adult who was not going to let the workshop proceed as usual without making her stand.

Looking back, I realize what this brave person must have been going through to do what she did. She was describing a coworker who had, in her eyes, been bullying her for years. I don’t know the specifics, but I believe the whole staff was aware of the conflict. The adults in the room were perfectly comfortable when we were discussing how kids treat each other and how they need to “take a stand” against bullying.  But the tension in the room became palpable when this courageous staff member spoke up.

She had been experiencing a power imbalance for years at this school. She had been ostracized by the one staff member, and then eventually many of them joined in. The leadership was aware of it and did not come to her defense—not because they did not care, but because I think they were not sure how to intervene. Once she heard there was an in-service on bullying prevention, she set in her mind that it would not be all about the students at that school. The issue had gone on too long, and she did not know how to stop it. It was devastating personally, and it was destroying the joy she felt in her chosen profession. Finally, at 3:00 in the afternoon, she mustered the courage to blurt out the words that I believe she had been holding back for a long time:

“What if the bully is on the staff?”

There is a layer of distance when adults talk about the kids and how they treat one another. However, when we begin to examine the very human condition of how people treat one another, the situation becomes a different story.

It is not unusual for someone to approach me at the end of a workshop or during a break to explain to me that the real bullying is between some of the adults on the staff or in the community. Normally, these conversations take place to the side of the podium in whispers, with a lot of glancing over the shoulder to see who is listening. It is rare for the issue to be brought out in a public forum.

After she said the first statement, there was some understandable shifting in the chairs and nervous chuckling. The courageous teacher went on to say:

“What if the bully is in this room?”

At this point, there was not a single participant willing to avert their gaze from mine. Nobody would look to the left or the right because somehow this would be admitting to being or pointing to the culprit. This staring contest went on for what seemed like hours.

The bullying dynamic is so complex when you look at it from the group level. Some call this form of bullying relational aggression or a type of aggression that causes harm through damaging relationships. Adult groups, just like groups of children, must find an even ground on which to function. Simple concepts like relating to one another with predictability are a must. Allowing people to think individually and to express views openly are signs that a group is treating its members with human dignity. However, sometimes there is bullying, or even extreme bullying, among adults in a group setting.

In a perfect world, when people do not give the power to the bully on the playground or on the staff, the bullying stops. When a group has an awareness of what is happening, then the group should refrain from giving the power to the bully. I believe that within this staff most of the teachers did not want to mistreat the courageous teacher. But, just like children, they went along with the person they perceived to be the person with the power. This winner-take-all mentality contributes to conflict and injustice. The same fears that immobilize children immobilize adults: fear of losing social collateral; fear that they will be the next target; fear of retaliation.

People have the same hope that we have had throughout the ages. Whether it is group bullying or individual bullying, we have power in numbers. I am thankful to have had that experience that day. Without passing judgment on the teachers, I realized that I needed to see beyond the actual statements. I reminded them that, unless one teacher has the courage to stand up against the staff member and support the courageous teacher, the abuse that is happening will continue.

The elephant in the room was exposed. I encouraged the group to stop staring at me and start looking at each other.

Kathleen Keelan has dedicated her career to preventing bullying by working as a teacher, therapist, presenter, and expert witness in bullying cases. She has been conducting bullying prevention workshops in schools since the late ’90s and also conducts classes and webinars throughout the United States.

Categories: Family, General Education, Positive School Climate | 1 Comment

Myths of Bullying Prevention

Myth 2: Adults Know What They Are Doing When It Comes to Bullying Prevention (Part 2 of 3)

By Kathleen Keelan
Often, due to our overreactions or underreactions, well-meaning adults do not understand the complexities that children face when it comes to bullying situations. By trying to apply adult solutions to children’s problems, they make the situation worse.

In spite of our best efforts, most adults generally do not know how to deal effectively with bullying situations. Sadly, this includes the very people who need to understand the dynamic most, including teachers, administrators, counselors, parents, superintendents, paraprofessionals, and bus drivers, to name a few.

Then there are the TV producers, investigative reporters, researchers, movie makers, movie stars, public service announcement producers, pop singers, and talk show hosts, who are also trying to help solve the bullying issues of our youth and usually coming up short.

Lastly, we have the more well-informed but less connected researchers and college professors, who have studies and surveys and graphs, but fall short of producing real answers for real kids in real situations.  

Attempts to address the problem through movies, studies, one-day school assemblies, policies, legislation, surveys, and conferences don’t really help the children for a number of reasons.

A perfect example is one-day assemblies aimed at giving kids the opportunity to let others in their class know about some hardships they have experienced. One-day assemblies that “challenge” children to stop bullying one another are generally effective for the rest of that day. This type of oversimplification of the issue is what frustrates children who are in the trenches of bullying.

Take antibullying programs that reward kids for what we consider “standing up for others.” Students may perceive earning these “rewards” as attempts to buddy up with teachers and other adults in the building to win their approval. As a result, the kids who buddy up with the adults may lose social collateral with their peers. Thus, there is a disincentive to “stand up for others” the next time a bullying situation occurs.

Another example: the public service announcement campaign that asks kids to wait out the frustration they may be experiencing at school because eventually things will “get better.” Many celebrities have lent their clout to the “It Gets Better” effort. Some children may have benefited from this message, but I feel that it is a message of false hope and can be misleading. It also gets adults off the hook in terms of making the environment better for kids.

I feel strongly that kids who are teased for issues such as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) identity—who have been the target of this message—should not have to wait for things to get better at school. If there is a hint of this type of prejudice and we, as adults, are aware of it, then relying on messages that make promises of relief in the future is really morally reprehensible.

How Can We Really Help?

Where do we go wrong? In virtually all situations we are guilty of overreacting or underreacting. Remember, it is very difficult for children to come to an adult and ask for help when they believe they are being bullied. If the adult brushes it off, it can be devastating. Conversely, when we completely overreact by doing something like pulling a child from a particular school due to bullying, we are also doing the child a disfavor.

It is important to be aware of exactly what constitutes “bullying.” The research Dr. Dan Olweus did in the 1980s is still an excellent guide, which has helped me in this field many times. Dr. Olweus began his research in 1983 in northern Norway, where three adolescent boys died by suicide. The act was most likely a consequence of severe bullying by peers, prompting the county’s Ministry of Education to initiate a national campaign against bullying in schools.

Dr. Olweus, considered the “pioneer,” crafted the following definition, which is still widely used today:

“A person is being bullied when he or she is exposed repeatedly over time to negative action on the part of one of more persons. Negative action is when a person intentionally inflicts injury or discomfort upon another person, through physical contact, through words, or in other ways.”  

If we look closely at the definition, we can see it has elements that can help adults avoid overreacting or underreacting to bullying. Bullying is not just about one person having the power; it is also about the victim not wanting the particular type of interaction to take place.

More time spent with children and less time spent on statistics is one solution to reducing bullying. Our reactions and our attempts to deal with the problem are often to benefit ourselves, to make us feel like we are doing something. However, unless we actually talk with the children, we may be making things worse.

Adults’ knee-jerk reactions, albeit understandable, do not always help reduce bullying in schools. It would behoove us as adults to spend a great deal of time trying to figure out exactly the best way to approach a specific bullying situation in order to actually help a child.

Kathleen Keelan has dedicated her career to preventing bullying by working as a teacher, therapist, presenter, and expert witness in bullying cases. She has been conducting bullying prevention workshops in schools since the late ’90s and also conducts classes and webinars throughout the United States.

Categories: Family, General Education, Positive School Climate, Professional Developement | 2 Comments

Myths of Bullying Prevention

Myth 1: Buying a Program Will Stop Bullying (Part 1 of 3)

By Kathleen Keelan

“Bullying is not the issue this year. Get a program in place and move on.” –Administrator, 2012

The very complex issue of bullying cannot be solved by just purchasing a bullying prevention program. Period.

Schools and school districts want the bullying to end, so they have been known to call in the rodeo clowns, movie producers, and cartoon characters. Unfortunately, because of the intricacies of the power dynamic of all stakeholders, the bullying issue cannot easily be handled by any one solution.

Our knowledge of the issue is growing every day. Our understanding of how to stop the phenomenon is slowing improving. One thing we know for sure: it’s not an easy fix.

One instance I was involved in comes to mind. A wealthy private school had an extensive program against bullying, complete with assemblies, posters, and speakers. The teachers were given tokens that they could hand out to the kids when they behaved in such a way that they were not bullying one another. In one case, a student was bullied. The one who bullied him also felt bullied. Both students’ parents hired a lawyer. There was a restraining order awarded so the two could not be in contact with each other. The principal was completely dumbfounded as to how the situation got to this point, considering he had done so much to avoid bullying in the first place. The principal was not prepared to deal with the complexities of the power issues, the community, and the culture of the building.

Like that particular principal, teachers and school officials often feel at rest when they invest in a bullying prevention program, but their job is far from done. Sadly, when it comes to bullying, they can never really let their guard down until they work on the larger and stickier issue—the culture of the building.

People often ask me what they can do about the culture once it is set. Through my experience I believe there are a few things. To begin to curb bullying, we must work on the immediate interactions between the individuals in a school setting, engage the bystanders, and not rely on programs to fix the problem.

The culture that doesn’t tolerate, encourage, ignore, or placidly condone through silence is a culture that will not allow bullying to take place. A culture where the kids do not see the adults bully each other or other students is a culture that doesn’t encourage bullying. A culture where the kids don’t see adults who are trying to gain power for themselves in inappropriate ways is a culture where bullying will not be tolerated.

Rather than depending on a formal bullying program, adults need to set an example. If they see someone being mistreated, they need to respond immediately, even if it is a colleague or another adult who is doing the bullying. If they see a child being mistreated, they need to intervene quickly.

The mantra in the hallway, the bus, and the classroom must be: “We don’t treat each other that way here.”

Adults who witness an episode of bullying should:

  • Stop it with a quick response
  • Educate and be clear about behavior that is disrespectful; saying you are “just kidding” does not make it better
  • Avoid ignoring it or excusing it

Classroom teachers bear much of the brunt of this immediate intervention role. They must:

  • Know the school’s policy so they can tell the students how they violated it (many do not know it)
  • Try to get the facts (much of the time, they argue that do not have the time)
  • Not judge how upset the target is or tell the target how he or she should or should not feel (this requires training and leadership)

So, is there any value in investing in a bullying program? Consider whether the program addresses the above micro-interactions. It must also address “bystander intervention,” meaning will a bystander “step up” on behalf of someone being bullied? Some of the finest researches in the nation have found this to be one of the key factors in bullying prevention.

In a recent meta-analysis by Joshua Polanin, Dorothy Espelage, and Therese Pigott out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found bullying prevention programs were “effective at changing bystander behavior both on a practical and statistically significant level.”

Changing bystander behavior is at least a step in changing culture. We cannot and should not rely on bystanders to handle all of the issues of bullying, but if they are engaged, at least we can feel that they are assisting the adults in changing the culture. Schools can and should purchase a bullying prevention program as long as it has something to do with improving the culture and engaging the bystanders. However, changing the culture takes work, and relying on a bullying prevention program alone is a mistake.

As educators, it breaks our hearts to know that bullying goes on in our schools. It is important that the steps we take are having a positive impact for our sakes and the sakes of our students.

To oversimplify the issue of bullying is unconscionable, mainly because we choose solutions that are oversimplified as well. If we look at it for what it is, a human rights issue, then we will begin to really invest in true solutions that match the severity of the issue. The solutions will require bystanders and other group psychodynamic complex interventions that look at various power differentials in the community.

The myth of a quick fix for bullying prevention should be put to rest for good.

Polanin, J. R., Espelage, D. L., Pigott, T. D. (2012). “A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Bullying Prevention Programs’ Effects of Bystander Intervention Behavior.” School Psychology Review, 41(1), pp. 47-65.

Kathleen Keelan has dedicated her career to preventing bullying by working as a teacher, therapist, presenter, and expert witness in bullying cases. She has been conducting bullying prevention workshops in schools since the late ’90s and also conducts classes and webinars throughout the United States.

Categories: Family, General Education, Positive School Climate | 11 Comments

Don’t Let Behavioral Challenges Lower Your Standards

By Dr. J. Ron Nelson

One of the greatest impediments to improving academic instruction for students with behavioral challenges is the fact that teachers tend to focus more attention on behavior management than instruction. The assumption is that instruction cannot occur unless student behavior is under control. The end result is that so much teacher attention is devoted to management of disruptive behavior that instruction is not afforded much time or careful attention by teachers.

Research has shown that teacher attention to management increases relative to the level of disruptive behavior exhibited by students. In other words, the more students exhibit disruptive behavior, the less likely they are to receive instruction from their teachers. Teachers fall into the trap of focusing too much attention on management because students with behavioral challenges are likely to display coercive interaction patterns that lead to lowered curricular demands and limited instruction.

Coercive interaction patterns are thought to develop as follows. Parents unknowingly reinforce their children’s coercive behavior (disruptive behavior used to control the behavior of others) by nagging, scolding, and yelling when their child misbehaves. This behavior initiates a coercive interaction pattern with the child. The child continues to misbehave despite the parent’s threats of punitive measures until the parent eventually reaches an exhaustion point, failing to follow through with threatened punitive measures. Because the parent backs down and fails to discipline the child adequately, children become aware that if they continue to misbehave they can shape parental (and other adult) behavior for their own benefit.

This awareness, developed in the home, is used by students to direct teachers away from instruction. The sequence of teacher instruction followed by student disruptive behavior results in teachers lowering their overall curriculum demands and limiting the amount of instruction they provide to students with challenging behavior. The end result is an overemphasis by teachers on behavior management versus instruction.

If teachers are to improve academic outcomes for students with challenging behavior, they must resist lowering their curricular demands and limiting the amount of instruction they provide to students. Teachers will find that students with challenging behavior respond best to explicit teaching, making it easier to maintain curricular demands and instruction. Students with challenging behavior exhibit more task engagement and less disruptive behavior when teachers use explicit teaching methods.

Explicit instruction is an unambiguous and direct approach to teaching with an emphasis on providing students a clear statement about what is to be learned, proceeding in small steps with concrete and varied examples, checking for student understanding, and achieving active and successful participation of students.


J. Ron Nelson, Ph.D., is an associate research professor and codirector of the Center for At-Risk Children’s Services at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Dr. Nelson received the 2000 Distinguished Initial Career Research Award from the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) and the 1999 Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research from Arizona State University. Dr. Nelson’s instructional programs include: eMeasures for Vocabulary Growth, The Multiple Meaning Vocabulary Program, Early Vocabulary Connections, and Stepping Stones to Literacy. He was also a contributing author to LETRS for Early Childhood Educators.

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What’s So ‘Special’ About Special Education?

By Anne M. Beninghof

What does special education look like to you? Over the past several months I have had the opportunity to ask this question of educators around the country. It usually goes like this …

A group of special education teachers and administrators are seated in a conference room, facing a blank whiteboard. I am standing at the board, dry-erase marker in hand.

Me: What does special education look like? 

Group: (Silence)

Me: If you were to walk into a co-taught classroom, what would you see happening that would indicate special education was occurring? 

Group: (Silence)

Me: Think of it this way. What might the special education teacher be adding to the classroom experience that would be special?

Someone: Maybe a graphic organizer.

Someone else: Maybe working with a small group. 

Group: (Silence)

Imagine if this scenario were to play out in one of your school’s conference rooms? Would it be different? As a special education teacher and consultant, I believe that it is imperative that we are able to describe what special education looks like. If we, as a group of educators, can’t describe it, how can we be sure we are providing it?

Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, when referring to pornography, declined to define it but instead famously said, “I know it when I see it.” I feel this way sometimes about special education. But it is not enough to say, “I know it when I see it.” This too easily becomes a cop-out for providing less than “special” services to students.

The federal definition of special education provides the following guidance:

“Specially designed instruction means adapting, as appropriate to the needs of an eligible child under Part B of the IDEA, the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction to address the unique needs of the child that result from the child’s disability and to ensure access of the child to the general curriculum, so that the child can meet the educational standards within the jurisdiction of the public agency that apply to all children.” (emphasis added)

Does a graphic organizer fit this definition? It might. Does small-group instruction fall under this description? It could. But aren’t these two things fairly common in general education classrooms in the 21st century? What else should we expect to see in a co-taught classroom that would be evidence that special education is taking place? My list would include things like:

  • Detailed task analyses
  • Extensive visual cues
  • Individualized behavior management plans
  • Specific retention and study strategies
  • Intentional, thoughtful use of language for understanding
  • Multiple opportunities for accurate rehearsal
  • Format changes to pre-printed worksheets and tests
  • Tools for focusing attention
  • Adaptive technology
  • Accessible furniture and classroom environments (lighting, sound, layout)

What does special education look like to you? Take some time this year to think about what’s on your list.

Anne M. Beninghof, M.S., an internationally recognized consultant and trainer, has more than 30 years of experience working with students and teachers in a variety of public and private settings. She has been a special education teacher and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Hartford, CT, and the University of Colorado. She has published several books and videos, and has provided staff development in 49 states. Beninghof recently returned to the classroom, where she works part time with teachers and students who are struggling with the learning process. Follow her blog at www.ideasforeducators.com, or visit her on Facebook or Twitter.

Categories: Family, General Education, Positive School Climate, Special Education | 2 Comments

Who Wrote the Book of Love for Teens with Asperger’s?

By Dr. Steven Richfield

Opposite-sex relationships among older teens with Asperger’s syndrome present both opportunities for growth and areas of special challenge. Parents experience understandable concern about how events will unfold considering the complexities involved.

The use of social media, potential for near-constant contact through texting, and implications of physical affection raise parental angst and teenage expectation. But there are ways to provide sensitive navigational assistance to adolescents with Asperger’s.

Unabashed directness about the details of relationships plants the seeds for teens with Asperger’s to discuss issues with openness. When parents model a comfortable attitude when addressing kissing, mutual dependency, possessiveness, sex, and other awkward topics, the adolescent will find it easier to do the same. Use opportunities when watching TV and movies to label various dating behaviors. Expand upon the themes portrayed by asking questions and offering information that may lead to their questions.

Keep in mind that teens are likely unaware of what they don’t know, and therefore don’t know what questions to ask. By explaining how, as with most things in life, there is much to learn about dating, the discussion can flow like an educational exercise rather than a judgmental one.

Emphasize the importance of building a “firm friendship foundation” that can support the heavy emotions that can be triggered within opposite-sex relationships. Provide a specific timetable, such as a few months, for such a foundation to build and give examples of how opportunities to display trust and reliability are all part of that period. Following through on plans, showing kindness, expressing interest, and positively dealing with disappointment are some of the “foundation tests” upon which to elaborate.

Pinpoint the pitfalls to watch out for, especially as they relate to Asperger’s syndrome. The tendency to become overly preoccupied, misunderstand meanings, and jump to negative conclusions can easily be triggered within the emotionally charged interactions of dating. Reassure the teen that, by being on watch for these developments, he or she can prevent them from causing unnecessary pain or disappointment. Emphasize the need to suspend a reaction when these or other dating challenges are activated.

Stress the need for teens with Asperger’s to select a “dating coach,” preferably a parent, whom they are willing to turn to in order to review relevant details within their relationship. Explain that the purpose is to ensure that circumstances remain on an emotionally healthy and socially appropriate course. Use these discussions to deepen the teen’s knowledge about the importance of balance, role of give-and-take, degrees of self-disclosure, and levels of trust and intimacy. Tie these factors to situations that arise so that the teen develops his or her own relationship compass.


Dr. Steven Richfield is an author and psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA. He has developed a child-friendly, self-control/social skills-building program called Parent Coaching Cards. He can be contacted at director@parentcoachcards.com or 610-238-4450. To learn more, visit www.parentcoachcards.com

Categories: Family, Positive School Climate | 1 Comment

A Case for Teaching Social Skills at an Early Age

By Susan L. Mulkey

Many teachers (including parents) witness children who lack social competence, which includes critical, life-enriching friendship skills. As a result, these students often not only have difficulty establishing and maintaining friendships, but are poorly accepted by their peers, and may later engage in more serious and violent acts when their discourteous and disrespectful behaviors persist over time. Furthermore, social competence opens doors for academic success.

The following and similar examples support the premise of the importance of social competence in everyone’s life, both young and old:

  • “She just ignored me and looked away when I asked her to put her things away.”
  • “He walked right by me and didn’t respond when I said hello to him this morning.”
  • “Every time they want something, they just say, ‘gimme this’ or ‘gimme that.’ ”
  • “The words, please and thank you must not be in their speaking vocabulary!”
  • “I have students that refuse to work together when I put them in pairs.”
  • “It’s hard to get their attention when they are texting all the time.”
  • “Their idea of sharing materials is grabbing and pushing.”

The levels to which children learn to develop, establish, and maintain appropriate interpersonal relationships represent the core of social competence. Unfortunately, many children are not being taught these important skills in the home environment, and many established social skills programs in schools do not deliver the needed long-term results.

Social competence includes skills such as giving and accepting compliments, taking turns, including others, making friends, accepting “no,” cooling down when upset, apologizing, disagreeing, and problem solving. Other skills include:

  • Greeting—e.g., saying “Hello” or “Hi” to friends and familiar adults
  • Looking and listening—e.g., making eye contact when others are speaking directly to you and then acknowledging that you heard the speaker’s message by saying, “Yes, I see,” or “Yes, I understand”
  • Following directions—e.g., saying, “Okay” or “Sure, I will”
  • Making polite requests—e.g., saying “May I …,” or “Please”

Often, with many of these skills, children and frequently adults do not have the language for using social skills competently. These skills must be directly modeled, practiced, and reinforced.

There are few programs in this area that are developed specifically for preschool, kindergarten, and first grade students. It is crucial that all students (not just those with special needs) are taught these important life skills beginning at a young age. Early intervention pays big dividends in the long run. Furthermore, when generalization strategies are incorporated in the teaching process, students are more likely to maintain the social skills over time and use them across multiple settings throughout their school and postschool careers.

SMART Kids is one program that was clearly designed for teaching social competence to young children (preK-grade 1). SMART is an acronym that stands for Social Grace, Manners, And Respectful Talk. Embedded evidence-based practices help teach social skills as well as techniques for assisting students in maintaining and generalizing these crucial life skills across different settings.

It makes sense to focus on social stories beginning with a context and describing a sequence of positive steps and simple commonsense gestures that young children can understand, follow, and learn. Descriptive positive feedback, along with dignified and gentle corrective feedback, is also a crucial element in teaching social competence.

SMART social skills are taught within the context of the daily curriculum so that students have the opportunity to learn these skills during a calm, neutral, and relaxed time. The skills include verbal and nonverbal communication skills:

  • Verbal skills include being able to determine the appropriate thing to say at the appropriate time, being able to communicate and talk in ways that are engaging, having a range in one’s vocal tone and quality, and being able to speak in an understandable manner
  • Nonverbal behavior is estimated to convey up to 38% of a person’s communicative intent; behaviors such as eye contact, use of gestures, facial expressions, good posture, leaning toward the person being spoken to, and smiling constitute good nonverbal social skills when used appropriately (while taking into consideration cultural and regional differences)

These vital behaviors must be taught when children are still young and learning how to interact with other people and the events that occur around them. In a sense, effective social skills are judged by what we say, when we say it, and how we say it.

Susan L. Mulkey is an author and trainer in social skills, behavior management, effective instructional practices, reading strategies, classroom coaching, and collaborative teaching. She has more than 30 years of experience across several educational settings, including elementary, middle, and high school. Susan spent six years conducting training for Department of Defense schools in Germany, Japan, and Korea. Her works include: SMART Kids; Teach All, Reach All (Elementary and Secondary); TGIF: But What Will I do on Monday?; TGIF: Making It Work on Monday; Cool Kids: A Proactive Approach to Social Responsibility; and Working Together: Tools for Collaborative Teaching.

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Helping Children with Autism Find Social Acceptance

By Dr. Steven Richfield

Parents of children with autism often confront the daunting task of determining how much to expose their child to the everyday behaviors and activities of non-autistic peers. Part of the problem entails wondering how peers will respond and whether the outcome will be beneficial or harmful to their child’s growth.

While many autistic children want to do what their peers are doing at any given time, their approach to becoming included is often fraught with confusion and lack of knowledge about social customs. If this situation is familiar, read on for coaching tips to help the autistic child find greater peer acceptance:

Use and reinforce the mantra: “Find the friendly path.” This expression refers to the various factors that combine during encounters with others that make for the flow of friendly feelings back and forth. When explaining  to the child, use pictures, video clips, and role playing to highlight facial expression, eye contact, tone of voice, questions of interest, and sustained listening. These five factors are emphasized as “the way we start and stay upon the friendly path,” and watch if the other person “is interested in joining us on the path.” Use the same factors to depict which message the other person is sending about their interest in continuing the play or discussion.

Be mindful of the beginnings and endings that are so critical to social interaction. Since autism pulls a child into what appears as a self-centered world, it is habit for them to initially relate to others based upon requests rather than friendly greetings. Parents can shape the alternate habit of giving a friendly greeting at the beginning of the encounter, just as it’s appropriate to say something nice when entering someone’s home. Similarly, when leaving an encounter, the child can be coached in ways to express kind appreciation for being included and positive feelings about the next encounter. Upon approaching someone, the parent can provide a gentle reminder, “remember entrances and exits,” to cue the child to this importance.

Recognize that certain social customs will not follow literally from what the child has been taught to expect in the past. For example, the reminder to “use your words” may now come with the expectation that doing so will lead peers to grant their requests. Some habits, such as unusual sounds or movements, have been verbally monitored by parents and teachers to remind the child to refrain from them. Instead of making this request, peers will distance themselves from the autistic child due to their own discomfort with the habits. Parents can make their autistic child aware of how important it is for them to try their hardest “habit control” when in the company of peers and, if necessary, offer inconspicuous substitute habits.

Consider a child-friendly explanation to peers that helps demystify autism. Potential playmates can greatly benefit from understanding that certain autistic behaviors, though unusual, are ways that children calm themselves and/or explore their surroundings. Provide peers with clear and direct language that they can use to communicate friendly interest to the autistic child. Peers’ success with opening up channels of play and communication will greatly relieve their anxiety or discomfort.

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 director@parentcoachcards.com or 610-238-4450. To learn more, visit www.parentcoachcards.com.

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Battling Bullying and Exclusion with Acceptance and Belonging

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 director@parentcoachcards.com or 610-238-4450. To learn more, visit www.parentcoachcards.com.

About Steven Richfield

Products by Steven Richfield: The Parent Coach

Categories: Family, General Education, Positive School Climate | Leave a comment

Cyberbullying: What We Know and What We Can Do

By Jeffrey Sprague

What we know

Cyberbullying, or electronic aggression, has emerged as another form of antisocial behavior as students have ever-increasing access to computers, mobile phones, and other electronic devices (David-Ferndon & Hertz, 2009). This form of bullying refers to aggression that is executed through personal computers or mobile phones to send e-mail, instant messaging, text messages, or messaging on social networks (Wang, Iannotti, & Nansel, 2009). Though research is limited about the extent of this new form of bullying, available studies report that 9–35 percent of students report being the target of cyberbullying, and 4–21 percent report being the aggressor (David-Ferndon & Hertz, 2009).

Most students report receiving electronic aggression (cyberbullying) via instant messaging, and about a quarter reports being bullied by e-mail messages, in chat rooms, or through posts on websites. Fifth-grade students report fewer problems with this type of bullying, and eighth-grade students report the highest involvement (Williams & Guerra, 2007). These electronic communications can include mean teasing, threats, playing mean tricks, and spreading rumors that are intended to harm the emotional well-being, social status, or peer relationships of another student (Agatston, Kowalski, & Limber, 2007).

Cyberbullying presents unique challenges for students as well as school administrators. Among these is the ability of the aggressor to remain anonymous—a situation that many believe increases the level of cruelty, mean tricks, and power of the student bullies. Another challenge is the capacity of the bully to engage in the aggressive behavior at any time of day. In fact, 70 percent of students report that 70 percent of the cyberbullying , and the extent to which he or she can send or post damaging messages to a wide audience well beyond the classroom or school (David-Ferdon & Hertz, 2009; Agatston, Kowalski & Limber, 2007).


What we can do

First of all, as educators it is imperative to know what our responsibilities and rights are regarding cyberbullying. If we see it or suspect it, then as professionals there is an implied responsibility to act in a systematic and coordinated manner. Some questions to consider include the following:

  • Does your school have a school-wide program that teaches pro-social skills to all students, creating a respectful social climate such as PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports)?
  • To what extent is socially aggressive behavior, bullying, and harassment (including cyberbullying) a problem in our school?
  • Does our school or school district have a specific policy about cyberbullying?
    • If so, what does the policy require us to do?
    • What is the proper response if a student reports a cyberbullying incident to you?
      • What should you say to the student?
      • What information do you need to collect?
      • To whom do you report the socially aggressive behavior or bullying?
      • Does our school have a specific plan or program for bullying prevention and response?
        • Do students know how to report bullying properly?
        • Do students know how to respond to a bullying incident …
          • When they are the victim?
          • When they are “standing by” and watching it happen?
          • How do we respond when the bully won’t stop?

It is important to understand your rights, responsibilities, and available resources regarding prevention and response to bullying and its many forms, including cyberbullying.

Our new book, Best Behavior: Building Positive Behavior Support in Schools (Second Edition), provides the framework to achieve a more effective context for prevention of all forms of problem behavior. We also specifically and simply describe how to integrate school-wide PBIS practices and bully prevention in practical, easy-to-understand terms.

Jeffrey Sprague, Ph.D., is a professor of special education and director of the University of Oregon’s Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior. He directs federal, state, and local research and demonstration projects related to PBIS, RtI, youth violence prevention, alternative education, juvenile delinquency prevention and treatment, and school safety. Sprague is coauthor of the Best Behaviorprogram, several guidebooks and reports, and more than 150 journal articles and book chapters. He currently directs an R01 research project from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to conduct the first evaluation of the effects of PBIS in middle schools and is co-principal investigator on four Institute of Education Sciences Goal 2 development projects.


Agatston, P. W., Kowalski, R., & Limber, S. (2007). Students’ perspectives on cyberbullying. Journal of Adolescent Health, 41(6), 559-560.

David-Ferndon, C., & Hertz, M. F. (2009). A CDC issue brief for researchers. Electronic media and youth violence, from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/Electronic_Aggression_Researcher_Brief-a.pdf

Wang, J., Iannotti, R. J., & Nansel, T. R. (2009). School bullying among adolescents in the United States: physical, verbal, relational, and cyber. Journal of Adolescent Health, 45(4), 368-375.

About Jeffery Sprague

Books by Jeffery Sprague:

Wholeschool Leader

Best Behavior

Categories: Family, General Education, Positive School Climate, Professional Developement | Leave a comment

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