Bullying Q&A

Kathleen J. Giordano, Megan Moiser, M.A.

Schoolyard bullies have always existed and adults have often diminished their cruelty saying, “boys will be boys” or “bullies back down when you stand up to them.” But children with Tourette Syndrome are often targeted by their peers for an especially cruel dose of bullying and there are constructive things that parents, teachers and children can do. The Tourette Association has tapped two experts Megan Moiser, M.A., Olweus Bully Prevention Trainer, who has TS and Kathy Giordano, the Tourette Association Education Specialist, for insights and strategies that work.

Bullying shouldn’t be confused with friendly teasing or fighting. Megan offers a clear definition of bullying, explaining that three criteria need to be present for a behavior to be bullying:

1: the behavior is done with the intent to harm (physically, emotionally or socially);
2: the behavior is done in a relationship where an imbalance of power exists (power can be a physical difference in size, age or social status)
3: bullying behavior is repeated over time. Bullying takes many forms from physical (punching, hitting, spitting, kicking); verbal (name calling, teasing); and emotional, also called “relational aggression” (non-verbal gestures, social isolation, manipulation of friendships, cyber-bullying). Verbal bullying is the most common form for both boys and girls.

Megan recalled her own experience with bullying. “When I was in high school there was a group of boys who would stand in the hallway by our lockers and mimic my tics as I walked by them. They would call me names like ‘twitcher.’ This is a classic example of bullying behavior, as it was verbal in nature and done in a low supervision environment. No one ever intervened.”

Adults may not be able to distinguish friendly teasing from bullying because the differences are in the relationships between the children. Friends tease in a give and take between equals. All of the participants laugh and smile. Megan advises adults to look at faces. If one child looks scared, uncomfortable or sad, it’s a clue that the verbal teasing has crossed a line into bullying. Fighting, another typical playground behavior, is a completely different phenomenon and the distinction is clear. A fight is a one-time conflict, while bullying is repeated. Determining the difference between joshing friends and verbal bullying is subtle. Some children are simply more accustomed to sarcastic comments, competitive prods, edgy jokes and name-calling. What might be clearly over-theline for one child is evidence of friendship and affection to another. Adults should be aware of a child’s responses and use that as a guide.

The nature of TS symptoms and the confusion between voluntary and involuntary behaviors makes children with TS particularly vulnerable.

“I think the main problem that leads to teasing and bullying in schools is that people do not understand TS or the related difficulties that often are associated with TS. Many symptoms look purposeful so other students and even professionals often believe that the child is saying or acting in a manner that is purposeful. Schools often do not know how to respond to teasing and bullying because they believe that the child is doing these things on purpose to get attention. Everyone knows that a student is not purposefully using a wheel chair because they think it is funny or want to be disrespectful. Symptoms of TS are significantly misinterpreted and therefore school personnel do not know how to respond,” Kathy said.

Kathy offers two strategies for changing the environment that inspires or tolerates bullying: educating people and nurturing the strengths of the child with TS. By altering the institutional attitude toward differences, the bully’s audience is limited.

“When we educate teachers, they are more likely to provide positive support which results in academic success. Educate classmates and there is an understanding and acceptance. Children are more likely to tease other children who have difficulties that are foreign to them. When they hear explanations early on and in a manner that is matter-of-fact, there is typically less reason to tease or bully. It comes down to ‘attitude.’ What is the attitude of the other students toward differences? Is it something the school celebrates or is it something that is discouraged or not a focus?” Kathy said.

When children with TS receive the encouragement they need to excel both academically and socially, they are better able to handle the ups and downs of a social life at school.

“I think it comes down to focusing on the strengths of the child as they are growing up so that they have a good self-esteem. As my son Matt says, ‘It is more important to water the flowers than the weeds.’ Pay more attention to a person’s strengths instead of focusing so much attention on difficulties. Children generally know all too well what their difficulties are and that they are different. When the ‘difference’ involves something positive, they are more likely to not be afraid to let others know about this strength. This not only reduces teasing/bullying, but also diminishes the impact it has on the youngster,” Kathy said.

Another great online resource for anti-bullying information, downloads and videos for kids, teens and adults is through PACER’s website.

Many parents and teachers give advice that simply does not work. One, often repeated, suggestion is to “fight back,” but Kathy warns about the possible consequences of matching physical bullying with a counter attack. Families sometimes send their children to martial arts classes, assuming that the instructor will include self-control in the curriculum. “I’ve never recommended it, because I am uncomfortable encouraging a youngster who has difficulty with being impulsive as well as controlling emotions. I have heard stories where a youngster with TS finally stands up to the bully either verbally or aggressively and the bullying has stopped. But not often — what I hear more is that the youngster with TS finally stands up to the bully and gets suspended from school and labeled as an aggressive and dangerous person,” Kathy said. With zero tolerance rules in schools, teaching an actively aggressive response can easily backfire. This also teaches that violence is a socially acceptable solution to problems. “Violence is not a long term strategy. While getting into a fight in elementary school may result in suspension, later in life the consequences for violence become more severe. Finally, and most importantly, telling your child to ‘fight back’ sends him or her the message that they are on their own in solving this problem, that there is nothing you can or will do to help. This is not the message we want to send our children,” Megan said.

When bullying occurs, adults need to intervene. But many parents are at a loss as to how to proceed.

“Parents should begin by asking to see the school’s policy on bullying. It is possible that the school does not have one or hopefully they will then develop one. If they do have one, a parent will then be aware of what the school is supposed to do regarding bullying and can remind school officials of this when their child is being teased or bullied,” Kathy said.

She points to a government-sponsored training for school personnel

Megan offers some clear rules for children when dealing with bullies:
• Do NOT tell your child to ignore bullying. Bullying is peer abuse and ignoring it is passive acceptance.
•Do NOT blame your child by suggesting ways he can change to discourage the attention of bullies. Instead, make sure your child knows he is not at fault.
•Do NOT encourage a physical response.
•Do NOT contact the parents of the bully. This may escalate the problem.
•DO contact your child’s teacher and school administration. Provide the factual information that your child shared with you about what, where, when and who. Express your willingness to work with the school to ensure that the bullying behavior comes to an end. Communicate frequently with your child and adults at school. Stay on top of this issue until it is fully resolved.

Parents need to understand that it’s unlikely the school will be able to end bullying overnight. In addition to keeping lines of communication open, parents can work to empower their child.

“Teach your child the difference between ‘tattling’ and ‘telling.’ Help your child identify adults in the environment that he or she feels safe talking to about the bullying. Communicate to these adults that your child may come to them for safety. Role-play with your child. Practice strong body language and an assertive tone of voice. In responding to bullying behavior it is important that your child not react emotionally, this is exactly what the bully wants to see. Instead practice standing up straight, making eye contact and saying, ‘Stop it. You can’t do that to me,’ in an assertive — but not angry — voice followed by walking away and going to either a group of peers or a trusted adult,” Megan said.

Teachers and school administrators play a critical role in preventing and ending bullying.

“Teachers need to role model acceptance in a manner that is not patronizing or demeaning. I have seen situations where teachers interpret TS symptoms as purposeful disrespect and they can fall into the role of being a bully. One teacher let the class know that she was disappointed when the student with TS entered the room and was relieved when he was absent. Children pick up on whether the teacher respects the youngster with TS as ‘having’ a problem or as ‘being’ the problem,” Kathy said.

She encourages parents to educate teachers and school administrators, but also keep in mind that drowning them in too much information will likely mean they will read none of it. She suggests a one-page description emphasizing the child’s strengths and interests. It’s important to start with a positive, brief message.

“I think the video ‘I Have Tourette’s but Tourette’s Doesn’t Have Me’ can be helpful in educating teachers to the damage that can be done to youngsters by their peers who make fun of their disability,” Kathy said.

She recalled how a middle school principal turned a bullying situation around. The boy had TS and OCD. His obsession with being the last to touch another person was exploited by bullying classmates.

“A few boys knew about his difficulty and devised a plan where three of them would touch this boy at the same time and then run in three different directions so that he could not get ‘the last touch.’ The boy’s anxiety resulted in an extremely negative response that encouraged the bullies to do this at every opportunity. When the principal learned of this she invited the three boys to stay after school to watch a video about TS and to write an essay. One boy was very moved by the experience and wrote a letter of apology to the boy without anyone asking him to do this,” Kathy said.

The other two boys continued their bullying ‘game’ so the principal calmly told them that they had not understood the video and would need to stay after school and watch it until they did. A second boy apologized and the third stopped bullying. It took time, but persistence and education succeeded in ending the harassment.

Megan teams teachers and classmates as they are both bystanders to bullying and therefore key to successful prevention. This works when the school takes bullying seriously by educating students, faculty and staff and by having a clear message about the responsibility of bystanders.

Because bullying is an antisocial behavior, consequences limiting social privileges are natural and logical. As most classmates are bystanders and not perpetrators, teachers need to be open to reports of bullying from bystanders and classmates need to understand that they have an important role to play. Passively witnessing another student being bullied enables the bully to continue.

“As adults we need to empower students with tools and strategies to help and communicate our expectation that they must do something. Student actions can range from verbally intervening when bullying is occurring and speaking up in defense of the student being bullied to an anonymous note in a teacher’s mailbox,” Megan said.

Cyber-bullying is on the rise. It’s a natural consequence in the rapid adoption of new technologies. Megan warns that cyber-bullying provides a layer of anonymity giving bullies opportunities that don’t involve face-to-face confrontations. Malicious gossip, cruel nicknames and embarrassing videos can spread quickly in electronic formats, flying beneath the radar of adults. Parents increase their chances of uncovering cyber-bullying by keeping computers in family rooms and — most of all — talking with their children.

“Talk with your children about appropriate uses of e-mail, text messaging and social networking sites, like Facebook. Communicate with your children about bullying and explain what it is, specifically cyber-bullying.

Ensure that they know they can come to you and that you will support them and that, together, you will decide what to do if it happens to them,” Megan said.

Changing the Environment that Tolerates Bullying Through Awareness

Bullying flourishes in environments that accept it as a normal part of childhood interactions. Parents, teachers, school administrators — and most of all students — who become aware of Tourette Syndrome are much less likely to enable the bullies who target children with TS and other ‘differences.’ Many members of the Tourette Association, including Tourette Association Youth Ambassadors, are taking an active role in spreading awareness. Awareness is our most potent weapon in a battle against bullying.

The Individualized Education Plan (IEP) team at school, which includes the parent, can also identify strategies that can be written into the IEP to help stop the bullying. It may be helpful to involve your child, when appropriate, in the decision-making process. Such strategies include:

Encouraging your school to enact innovative bullying prevention practices. An example of this involves promoting peer leadership to create a culture among the students of tolerance and acceptance of others.

Identifying a trusted adult in the school whom your child can report to or go to for assistance.

Having the school staff consistently reassure your child that he or she has a “right to be safe” and that bullying is not his or her fault.

Determining how school staff will document and report bullying incidents.
Agreeing, in advance, on how any students doing the bullying will be treated. It is important to recognize that students who bully have a unique set of issues which must also be addressed.

Allowing the child to leave class early, or to sit closest to the classroom door so that he or she may unobtrusively leave first, to avoid hallway incidents.
Holding separate meetings for school staff and classroom peers to help them understand TS.

Including the child’s bus driver in any discussions of TS. Bullying often occurs on the school bus, and the driver can be an invaluable ally for your child.
Educating peers about school district policies on bullying behavior, including how students who bully will be treated.

Having the school staff discreetly shadow the student who has been bullied. Shadowing could be done in hallways, classrooms, playgrounds and while students arrive and depart from school.

There are advantages and disadvantages with any of these approaches, therefore working to establish good communication with the school is advisable to promote the best outcomes.

If bullying is based on your child’s TS or Tic Disorders, it may violate your child’s federal legal rights under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

In a letter to colleagues issued on October 26, 2010, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights informed all U.S. public schools that bullying and harassment, including harassment of one student by another, can be a form of prohibited discrimination. Federal law prohibits discrimination, including harassment, in education programs and activities, on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, gender or disability. However, not all bullying constitutes “harassment,” and the specific conduct must be examined by designated authorities to determine if civil rights were violated.

Meet with the principal and share what you have heard about past bullying incidents, explain how the situation is affecting your child, and ask the principal what the school can do to keep your child safe at school and on the bus.
Ask if the school has a written policy on bullying and harassment. If it does, request a written copy. Keep a written record of what happened at meetings, including names and dates and, if appropriate, share these written records with school administration and teachers.

If a bullying situation is not resolved after meeting with the principal, you should send a brief, factual letter or e-mail to the district superintendent requesting a meeting to discuss the problem. Copies of this letter can also be sent to the principal, special education director, and chair of the school board. Be sure to keep a copy.

You may also wish to contact a parent center or advocacy organization for assistance. Many Tourette Association chapters offer education, resources and other supports.