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Bullying is Low Where Learning is High

By Rick Ackerly

Child2Joan (name changed for obvious reasons of confidentiality) was sitting at her desk in the school office when a certain third grader, call her Freda, arrived at the doorway.

“Hi, Freda,” Joan greeted her and asked with a smile, “Why are you here?” Joan’s face, voice and body all communicated: “I am glad to see you. I am always glad to see you whatever the circumstances.”

Freda went straight to the table in the corner of the room and sat in a chair with her mad face on and didn’t answer.

“What’s the matter, Freda? Why are you here?”

When Freda again didn’t answer, Joan went back to her work. One of the lessons she has learned from being principal of a school here in Decatur is, “When someone else is acting like my two-year-old, I don’t react. It’s about me. When I am dealing with a terrible two, I become terrible mom.

“Another take away from years of being an educator is that you have to give kids time. When their amygdala is engaged, they aren’t their best selves. One person in fight-or-flight mode is plenty right now, let’s not make it two.”

It wasn’t long, however, before arms-across-her-chest Freda looked up and said, “I got in a fight in the lunch room, but it wasn’t my fault,” and then pointed her pouty face back to the floor.

“I’m sure it wasn’t your fault. Did you make any mistakes?”

Again, silence.

Then, “I should go to the APR room,” and off she went.

A human being has been solving social problems from the moment she is born. By the time she is in third grade she has eight or nine years of experience with disagreements, disappointments and discontinuities between self and other. That’s somewhere around 70,000 hours building emotional intelligence. We can respect Freda for taking responsibility for a conflict that was “not her fault,” and admire Joan’s wisdom. In most cases it is counter-productive to label a child a bully, if they can self-identify as simply having made a stupid mistake.

That very week, Joan had another visitor—a fifth grade boy whose father is always calling her to report, “Bruce was bullied again yesterday.”

Today, the bully seemed to be Bruce. He had humiliated a girl in his class—someone whose social skills are below average.

“What did you do?”

“I called Sabrina a loser.”

“Well, what can you do to fix it?”

Joan’s question stopped Bruce in his tracks. He wasn’t expecting that. He was expecting some sort of anti-bullying lecture on respect, responsibility and the golden rule.

“I don’t know,” he replied with that “Huh” look on his face.

“Well, if someone did that to you, what could they do to fix it?” asked Joan.

“Huh. Well, they could say sorry.”

“Would that fix it?”

“Well, no. They would have to promise they would never do it again. …And I would want them to do something nice for me.”

“Like what?” asked Joan.

“They could say they would be my friend.”

“Would that fix it?”


“Well, then, we will bring Sabrina in here and you can fix it.”

And he did.

When the word “bully” is used, the amygdala is immediately engaged, and creative thinking is inhibited. In other words people go crazy—especially loving parents and other caring educators.

There is a good reason why the word “mad” came to mean what it does. Yes, children being mean to each other makes me angry. Yes, feeling angry about such things is good (it shows that I have a heart and I care), but over the years I learned that being angry is being mad, He who gets mad loses; he who learns the most wins.

Joan was brilliant in both cases. No question that she was dealing with bullying—technically speaking. On the other hand it is also true that she is dealing with children who are passionately working on developing their social-emotional intelligence. She chose wisely when she decided to be these children’s educator rather than their prosecutor and judge. If she does her job right at this age, they may never have to “stand before the judge.”

Joan is not naïve, either. She knows that keeping the children safe includes making sure that bullies get their comeuppance. Just last year she had a child expelled. However, she knows that at the core of a safe environment is the general feeling that it is okay for each of us to be our own imperfect selves. That’s why we go to school anyway, isn’t it? Because we have something to learn.

Posted on February 8, 2012 by Rick Ackerly

Rick Ackerly is a nationally recognized educator and speaker with forty-five years of experience working in schools. He has served as headmaster of four independent schools, and he speaks to parent and school groups across the country and presents at numerous education conferences. Visit his blog at www.rickackerly.com. He lives in Decatur, Illinois.

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Permalink   Comments (4)   Send to a Friend

Tags: Bullying Prevention, Character Development, Positive Discipline

Posted February 24, 2012 by rick ackerly
Dear you&me,
would you categorize suspension as a violent act? a punishment? or a consequence of unacceptable social behavior? 

Posted February 24, 2012 by you&me
A good read. I also believe that bullying should not be met with violence. PunishingPunishing the bully won't make the situation go away. So talking about it calmly will be a good way to prevent from this happening again. A very good articla all in all. :) 

Posted February 8, 2012 by Marilyn
Great article, Rick! 

Posted February 8, 2012 by Ugo
Hello Rick,
I am always excited to read about other professionals in the field who believe that punishing bullies isn't the answer. Great post. I am going to tweet this. 


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