Bullying and Autism: How to Spot It—and Stop It

By Elizabeth Verdick and Elizabeth Reeve, M.D., authors of The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (And Their Parents)

1 in 3 students are bullied during the school year.

1 out of 4 are bullied every day.

Those with autism are especially at risk for being bullied.

Bullying and Autism: How to Spot It—and Stop ItBullying is when one student, or a group of students, purposely and repeatedly targets another student in a way that causes physical, social, or emotional harm. The ones doing the bullying usually have an advantage of some kind over those being bullied: size, strength, or popularity.

As moms, we’re angered and saddened by the bullying statistics we see. As moms of sons on the spectrum, we can’t help but worry—a lot. Kids with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) are often easy targets because they’re socially vulnerable and may have trouble advocating for themselves. As parents and educators, we all play a role in helping make our kids and communities more aware of the issues of bullying and autism.

Sean (names of students have been changed to protect their privacy) was targeted in middle school when a group of students stole all the stuff from his locker and hid it. Because of his ASD, Sean had difficulty understanding and communicating what happened. When his mom noticed Sean didn’t have his backpack, he only said, “I lost my stuff today.” But his mom knew there was more to the story—it wasn’t the first time her son had been targeted. She had to report the incident on Sean’s behalf and help locate the missing belongings. She also had to convince school staff members that Sean was being bullied.

Niko, another middle schooler, had trouble on the bus, a place where bullying often occurs (other popular places for bullying are school bathrooms and playgrounds, where supervision isn’t as high). Niko liked sameness and routine, and he had a favorite bus seat. Some of the other kids noticed this and targeted Niko by purposely sitting in his preferred seat to provoke a reaction. Although one student in particular started the bullying, other kids soon followed suit. They took turns sitting in “Niko’s seat” each day on the way to school to upset him. The bus driver wasn’t aware of the situation, especially since multiple kids were playing this game of musical chairs. One day, the bus arrived at school, and a teacher who knew Niko well noticed how upset he looked. When she asked him what was wrong, the whole story came out. The teacher helped put a stop to the bullying and made sure to inform the bus driver so he knew what to watch for.

Maria was bullied in high school. Like Niko, she liked certain things to be the same, and this rigidity was reflected in her clothing and appearance. She dressed in all blue from head to toe, every single day. She had tactile sensitivities, so she wore a blue turtleneck and soft blue pants no matter the season. Her family bought her multiple sets of the same clothes so she had something clean to wear every day. It’s no surprise that Maria was an easy target. A group of popular girls constantly teased and mocked Maria about her appearance and found it hilarious when she wouldn’t change for gym. The verbal abuse finally grew so unbearable that Maria reported the students. The school responded appropriately, and Maria used the experience to share information about autism with other students, telling them about the challenges she faced. Nothing would have changed if Maria hadn’t found the courage to speak up. However, many students don’t.

As adults, we sometimes have to speak up for the kids who are the most vulnerable, while also teaching them the tools for self-advocacy. Keep your eyes and ears open, so you’re tuned in to bullying and ready to step in.

What you can do:

  • Turn on your bully radar. Is an ASD student coming to class late, upset, injured, or not at all? Are any of his or her belongings missing or damaged, and do you suspect bullying? If you’re a parent of a child with autism, encourage conversations about how students treat each other at school, on the bus, and during extracurricular activities. Ask questions even if your child isn’t keen on conversation.
  • Teach about bullying at home and in school. Discuss how bullying plays out physically, verbally, and socially. Suggest ways students can stand up for themselves and others.
  • If you witness bullying, stop the incident immediately. Protect the student who has been bullied and give fair consequences to other students involved.
  • Share stories about bullying from your own life or from famous people’s lives. Encourage students to read fiction books about bullying and talk about the stories in class or at home.
  • Role-play incidents of bullying with students or with your child at home. Encourage kids to play different roles: the person bullying, the target, a bystander. Encourage empathy and self-advocacy. Kids who have ASD often need to practice repeatedly.
  • When students report bullying, take quick, effective action. Know and follow the school’s procedures. If your school needs to do a better job of prevention and response, work with the staff to help make that happen.

Author Elizabeth VerdickElizabeth Verdick has been writing books since 1997, the year her daughter was born. Her two children are the inspiration for nearly everything she writes. Previously, she shared her personal story, Telling My Son He Has Autism, on this blog. These days, she writes books for babies, toddlers, teens, and every age in between. She especially loves creating new board book series—the Happy Healthy Baby® series is now available. The Toddler Tools® series helps young children and their parents cope with those tough times and transitions that happen every day (like naptime and bedtime). The Best Behavior® series helps toddlers reach new milestones and improve their day-to-day behavior. Elizabeth also enjoys getting the chance to look at the funny side of life in the Laugh and Learn® series, which helps kids ages 8 to 13 get a handle on the social-emotional skills they’re developing throughout the elementary and middle school years.

Elizabeth Reeve, M.D.Elizabeth Reeve, M.D., is a child psychiatrist in Minnesota, and her clinical work focuses primarily on children and adults with developmental disabilities. In addition to her research and patient care, Elizabeth is involved in teaching, speaks in the community to educate others in the field of developmental disabilities, and helps young adults with ASD transition into college and the work force.

Elizabeth Verdick and Elizabeth Reeve are coauthors of The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (And Their Parents). Elizabeth Verdick is also coauthor of Stand Up to Bullying!

The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (And Their Parents)Stand Up to Bullying

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Building Character in Kids with Nature’s Lessons

By Barbara A. Lewis, author of Building Character with True Stories from Nature. This post was originally published July 25, 2013.

Building Character in Kids with Natures LessonsWeldon lost his homework somewhere between the front door of the school and the school bus. He regularly lost it—dropping it in puddles or allowing the wind to whisk it away. When he arrived home with his latest excuse, his mom did not smile. She had tried rewarding him if he demonstrated responsibility. She had tried withdrawing privileges if he didn’t. But nothing seemed to stick with Weldon.

Despite her disappointment, his mother refrained from scolding Weldon. Instead, she chose to be positive. “I’m going to show you what your sister, Maria, does to be so dependable,” she explained. She showed Maria’s planner to Weldon, explaining how his sister documented everything. It was a great demo, but it was clear that Weldon was not listening.

Although Weldon’s mother should be congratulated for her positive approach, comparing him with Maria is not a great way to develop dependability (or appreciation of his sister). Weldon probably developed more resentment toward Maria than responsibility to his homework. He might have become sidetracked with hurt feelings or anger, completely missing the lesson his mother was trying to teach him.

Comparison can be a good tool. Scientific studies have demonstrated that students learn at a deeper level and can apply information better when stories with analogies are used in teaching. But the comparison needs to be a safe distance from the child.

Opportunities for teaching good character occur daily in the home, community, and school. And a safe, fun, and natural way to do it is with stories from nature. It is less likely that a child will feel threatened when you make a comparison with a pig or a weasel.

Suppose Weldon’s mother had used a story from nature to demonstrate responsibility. She might have explained how penguins care for their unhatched and baby chicks. Penguins huddle together to create enough body heat to stay warm in their harsh environments. Both female and male penguins cooperate in keeping their egg warm, because if they don’t, the egg will never hatch. And if they don’t take turns babysitting and allow their partner to hunt for food, both the male and female will die. Told in detail, it is an emotionally motivating story.

A discussion of this kind of story can teach:

  • The importance of responsibility and cooperation. Just like penguins, everyone in a family or classroom needs to perform certain tasks so that goals can be met.
  • The consequences when someone doesn’t carry out responsibilities. In the penguin story, the consequences are that the penguins die. But what if a teacher doesn’t show up to teach, or a parent doesn’t show up for work? What happens if no one washes clothes?

Other examples of stories from nature that can help develop character:

  • Cats usually demonstrate curiosity. However, curiosity can sometimes get cats into trouble—such as the cat that gets trapped on a high tree branch and needs to be rescued. Curiosity is a good quality for people to develop, too. However, just like cats, curiosity without caution can get people into trouble. And sometimes people need to be rescued by an understanding adult.
  • The metalmark moth is nature’s quick-change artist and master of disguise. It can confuse a jumping spider by mimicking the spider, gaining a few seconds to fly away and avoid becoming lunch for the spider. This story can lead into a discussion of maintaining your own identity instead of copying other people, which is a type of integrity or being true to yourself, even if sometimes we need to adapt to a situation.
  • The aspen tree’s strength is found in this secret: Underground, a family of trees shares one root system. So when one tree (branch of the same plant) dies, another aspen pops up quickly. The aspen tree provides a great vehicle for the discussion of cooperation or Character Building Lesson: Amazing Elephantsconnectedness.

Bonus! Download Amazing Elephants, a collection of stories from Building Character with True Stories from Nature. Use these fun and powerful stories about elephants to help students make analogies between elephants’ behavior and human character traits like friendship, caring, tolerance, acceptance, peacefulness, and respect. Also included is a full-color photo of two frolicking elephants for use in your lesson.

Have you experienced any good stories from life and nature that can help develop better character?

Barbara Lewis, Free Spirit AuthorBarbara A. Lewis is an author and educator who teaches kids how to think and solve real problems. Her elementary school students initiated the cleanup of hazardous waste, improved sidewalks, planted thousands of trees, and even instigated and pushed through several state laws and an amendment to a national law. She has been featured in many national newspapers, magazines, and news programs. Her books have won Parenting’s Reading Magic Award and been named “Best of the Best for Children” by the American Library Association, among other honors.

Barbara’s many books include:

What Do You Stand For? For KidsWhat Do You Stand For? For TeensThe Kid’s Guide to Service ProjectsThe Teen Guide to Global Action

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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Teaching Leadership Skills Using Digital Platforms

By Mariam G. MacGregor, author of Building Everyday Leadership in All Teens

Teaching Leadership Skills Using Digital PlatformsLike most things, the best way to learn a skill is to apply it immediately. Truth is, we all feel more comfortable having opportunities to learn a bit about the skill, practice the skill, and if all goes as planned, receive some kind of feedback about our success in applying that skill.

Teaching leadership skills is no different.

My experience has shown that interactive initiatives are effective in teaching leadership to teens for a few reasons. Most importantly, teens eschew learning theory and thrive on getting things done through relationships and peer connections. They generally enjoy working with peers to solve problems and plan, which is overwhelmingly how leadership skills are best developed.

With digital platforms for collaborative learning in grades K–12 on the rise, students are increasingly completing class projects using Google Docs, PowerPoint, and Prezi. Teens interact and build relationships in their free time using Instagram, GroupMe, Twitter, and Facebook, not to mention YouTube, gaming, films, and everyday face-to-face social activities.

A recently released decade-long study of the digital lives of teens conducted by the Pew Research Center indicates that teenagers’ social lives are thriving online. Yet, teen leaders repeatedly tell me they feel unprepared to lead in ways that a) they want to, and b) adults expect them to in real-life circumstances.

Therefore, when it comes to building teen leadership skills, educators are tasked with balancing the use of cool digital methods and “best of” aspects of social media with relevant real-life leadership skill building.

Group Projects Redesigned
I have yet to meet a teacher (including ELA teachers) who says, “I love reading every single word of every essay I assign to my students.” With digital platforms, there are many methods for measuring knowledge and growth without assigning an essay.

When students (in groups or individually) prepare videos using iMovie (free), Animoto (free), or YouTube (free), or comic strips using Toontastic (free) or Pixton ($8.99/month or district subscription), they engage skills in creative storyboarding or script writing. The end products are creative and entertaining, and students have also developed leadership skills through working together, setting goals and schedules, negotiating roles, and implementing various communication skills including writing.

Another great tool is Storybird (free), a visual storytelling platform that was started by an editor previously with HarperCollins. Students and educators can use Storybird to write and read stories, access artwork from Storybird’s incredible archive, and connect to a safe creative community. When student groups use Storybird to create a book together, their leadership skills are put to work—from developing content, negotiating design, and coordinating artwork with words to launching an end product into a viewing space.

If you need a quick, easy tool for creating puzzles or word games, consider having students use Wordle (free) or Tagzedo (free). To focus activities using these platforms on leadership, ask student groups to brainstorm words associated with leadership followed by creating a Tagzedo using their word list.

Tracking Accomplishments
Competency-based learning lends itself to guiding students to create online portfolios where they can take control and archive their learning journey. This can be accomplished by having students design their own website using Wix (free), WordPress (free), or Blogger (free) or integrating a campus- or district-wide portfolio management tool like Digication (district subscription) or Evernote (free).

If you really enjoy learning about digital platforms that accomplish academic goals while integrating leadership development, there is an increasing Twitter base focused on these topics. To get started, follow @edutopia, @edtechtimes, and @edtech_k12 or search for hashtags such as #edchat and #edtech.

Digital platforms and software are an engaging method to involve students of all ages in their personal growth as leaders. How are you integrating digital platforms to continue to build a culture of leadership in your setting?

Author Mariam G. MacGregor, M.S.Mariam G. MacGregor, M.S., served as the school counselor and coordinator of leadership programs at an alternative high school in Colorado. While there, she received honorable mention for Counselor of the Year. Now, she’s a nationally recognized leadership consultant who works with schools (K–12 and higher education), nonprofit agencies, faith groups, and communities interested in developing meaningful, sustainable leadership efforts for kids, teens, and young adults. She founded Youthleadership.com (now mariammacgregor.com) to provide support to youth leaders and individuals working with them.

Free Spirit books by Mariam MacGregor:

Building Everyday Leadership in All TeensBuilding Everyday Leadership in All KidsEveryday LeadershipTeambuilding with Teens

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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Class Clowns: Discover What’s Behind the Behavior

Part of our Cash in on Learning Series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

Class Clowns: Discover What's Behind the BehaviorJust about every classroom has one: the class clown. During middle school and high school, I was that dreaded jokester. In one of my classes, I convinced my classmates to follow my actions during instruction. At 10 a.m. I dropped my pencil—so did everyone else. At 10:05 a.m. I “sneezed”—so did everyone else. At 10:10 a.m. I yawned—so did everyone else. You get the picture. Every five minutes I performed some sort of “stunt,” and my classmates followed along. It didn’t take long for the teacher to catch on and remove me from class. I got what I wanted—a pass out of class!

Class clowns can be acting out for several different reasons. It’s important to learn where the behavior is coming from and try to negotiate with the student to either allow time for or eliminate the behavior. In my case, I didn’t want to be in class. The biggest reason was I didn’t like the subject and felt the teacher wasn’t making it engaging. Below, I’ve defined four types of class clowns with ideas for dealing with the behavior.

Class Clown as Avoider
Sometimes kids will act out because they want to divert the teacher’s attention so they can avoid doing the work. In my experience above, I was doing everything in my power to avoid doing any work. I was seeking approval from my classmates to support my avoidance.

To help with the avoider, find out how the student feels about the class, the content, or the activity. How a person feels about a situation will determine the focus of his or her attention. Avoiders are usually feeling stressed, anxious, or intimidated or are lacking confidence. Once you know this, you can then address the base need and change the overt behaviors.

Class Clown as Budding Comedian
Have you ever wondered what kind of student Robin Williams must have been? Can you imagine having an Amy Poehler in your classroom? Some kids have natural talents for finding humor in situations. Being able to see the fun side to life, connect ideas to humor, or come up with funny situations or jokes is an advanced form of thinking. Don’t discourage these kinds of learners; encourage them.

Budding comedians need an audience. Give them time and space to tell jokes, make others laugh, connect content to relevant situations, and come up with kooky ways to do things. Divergent thinking is critical in the complex world they are entering. It’s okay to laugh at their foolishness because if you don’t, you may stifle their creativity. However, they do need to know when it’s appropriate to be funny and when it is time to get serious. Give them parameters for when we will need their strengths.

Class Clown as Defiant
I do not believe that any child is born naughty. Kids become naughty when they are trying to send us a message. In the case of class clowns who are defiant, they are sending you a message very similar to the one sent by avoiders: lack of confidence, ability, or sense of security. What sets the defiant class clowns apart is their harshness or how they target others as the butt of jokes to gain a sense of power. Basically, bullying behavior!

Bullying behaviors are never acceptable in any situation. You need to step in quickly, adjust the situation, and inform the child and his or her family of the consequences of future inappropriate behaviors. Additionally, inform your administration of the behaviors, who you have communicated with about the behaviors, and what steps you have taken to change the child’s behaviors. Don’t let this child’s actions get out of control.

Class Clown as Attention Seeker/Actor
Some clowns just want to be seen! As a middle child myself, I was always doing things just to be seen and/or heard. That is one of the biggest reasons I went into theater: I wanted to be on stage. The attention seeker will do funny things to get recognition or stand out from the crowd. There is nothing wrong with being different, but the difference should not be a distraction from the important things happening in the classroom.

Attention seekers need time to be special, to be heard and/or seen. Provide time for them to shine by giving them opportunities to present to the class, do jobs within the classroom, or do projects in ways that use their talents for the stage. Actors (those who seek the limelight) need focus to be good at what they do. Teach your attention seekers how to harness their energies for productivity.

Each year, we see new students with all kinds of talents and abilities. Clowning can either be a mask (avoider, defiant) or a representation of a skill (budding comedian, attention seeker/actor). Your job is to find out which types of clowns you are working with and then use the appropriate strategies to help them become successful.

Please share your ideas for how you work with your class clowns. It would be great to hear what the clown does (to help others recognize their shenanigans) and how you deal with the behaviors. Additionally, we can all use a good laugh about what fun our students can be!

Richard Cash EdD, FSP AuthorRichard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Advancing DifferentiationDifferentiation for Gifted Learners

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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Letting Go of Perfect: 6 Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism

By Shannon Anderson, author of Penelope Perfect

Strategies for Coping with PerfectionismKids dealing with perfectionism may experience some anxiety as the new school year begins. After spending the last year trying to get everything just right, it can be daunting trying to show a new teacher what you can do—and wondering the whole time if you do have what it takes.

I know how draining the pressure to succeed can be. I start each school year with similar thoughts swirling in my head as a teacher. I knew that my former students and parents trusted me at the wheel, but now I have a whole new set of students and parents to build that trust with.

One of the biggest fears of a perfectionist is disappointment. This could mean feeling that you’re not living up to your own standards or feeling like you are not meeting the expectations of others. Fear of disappointment is very real, when your sense of worth is on the line. Students with perfectionism worry they will not be seen as a good student, athlete, or friend and can have a hard time adjusting to new situations and with new people.

As a teacher of the gifted and talented, I often have a handful of students who struggle with perfectionism. Something new I’m trying in my classroom this year is having students set weekly personal learning goals. These goals will be for learning strategies and making progress toward certain skills.

We will also share and reflect on what I’m calling “Growth Spurts”—events formerly perceived as setbacks or mistakes. We will share these events to reinforce that we all take a curving path to our goals. Sometimes, we nail things on the first try. But more often, many trials are necessary before we feel comfortable with or are consistently proficient at a skill.

Are you a perfectionist? (Or is your child?)

  • Do you often feel stressed when trying to meet your own expectations?
  • Do your expectations get in the way of trusting others to finish or help with a task or project?
  • Do you avoid spontaneity because you already have a plan in mind?
  • Do you think in black and white, where anything less than perfect is flawed or a sign of weakness?
  • Do things take you longer than necessary to complete because you are overly cautious with details?
  • Do you find yourself constantly redoing things to the point of exhaustion?

If you answered yes to several of the above questions, you may be dealing with some perfectionism issues. Below are a few tips that have helped me along the way. Try them out yourself, or suggest them to a student or child who is dealing with perfectionism.

  1. When you feel like you can’t succeed at something, think of how others may view the situation. What would they do? Think of how you might help a friend in your situation if he or she asked your advice.
  2. Think about the worst thing that could happen if your project or plan doesn’t turn out perfectly. Will it still matter tomorrow? Next week?
  3. Set goals for steps in the process, rather than just an end result. That way, you have more chances to celebrate accomplishments along your path as you learn.
  4. Rate your circumstances on a scale of 1–10 regarding how much control you have over them. If you don’t have much control—say a 1, 2, or 3 on the scale—then don’t beat yourself up over them. Instead, find ways to overcome the situation calmly and creatively. If the situation is something you do have control over, it can become a Growth Spurt and help you become stronger or better at what you were doing by learning from it.
  5. Try not to compare yourself to people who are professionals or experts and who have had a lot more time and experience with whatever you are attempting to do. Realize that they started where you are.
  6. Since perfectionism can be a fear of failure, treat it like a phobia and gradually do some things to reduce your fear. For example, try to show up for something late on purpose, wear something with a stain on it, leave something out of place, or try something new without obsessively researching it first. Students can try checking their math problems only once instead of over and over. When you realize that you lived through the experience, reflect on how you dealt with the consequences of your actions. When you have “failed” on purpose, it may help you see that the results aren’t as traumatic as you anticipated.

Free Download: Perfectionism vs. the Pursuit of ExcellenceAt the beginning of the school year, it’s important for parents and kids to set goals and decide on priorities. But, it’s also important to help kids see the learning process as a series of trials that shape and teach us as we make decisions. When we learn from our trials, we need to celebrate the successes and reward ourselves for having the courage to try new things. The bottom line is, we all want to be our best, but we have to be patient with ourselves as we grow and learn.

Bonus! There is a healthy alternative to perfectionism. It’s called the pursuit of excellence. Click here to download a free PDF from When Gifted Kids Don’t Have All the Answers that helps you see the difference.

Shannon Anderson, author of Penelope PerfectShannon Anderson has her master’s degree in education and is a literacy coach, high ability coordinator, adjunct professor, and former first-grade teacher. She loves spending time with her family, playing with words, teaching kids and adults, running very early in the morning, traveling to new places, and eating ice cream. She also enjoys doing author visits and events. Shannon lives in Indiana with her husband Matt and their daughters Emily and Madison.

Penelope Perfect: A Tale of Perfectionism Gone WildShannon is the author of Penelope Perfect: A Tale of Perfectionism Gone Wild.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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