Ava de la Sota is talking with 5- and 6-year-olds about bubbles, kaleidoscopes and toothpaste.
As visiting principals watch intently, De la Sota, who specializes in school safety issues at UCLA's Corinne A. Seeds University Elementary School, demonstrates Cool Tools. It's a system she developed at the laboratory campus to help young children grasp such abstract concepts as integrity, self-reliance, kindness, fairness and responsibility.
UCLA TodayThe first put-down may target a child's haircut. The next time it might be about his weight. The third time it might be taunting about family background. As harassment and hurtful behaviors increase, a child's self-efficacy diminishes and the potential for violence grows.
Recognizing the need to do something about the problem of peer intimidation, experts around the country are calling for schools to implement zero-tolerance for bullying. But many of these programs, said Ava de la Sota, health educator at Corinne A. Seeds University Elementary School (UES), have been developed in reaction to crisis rather than out of reflection and are therefore unlikely to provide long-term benefits.
"Creating lasting benefits requires a change in culture, a change in the way a school functions," de la Sota explained. "It's not enough to create new rules. We also need to take the time to listen to students and to use incidents of harassment as opportunities for education."
This philosophy forms the foundation of a comprehensive method, which is educational rather than punitive, for the Safe School approach that de la Sota, her colleagues and UCLA researchers have been developing at UES over the past four years.
"When we began, it was not out of fear or in reaction to any outside school crisis, but out of love for our own students," de la Sota said. "It became clear that too many students were struggling and needed strategies to help them cope with the escalating stress in their social interactions."
To help children develop a toolbox of replacement skills, de la Sota and her colleagues have children practice assertive behaviors, face-saving one-liners and other forms of role-playing to help them strategize in advance of incidents. "Research shows that teenagers will stay present and put themselves at risk rather than lose friends," she said. "We believe that if we teach children at an early age how to deal with a situation in a way that saves face, we can help to save lives."
Adjunct Associate Professor of psychology and RAND researcher Jaana Juvonen has evaluated the work of the UES educators and measured its effect on children's attitudes, their behaviors and the emotional climate at the school. UES Safe School is not a separate program, she said, but a way of life.
Both she and de la Sota emphasize that the work is evolving. Instruction is adapted to suit specific situations. Next, they are looking to test the system in other schools in Los Angeles.
Perhaps the essence of the Safe School system is best captured by the young child who transferred from another school.
Respecting fellow students is way of life at UES
It’s a real problem, not a rite of passage
When Nick Mathews was in fifth grade at a San Juan Capistrano elementary school, the same group of kids continually picked on him throughout the year. Yet he was still caught by surprise when 10 of them cornered him one day at recess and started beating him up. Even though he was studying martial arts at the time, Nick says he was too busy trying to block their punches to do much else. Today, with two more years of martial arts studies under his belt, the 12-year-old says he knows how to defend himself if it ever happens again. But perhaps even more importantly, says his mom Barbie, he’s discovered a renewed sense of courage and a stronger belief in himself – characteristics that experts point to as the most important tools a child can have when it comes to dealing with bullies.
Bullying is not a new phenomenon, but the many shapes it takes, including verbal intimidation, humiliation, manipulation, exclusion and clear-cut physical attacks, continue to be a problem for both boys and girls today with far more disastrous results. In fact, according to the American Justice Department, 1-in-4 kids is bullied. Other surveys put that number significantly higher. (Certainly the definition is getting broader. A generation ago, a lot of this activity was scratched up as a passage of life. Today, bullying may, for example, include preteen girls making sexual suggestions that a boy can’t maturely handle.)
A recent UCLA study has also shed some new light on the personality of bullies and their victims. Contrary to what we may think, today’s bullies are often popular, handsome and self-confident, not the social misfits looking for a quick ego boost. Instead, it’s the victims who suffer from depression, social anxiety and loneliness, and we’ve all read about how these feelings can express themselves in schoolyard violence.
One of the key challenges of dealing with bullying is that more often than not victims don’t report what happens to them because they think it’s their own fault. Or, they react inappropriately and become part of the problem. Add to this the vast number of parents who are totally unaware how prevalent bullying is, and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.
How can you help your child develop the self-confidence to effectively deal with a bully if he is ever put on the spot? It may just be a matter of preparation.
“In a moment of crisis, kids are most likely to freeze. You need to pre-rehearse different scenarios with them so that they know what to do without having to think about it,” explains Ava de la Sota, creator of the conflict resolution program “Cool Tools,” which has been rolled out to more than 20 schools in the greater Los Angeles area.
Parents should start talking to their children about healthy friendships and bullies as early as age 7 and actively keep that conversation going for years to come, she says. And if you hear something upsetting during one of these talks, do your best not to overreact. Many children won’t tell their parents they’ve been bullied to avoid upsetting them.
“If you want your kids to tell you what’s going on, use the ABCD approach,” she offers. “Acknowledge their feelings, have a balanced reaction, communicate with them in order to get the whole story and discuss what they could do differently next time.”
To prepare for “next time,” de la Sota encourages parents to take advantage of everyday opportunities, like a ride in the car, to practice “what if” situations with your child. Ask them what they would do if someone took their lunch money, for example, and brainstorm a suitable plan of action together. If you have a child who may get teased or picked on for something like wearing glasses, having pimples, or being chubby, de la Sota encourages parents and child to collaborate on a “one-liner,” a quick quip based on humor or fact, they can have at the ready for any hurtful comments flung their way.
Of course, it’s not just about helping your child acquire the confidence to verbally respond to bullying. The bigger challenge is to help them find the confidence to walk away from potentially dangerous situations. Experts say that when it comes to bullying, the most important thing you can teach your child is an exit strategy.
Irene van der Zande, co-founder of Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International, a California-based organization that provides personal safety training for children and adults, advises her students to let the bully have the last word. “Kids need to believe in themselves enough to be able to walk away in the face of insults and keep walking even when someone orders them back,” she explains.
To make it even easier, give your child a plan to follow when he or she disengages from an altercation, suggests de la Sota. “Tell them to take a step backwards, and even if they don’t want to tell a teacher, reposition themselves so that they’re out of the bully’s power play.”
If your child is forced to physically defend himself, rehearsed moves like a soccer kick to the shins, or a quick jab to the eye can be useful, but van der Zande says they should only be used as a last resort.
“Self-defense is like emergency medicine,” she says. “Only after our students have shown us they can stay calm in such situations do we practice basic fighting skills.”m
Michele Piazzoni of Folsom is a regular contributor.
Ava de la Sota is talking with 5- and 6-year-olds about bubbles, kaleidoscopes and toothpaste.
As visiting principals watch intently, De la Sota, who specializes in school safety issues at UCLA's Corinne A. SeedsUniversity Elementary School, demonstrates Cool Tools. It's a system she developed at the laboratory campus to help young children grasp such abstract concepts as integrity, self-reliance, kindness, fairness and responsibility.
On the opposite side of the Los Angeles Basin, leaders at Claremont High School are experimenting with an interactive movie and video game called "Hate Comes Home" to foster and build tolerance and empathy among students. WILL Interactive Inc., a producer of training films for the military and other organizations, developed the program for the Anti-Defamation League, which distributes it free to high schools.
Both strategies are attempts to combat bullying, the longtime scourge of the schoolyard. Incorporating some of the latest research on the phenomenon that has long made life miserable for those who are picked on, the programs seek to enlist "bystanders" as a solution to the problem that experts know affects more than just the victim.
Contrary to popular opinion, bullies are not social outcasts suffering from low self-esteem, according to UCLA psychology professor Jaana Juvonen, the lead author of a study on bullying published last year in the journal Pediatrics.
"Bullies are popular and respected; they are considered the 'cool' kids," Juvonen said when the study results were released last December. "They don't show signs of depression or social anxiety, and they don't feel lonely."
Intervention programs that seek to boost bullies' egos are on the wrong track, Juvonen said, leaving their victims to suffer in silence while classmates and sometimes even adults do nothing to help.
Instead, schools should focus on creating environments in which abusive behavior is not tolerated and on giving youngsters effective ways to deal with bullies.
At University Elementary, Cool Tools evolved from the school's goal of providing a safe, nurturing atmosphere free of harassment. The eight "tools" give youngsters, and the adults they interact with, a common language for resolving conflicts and teach them ways to cope with peer taunting, exclusion and other socialization issues.
A filmy soap bubble, for example, represents each child's personal space. It's to be respected, not popped. The shifting design in a kaleidoscope demonstrates an important life lesson: that people often see things differently, but that doesn't mean somebody else's point of view is wrong.
An inflatable plastic foot reminds a child that sometimes just walking away is the best recourse for the moment, and a giant toy microphone signals that it's time to "cool down" an angry voice.
And the toothpaste? You can't put it back in the tube, the children soon discover during one of De la Sota's demonstrations.
"When we say 'toothpaste' to a child, it's an instant signal to remember that hurtful words, once spoken, can't be taken back," De la Sota explained to half a dozen principals invited to the campus recently to hear about the system.
Parents, teachers and others at the school have learned the program and have agreed to intervene whenever they see any sign of trouble, whether it's taunts, shoves, shouts or tears. Students fill out simple "incident reports" on the spot and later discuss what happened with an adult, often De la Sota. She looks at such incidents as teachable moments that help children learn social dynamics they can use all their lives.
"We make it concrete and simple," she said, so children can easily learn new behaviors and so busy teachers and administrators don't have to spend an inordinate amount of time to get results.
Though she did not develop Cool Tools specifically as an anti- bullying program, she has found that it works well to reduce harassment incidents and eliminate the "look the other way" atmosphere that enables bullies to thrive. The system is being used at several area elementary schools.
By the time youngsters reach adolescence, unchecked bullying can take the form of hatred against members of other ethnic groups or religions, or gays or lesbians, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
The "Hate Comes Home" video presents students with a quickly escalating scenario involving two boys arriving together at their school's homecoming dance. Students are then introduced to four other teenage characters and asked to make choices about what each of them could do.
The CD-ROM video, which the Anti-Defamation League has distributed to about 800 high schools in California, comes with a detailed discussion guide that includes suggested lesson plans and homework assignments. It can be used in computer labs or conventional classrooms, by entire classes or small groups, officials said.
At Claremont High, the video was used last school year in an English class in which a student was being teased because he had the same name as the gay college student beaten to death in a highly publicized hate crime.
Junior Adam Primack, 17, a leader in tolerance-building programs on and off campus, helped facilitate the showing of the video and discussions over several class periods.
"It's a great program, and it really got everybody's attention," Adam said of the movie, which opens with the murder of the two boys.
Students are then assigned a character, and they make choices for their character that have the power to change the course of events.
"It's very down to earth, and it deals with many different issues -- such as being popular -- not just racism" or anti-gay bias, he said. "I think it connects with many different groups."
Though not every student took the video seriously, he said, he believed "some walked away with a better understanding."
"Even now, some will still come up to me and thank me," Adam said.
Caption: PHOTO: LESSON: Francine Rios-Fetchko, 6, tries to put toothpaste back in a tube. It teaches small children to be careful because they can't take back hurtful words.; PHOTO: TOOLS TO USE: Researcher Ava de la Sota discusses bullying with, from left, Eliseo Gonzalez, 7; Camila Vietina, 5; Alana Adams, 7; Cristian Covarrubias, 5; and Melissa Cruz, 7; at UCLA's Seeds University Elementary School.; PHOTOGRAPHER: Photographs by Annie Wells Los Angeles Times
Credit: Times Staff Writer
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