My Son's Principal Just Called to Tell Me My Son Was Referred For Bullying. Where Did I go Wrong?
[Part five of Amy's five part series on bullying]
January 16, 2016
It is the phone call you dread. You see the name of your child’s school on the caller id and you assume the worst. Billy is sick, he is having a melt-down or someone hurt him. Instead, it is the vice principal telling you that while Billy is fine, he was just referred for bullying. “Not Billy”, you say. But yes, it is your child who has done something cruel or hurtful.
In order to know what to do, we must first figure out the why. As with any behavior that your child is exhibiting, whether the child has special needs or not, you want to know the “function” of the behavior – why the child is acting the way he is. When my own son was bullied in middle school, and they were interviewing the bully who admitted his conduct, they asked him why and he had no idea. Both the counselor and I privately wondered whether he was being abused at home and was acting out on someone he perceived to be weaker, a common finding in bullying victims. Indeed, my own son refused to tell me for weeks that he was being bullied; he finally disclosed after hauling off with a right hook on his little brother in the middle of the GAP. When I asked my own son why he had hit his brother, he gave me the same “I don’t know” answer. Sure, little brothers antagonize big brothers but this physical response was new, and totally out of character. He privately told his counselor the next day and she finally was able to get him to tell me what was going on. The truth was that my own son was feeling so belittled and pathetic about his own existence because of the bullying he was enduring, that subconsciously he was acting out against someone he perceived to be weaker because he was unable to act out in response to the bully.
On the other hand, maybe what you are hearing is an explanation that does make sense. Maybe your own child is responding “in kind” to bullying he is enduring. Again, I look back at my own son’s situation. One bully was tormenting him in the locker room during the change out time. He tried strategies that his counselor had suggested to him – “I messages”, “making a joke”, turning his back. None of them worked. One day, he punched his abuser in the stomach. He punched him HARD. He got a round of loud applause from his peers but the bullying did not stop with that incident. I later learned about this when my son “came clean” about his abuse and it gave me a lot of ammunition when I was meeting with the administrators whose first response was “the coach is present in the locker room and supervises during the change out”. I responded, “No, he does not. He sits at his desk at the other end of the room, doing paperwork. “ The vice principal denied this and said that there was supervision. I then looked at him and said, “Look. You have no idea what is going on. I do. What happened last Monday could NOT have occurred in the presence of supervision or you would have learned about it but suffice it to say, the PE coach was nowhere in the vicinity when the incident occurred.” The Vice Principal said, “What are you talking about”. I said, “Look, no one reported any of this to you but there was a significant incident, that was witnessed by the entire 8th grade class, the coach was nowhere around, no one ratted out the involved students and my son is being bullied.” I was NOT going to rat out my own son. Yes, his actions were “justified” in the sense that he was provoked but in the school setting, hitting another child is NEVER excused. As such, as long as it was not reported, there was nothing they could do to my son. When they brought in the abuser, he did not have the guts to blame my son as he knew he had instigated the response by harassing him with a string of gay-bash invectives.
Knowing the WHY will help you respond to the WHAT. If your child has special needs, it is imperative to meet with the IEP team to provide adequate supports and supervision as well as training so that your child is NOT using physical action to communicate/respond. Having a behavior plan for a bully is imperative for his future; a plan that identifies his behavior as “bullying” or “hitting” will provide protection in the event he engages in the behavior again. Schools cannot expel a child for behavior that is due to his or her disability. A behavior plan, however, goes much further than simply self-protection; the goal is to also teach the child what he or she needs to not behave inappropriately but to get the same functional benefit in appropriate ways. Much bullying type behavior (hitting, pushing, etc) may be communicative in intent – a child is trying to protest of object to something and is doing so inappropriately. Whether he understands that is what he is doing or not, the goal is to teach the child to communicate appropriately. So, if you have a non-verbal child who is attempting to protest and does not have words to do so, and, instead, hits someone (teacher, another student, whatever), it is important to provide both supervision (e.g. aide support) to protect others as well as instruction to teach the child another form of communication. If he is angry, he can be taught to stomp his foot. If he is frustrated with what you are asking him to do, he can be taught to “ask” for help with picture communication cards, augmentative communication software, or sign language. The key is understanding WHY the child is acting out and providing protection NOW while teaching the child what he or she needs to know to better conform his behavior in the future.
There are some kids, however, who simply do not have the cognitive ability to be taught how to conform their behavior. They may be horribly sensorily dysregulated, noise averse, or a host of other things and, they respond with hitting. The options for such a child in a public school setting are difficult. I had one such child on my caseload and they literally roped him off from the rest of the class in his own little cubicle where he was taught 1:1 for the protection of others. Of course, he regularly abused the aides as well, putting several out on workers comp. The district refused to consider a private placement for this child, claiming that he COULD be educated in that setting. While I fought and fought to try to get placement in a private school, I was not successful because every time we would meet, they would propose up some other suggestion. First it was augmentative communication. It took 3 months to complete the evaluation, another 3 months to order and program the iPad, and then they kept saying that we needed to give time so that he could learn how to use the iPad to communicate (we had concluded that the behavior was largely communicative in intent). Unfortunately, sometimes, it is hard to fight against this type of delay and you simply have to keep going through the motions, gathering data, meeting monthly to review the data and keeping them accountable for the student’s behavior.
Other times, however, the behavior may be inadvertently negatively reinforced by the staff involved. A student may be acting out against other students as a way to get attention or avoid work. The minute the child hits someone, he is removed from the class. If he wants attention or to avoid work, he just got it when he was removed from the class. I worked with such a child several years ago. I knew it was the aide who was creating the environment for more and more aggressive behavior. This child put several aides out on workers comp and the school simply wanted to warehouse him in a low functioning class. I fought for a private provided aide, from a non-public agency, who was specifically trained in behavior management. IT didn’t take long to reform this child’s inappropriate behavior and replace it with appropriate communication once a well-trained aide was in place.
If the child is more cognitively aware, and is bullying others, but the bullying is considered to be part of his disability, again, it is critical to get a good behavioralist on the team to evaluate the function of the behavior and create a positive behavioral management program to try to reform the behavior. Schools often think punishment and consequences are the answer to most bullying behavior; teachers will tell you that the child MUST suffer consequences or they do not learn from their misconduct. As a parent, it is easy to fall into this response because, after all, if your typical child hit someone else, you would punish them, right? If your child is high enough functioning to understand that his behavior was wrong, he should be punished, right?
The research shows, however, that it is positive behavioral management strategies that are effective and positive behavioral management is what is required by the IDEA, the federal law that governs special education. So, if you have a disabled child, even one that is high functioning, if the child’s bullying behavior is a manifestation of his disability, the response should NOT be punishment but a comprehensive positive behavioral management system, created by someone with GOOD behavioral credentials (e.g. a BCBA – Board Certified Behavioral Analyst), to help extinguish the maladaptive behavior and replace it with positive actions. This requires knowing why the behavior occurs. Was the behavior because your child just “doesn’t like” his victim, or some such explanation. This would still be communicative in intent. We would need to teach him to communicate his dislike in socially appropriate ways (e.g. ignore the kid you do not like). How any team chooses to respond to specific behavior is not something that can be addressed globally here as it requires a comprehensive analysis of the function of the behavior and knowing the child and what can be done to reach the child to help extinguish the bad behavior and replace it with appropriate substitute behavior. The key, however, is teaching, not punishment.
Now, not all bullies have special needs. Some, are just cruel, awful children, picking on those weaker than they are. Many have some underlying issues with abusive parents, or have been brought up in a home where intolerance is seen daily and they are simply modeling what they have seen. Hate is learned (other than in sociopaths). If your child is typical, and is being referred for bullying, my suggestion is not much different than what you would expect for a child with special needs. You would want to try to determine a function of the behavior – why is the child acting out against another. I suspect that most typical bullies would claim that they don’t know why they act this way (assuming they admit that they engaged in the conduct) as they would understand that their conduct was inappropriate. While the school may suggest punishment (e.g. suspension or other discipline), my suggestion is to work WITH the school to create a more positive and appropriate response. Suggest an educational program where the child does research, reading, or other instructional activity to learn more about bulling and its consequences and then write an essay/research paper about how bullying impacts the victim (e.g. perspective taking). Instead of punishment (e.g. suspension), suggest community service such as volunteering in the special needs class as a “best buddy”. Recommend some sort of “first offender” program that wipes the offense off his record if he “stays clean” for the rest of his educational tenure. Incentivize appropriate behavior.
I am not suggesting that there be no consequences. I am suggesting that the consequences be educational – designed to help your child learn the impact of his actions. With the upcoming release of the new move BULLY and so much being written about bullying now, there would be much out there in the way of information to read and appreciate. The goal is to teach him appropriate behavior; I am not sure how spanking a child, locking him in his room for 2 weeks, taking away his screens or other similar punitive measures teaches them about the consequences of their actions. Making them learn about what impact they have and then writing about it is a significant consequence. Maybe they have to do their reading during a lunch detention period for some further consequence. The point here is that schools typically think of short term punitive measures that do little to comfort a victim and do less to teach the bully. Thus, as a parent of a bully, you should be proactive in helping to teach your child by providing appropriate curriculum and opportunity for them to learn how their actions impact others.
As a parent, the best thing you can do for ALL of your children is model tolerance. Find teachable moments to talk to your children about how to treat others. Watch GLEE with them and talk to them about being an intervenor (a student who stands up for others being bullied and telling abusers that their conduct “is not cool”). When you hear intolerant language in the real world, call the speaker out. Just last week, I was on the phone with my doctor’s office to change an appointment and the secretary was having issues with her computer and referred to it as “retarded”. I gave her an earful about how hurtful her words were to many and how offensive they were to me, as someone who works with special needs children. When my nephew used the same word years ago as a synonym for the word “stupid”, I made him go and watch Soren Palumbo’s speech (See part 4 of my bullying series). I later learned that he was afraid of me for years but heck, that’s okay. He learned something very important that day. I regularly call out my children’s friends when they are over and use intolerant language. Do you do the same? More importantly, are you modeling intolerance at home? When my son started an anti-bullying club – www.vachi.net – and wrote a newsletter with an editorial about the “Think Before You Speak” campaign (designed to end the “That’s So Gay” problem), his teacher admitted to her students that she regularly said these words with her friends and how she vowed to reform. But how often do we have such role models in the real world?
Bullying is not a rite of passage. It is not something that kids need to suck up, endure and get over. Bullying is hate motivated behavior that needs to be stopped. Until and unless we take a global approach to bullying, we will continue to have victims and, unfortunately, many of them will be children with disabilities, who simply do not have the social skills to have a large network of friends (who help derail and prevent bullying) or the social intuitiveness to respond effectively if they are victimized. My hope is that I have provided some food for thought and some ideas to share in the event that you are on the unfortunate end of a bullying situation.
Feel free to share this series with your friends and colleagues.
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