Unlearning: Three Steps to Changing Bullying Behavior

By Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of  The 6Rs of Bullying Prevention: Best Proven Practices to Combat Cruelty and Build Respect

Unlearning: Three Steps to Changing Bullying BehaviorDear Dr. Borba:
My son’s teacher says he bullies a classmate by saying cruel, hurtful things. He denies being mean and says the other kid is just a “wimp” and deserves it. My husband says this is just a phase and a “boy thing.” Do I believe my husband or the teacher?

My answer: Take the teacher’s word and work with her to develop a plan to stop your child’s mean behavior. Bullying should never be considered “just a phase.” The consequences of letting aggressive behaviors go unheeded are disastrous to your child’s character, conscience, and empathy. The good news is, because bullying is a learned behavior, it can also be unlearned. Here are three steps to changing bullying behavior adapted from my book The 6Rs of Bullying Prevention: Best Proven Practices to Combat Cruelty and Build Respect.

Step One: Create a Plan to Change the Bullying Behavior

  • Uncover the cause. Your role is to try to discover what might be triggering this behavior. Set up a conference with your child’s teacher and gather facts. Where and when did the incident happen? What started it? Which kids were involved? How frequently does this behavior happen? Were there any adult witnesses? Did your child ask for help? These details will help you piece together what is going on to help prevent a reoccurrence of the bullying behavior. You may need to talk to witnesses to help you get the most accurate picture.
  • Review your expectations. Don’t expect your one-time lecture to make a lasting change on your child’s behavior. Be vigilant! Continue to review your expectations with your child that bullying is not acceptable in your family or in society and that he will be held accountable. Let your child know you will supervise him with other kids when you’re around and that you will check on his actions outside your home.
  • Step in ASAP. The minute you see or hear that your child is involved in a bullying-like behavior, step in. Stay calm so as not to escalate the situation. Remove your child from the situation immediately (or as soon as is convenient). Then sit down with your child, and in a serious and firm tone, call the behavior what it is—bullying—describe the action, and explain why it is wrong. Your child should also be required to try to make amends for the hurt he caused.

Step Two: Help Your Child Learn Healthy, New Behaviors
One big part of helping your child is figuring out why she is resorting to bullying behavior and teaching her new habits to replace inappropriate ones. Here are a few:

  • Teach friendship skills. If you suspect your child is bullying because she doesn’t know how to make or keep friends, then watch her a bit closer (without her knowing you are doing so) to identify the particular friendship skills she needs to learn. For instance: how to start a conversation, lose gracefully, ask permission, or solve problems peacefully. Then target one new skill at a time and teach your child the new strategy. Practice it until your child can use it alone.
  • Check for aggressive “friends.” If your child is involved with other kids who enjoy exerting their physical or emotional power, then wean your child away and find her a new set of friends. Don’t let her associate with kids who abuse others. In the meantime, pursue other social avenues for your child to find and make new friends, such as a church group, Boys’ & Girls’ Club, scouting troop, or sports team.
  • Nurture empathy. If your child doesn’t recognize or even care that her behavior is causing another child distress, boost her empathy. Read books or watch movies that showcase compassion, such as Dumbo, The Velveteen Rabbit, Stone Fox, Charlotte’s Web, The Hundred Dresses, The Secret Garden, or The Diary of Anne Frank. Talk about feelings and point out the emotions of people in distress. Acknowledge your child’s kind acts so she’ll be more likely to repeat them: “That was so kind of you to tell Peter you’re sorry his grandpa is ill. It really made him feel better.” Consider doing community service as a family. Food drives, picking up trash in the park, painting battered women’s shelters, serving meals at homeless shelters, or delivering meals to sick and elderly folks who are housebound are just a few options.
  • Find healthy ways to reroute aggression. Does your child have a surplus of energy that often leads to acting out? Offer a positive alternative to channel this aggression, such as karate, boxing, swimming, track, weight lifting, soccer, football, or marching band. But find a physical outlet for your kid to direct her strength and be praised for her effort. Also, make sure you teach strategies to help your child control her anger. Ask the school counselor for ideas.
  • Seek professional help. If your child’s bullying does not gradually improve—or increases—request a meeting with the school psychologist for a more thorough behavior and psychological evaluation. If you can’t find this kind of help at your school, seek a trained mental health professional in the community.

Step Three: Don’t Give Up!
The key to changing any behavior—especially an aggressive one—is not to give up. An effective behavior plan tailored to your child’s specific needs is crucial. And so is a positive attitude. This note I received from a mom proves it is doable: “It took a while for me to acknowledge that my child was bullying,” she wrote, “but when I realized that Jacob was causing other children pain, that was my Enough! moment. Once he knew I wasn’t going to allow him to get away with his meanness, he started turning the corner and taking responsibility for his actions.”

It’s not easy to hear negative things about your child, but don’t dismiss or excuse any report that your child is bullying or using aggressive behavior. No matter their age, gender, religion, or ethnicity, any child resorting to bullying needs an immediate behavior intervention.

michele-borbaMichele Borba, Ed.D., is an internationally renowned educator, award-winning author, and parenting, child, and bullying prevention expert. She appears frequently in national media, including on the Today show, Dr. Phil, Dateline, Anderson Cooper, and Dr. Drew, and in TIME, Washington Post, Newsweek, People, The New York Times, and many others. A sought-after motivational speaker, she has presented workshops and keynote addresses throughout the world and has served as a consultant to hundreds of schools and organizations including the Pentagon, who hired Borba to work on eighteen U.S. Army bases to train educators and counselors on bullying prevention. She offers realistic, research-based advice culled from a career of working with over 1 million parents and educators worldwide.

Her proposal “Ending School Violence and Bullying” (SB1667) was signed into California law in 2002. She was awarded the 2016 National Child Safety Award by the Child Safety Network. She lives in Palm Springs, California.

Follow Michele on Twitter @micheleborba. Or visit her website at micheleborba.com


Michele Borba is the author of  The 6Rs of Bullying Prevention: Best Proven Practices to Combat Cruelty and Build Respect



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How to Ignite a Love of Reading in Young Children

By Judy Lalli, M.S., author of I Like Being Me: Poems about kindness, friendship, and making good choices

How to Ignite a Love of Reading in Young ChildrenIt’s all about relationships. Young children who have warm, interactive relationships with the adults in their lives will show enthusiasm for whatever those adults love. Perhaps you remember a favorite teacher who had a passion for dinosaurs, for example, or rock collections or classical music, which made you want to learn all about those topics as well. Adults who care for children and demonstrate a passion for reading will influence those children to develop a similar passion.

You may have heard the expression “Children learn what they live.” We have to model the behaviors we expect from our charges. It’s confusing and hypocritical to keep a messy house yet tell our children to clean their rooms. Similarly, it doesn’t work to tell children that books and reading are important yet never let them see us read.

So, some basic tips:

  • Read. Put down the electronics and turn off the TV. Let children see you reading, and let them know you enjoy doing it.
  • Have a variety of wonderful, eye-catching reading materials available. Keep books at children’s eye level for easy access.
  • Read aloud to children every single day, even once they are able to read by themselves. For many of us, some of our fondest memories are of family members reading to us at bedtime or of teachers reading to us at story time. Years later, we may not remember the names of the books we heard, but we remember the warm, delicious feelings we had when we had no other responsibilities than to listen to the story and anticipate the words that were coming next.
  • Take children to the library and allow them to check out books they want to read using their own library cards.
  • Show interest in what your children are reading. Ask them questions and listen to their answers.

It’s all about relationships. You can forge a bond with children over almost anything. Forge a bond over books!

Author Judy LalliJudy Lalli, M.S., is the coordinator of online learning for PLS 3rd Learning after having enjoyed a wonderful career as a classroom teacher in Norristown, Pennsylvania. She holds B.S. and M.S. degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, and she has completed extensive postgraduate work as well. Judy is a visiting author to classrooms around the country, and she is a recipient of the Delaware Valley Reading Association’s Celebrate Literacy Award for her work promoting early literacy development.

ilikebeingmeJudy is the author of I Like Being Me: Poems about kindness, friendship, and making good choices.

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Building Creative Problem-Solving Skills in Kids: A Recipe for Success

By Garth Sundem, author of Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Character: Choices That Matter Around the World

Building Creative Problem-Solving Skills in Kids: A Recipe for SuccessThis year for Valentine’s Day, instead of lacy cards and sugar hearts, my kids gave their classmates little wire puzzles. I’m sure you’ve seen the sort—two twisted shapes are interlocked, and the goal is to separate them. There’s the two figure eights that slide through each other as they spin, the double horseshoe that has to fold flat to release a ring, the ring on a spring that looks as if it will spiral off but instead must be slipped straight off the coils, and more.

My wife is a school psychologist and I write about the brain, so we decided to crash the class parties to see what kids did with these puzzles. What we saw was fascinating. Some kids shoved the puzzles into the bottoms of their brown paper Valentine’s bags, never to be seen again. Other kids immediately started yanking on the puzzles, trying to rip the pieces apart via the obvious (and almost always incorrect) gaps. Still others laid out the puzzles alongside the instructions and started working carefully through the steps. And a few kids just sat there staring at the puzzles with a look that my Labradors reserve for things like wind-up toys and broccoli.

The kids who followed the instructions tended to finish first. (After all, these puzzles are pretty easy once you know the trick.) And that’s an extremely valuable sort of problem solving. It’s the skill of a computer algorithm or a geometry proof or a cookie recipe, in which each step done with precision eventually yields the correct result. You’ve probably heard it called convergent thinking: a defined process lets kids converge on the one correct answer.

But what I want to talk about in this article is not the problem solving of convergent thinkers, but rather the creative problem solving of divergent thinkers. As an interesting aside, a paper in the Journal of Marketing Research shows that kids who use convergent thinking (for example, by following the step-by-step instructions for a LEGO project) may in fact blunt their creativity on subsequent tasks.

In any case, instead of following the kids who followed the instructions, let’s take a step back to look inside the brains of the kids who at first seemed to be spacing out. Here’s what happened: they looked at the puzzle, eventually tried it one way, failed, looked at it some more, and tried it another way until they either blundered into the correct solution or gave up (usually passing through the stage of yanking on the thing for a bit). It was a dangerous strategy, one that guaranteed frustration and did not always lead to success. But science suggests they were doing anything but blundering.

As much as creative problem solving seems to depend on magic—a unique solution pops fully formed from the ether!—it’s actually a defined skill, like convergent thinking, with defined elements that make it work, like the ingredients in a cookie recipe.

Ingredient 1: Time
One of the first steps in this process has to do with how to spend your time. A landmark study of creative problem solving showed that expert solvers spend their time understanding a problem’s “starting state and constraints”—in other words, the landscape of the problem and what is and isn’t allowed. Novice problem solvers jump right in to trying to solve it.

In that study (and a series of follow-ups), researchers Chi, Feltovich, and Glaser saw this difference between students and professors working on physics problems. The students read the problem, then immediately started trying to plug numbers into equations. The professors spent more time conceptualizing the problem, and only after they had it crystalized in their heads did they reach into their bag of tricks for the one equation that would do the job. The same was true in a study of a fictitious country’s hope to boost food production: novices dove directly into brainstorming possible solutions, whereas people with agricultural expertise asked more questions about the culture and government of the country. Of course, in all these cases, taking the time to really, truly understand the problem had a better chance of leading to realistic solutions.

We saw the same thing in the third- and fifth-grade puzzlers. Expert solvers took their time to understand how the wires worked. Novice solvers started tugging.

Ingredient 2: Experience (and an Open Mind)
Researcher Eugene Sadler-Smith defined another ingredient of creative problem solving, namely experience. But it’s not quite what you’d think: some experience is good, but too much experience causes people to fall back on patterns they’ve seen before, solving problems by rote and potentially missing new, better solutions. For example, in studies of chess players, those with a certain mid-high ranking are prone to overlook creative solutions, instead depending on the solutions they’ve seen before; in doctors, experience can lead to squeezing symptoms into the box of a common diagnosis, even when that requires overlooking a strange, new symptom that could hint at another cause.

That is until chess players or doctors reach a very high level of expertise in which the brain again becomes open to possibilities. High-level chess experts and doctors are able to listen to the wisdom of their experience without being bound by it.

For kids, this could mean that creative problem solving comes with practice. It’s not something magical that only prodigies can do; it’s something that comes with experience (like a jazz musician who learns from past masters and then innovates). Later, the trick for kids is to continue to evaluate each problem as if it were new, instead of pairing a new problem with one they’ve seen before and applying the old solution.

Ingredient 3: A Quiet Mind
Finally, the brain has to be ready to hear a creative solution. In a series of papers and now a book, researchers John Kounios and Mark Beeman show that making the brain ready for a creative solution has less to do with reaching for the solution than it does with muting all the other white noise that can drown out the solution. In MRI studies, Kounios and Beeman saw that the brain state most conducive to creative problem solving is not the buzzing activity of thought but the lack of thought. It’s as if creative solutions are always there and the trick is learning to hear them.

The Science-ish Side of Magic
What seems like magic is actually science—or at least a science-ish side of magic. By focusing on the problem rather than the solution, teaching the process of problem solving, and quieting the brain’s background noise, you can help kids find creative solutions.

Who were the third and fifth graders who came by this process intuitively? They were about who you would expect: the same kids who commandeered hay bales meant as outdoor seating for a school play and instead used them to build forts; the kids who tend not to be tripped up when the math they learned yesterday suddenly shows up in a story problem today; the kids who poked their gloved fingers into the arteries of pigs’ hearts to figure out the path of blood through the chambers during our dissection at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

They were not necessarily the kids with the highest IQs. Instead, they had a mix of personality and intelligence that let them focus their intellect on discovery. By luck or by accident, they had internalized a process that led to solutions.

Author Garth SundemGarth Sundem is a TED-Ed speaker and former contributor to the Science Channel. He blogs at GeekDad and PsychologyToday.com. He has been published in Scientific American, Huffington Post Science, Fast Company, Men’s Health, Esquire, The New York Times, Congressional Quarterly, and Publishers Weekly. Garth grew up on Bainbridge Island, Washington, and currently lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife, two kids, and a pack of Labradors.

Free Spirit books by Garth Sundem:

Real Kids, Real Stories, Real ChangeReal Kids, Real Stories, Real Character

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Dispelling Myths About Differentiation

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

Dispelling Myths About DifferentiationI’ve spent several years consulting with schools all over the world, and differentiation is a frequent topic requested by many of my clients. Some teachers I have worked with seem to have preconceived notions that differentiation doesn’t work or is too hard to do. While there is some truth to both of those claims, let’s look at ways we can make differentiation doable.

Claim: There is no evidence that differentiation works!
Technically, this is correct. No one has done a comprehensive study on differentiation as a singular strategy. That’s because it isn’t one! Differentiation is a philosophy of instructional effectiveness. By knowing enough about each of your students, you can adjust and modify curricular and instructional practices to move all students toward success. This requires doing formative and summative assessments to identify where your students are now and where they need to go; how prepared they are for what’s coming; their ability and skill development levels; what learning orientations they possess; what their interests are; how to get them interested in the learning; and any other information about them, such as giftedness, learning differences, ADHD, special needs, and so on.

Thoroughly knowing your students can help you alter instructional practices, change and scaffold learning activities, adjust curricular materials, or design different projects to move all students to the same learning targets. This does not mean dumbing down content, simplifying activities, or making things too hard for students. It means that we provide different avenues for students to travel to the same destination (the standards and goals). This is the hard work of differentiation.

The acts of differentiation are performed after formative and summative assessment data has been collected, analyzed, and interpreted. Our duty is to be fully aware of what each and every student knows, is able to do, and understands before, during, and after every single lesson. With this knowledge, we then can adjust and modify curricular and instructional practices to move every child to success.

Claim: Differentiation is just too hard and takes too much time!
Yes, differentiation is hard, and it takes time! However, no one said that teaching students was meant to be easy. We are in a very different world than we were 10, 20, or 30 years ago. Our students are different, what is expected of them is more demanding, and the world they are entering is significantly more complex than ever before.

In the past, if you wanted to learn something, you went to school to learn it: That’s where the texts and the teachers who possessed the knowledge resided. With the advances of technology and the Internet, this is no longer the case. You can find on the Web an answer to just about any question you have—whether the question be factual (what, where, when) or procedural (how). But it’s more difficult to find the answer to conceptual/reasoning (why) questions online—this is the powerful teaching of this century.

As famed anthropologist Margaret Mead stated, our job is to teach kids how to think, not what to think. This requires us to help students approach complex problems in various ways. Some students will need more supports, structure, directions, and examples; others will need fewer steps and more open-ended outcomes.

The difficulty with differentiation is knowing where to begin. My suggestion is to begin with a thorough knowledge of what you want your students to learn. When you are completely aware of what you want them to know, be able to do, and understand after each lesson, you can work toward a complete awareness of each of your students.

Use formative assessment techniques such as pre-quizzes and pre-tests, “fist to five” (hold up zero to five fingers for how much students think they know about the topic), or a KWL (know, want to know, learned) chart to find out where each student is in the learning process at the beginning of a lesson. This information can help you adjust future lessons: scaffold activities for those who lack background knowledge or enrich activities for advanced-level learners.

Next, get familiar with your students’ interests, levels of preparedness (readiness), and learning orientations. Interest surveys can give you information about your students. There are many available on the Internet—simply adjust them for your students. Knowing how prepared your students are for each lesson is critical. Again, use what you find out to help guide you in preparing various options for students.

Learning orientation is how students prefer to approach learning. Remember the term “learning styles”? Learning orientations are a more comprehensive way to address students’ foci toward gaining new information or avenues to assist them when they are challenged. Many different learning orientations and learning style profiles are available. Choose one you feel comfortable with and are willing to use to make changes to curricular and instructional practices. Words of advice: Don’t pigeonhole students into boxes or categories of a perceived orientation or style. Help students broaden their approaches to learning by having them work in a domain outside their strength area. Use information about their strength domains to support them when they struggle.

Numerous resources are available to help you plan and implement differentiation in your classroom. Everything from lesson ideas to varied activities to curricular adjustments can be found either through a Web search or in texts written by differentiation experts.

Motivation Strategies Based on Student Learning PreferencesAlways keep this in mind: Start small—but start somewhere!

I’d love to hear your ideas on how you are managing the complexities of differentiation in your classroom, school building, or district. Comment on this blog so others can learn from your adventures.

Bonus! Download Motivation Strategies Based on Student Learning Preferences, a free printable form from Advancing Differentiation. Use these activities to engage and stretch students in both their preferred and nonpreferred domains of learning.

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

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition Differentiation for Gifted Learners

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Who Needs Technology? Four Ideas for Screen-Free Family Fun

By Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D., author of Ollie Outside: Screen-Free Fun

Who Needs Technology? Four Ideas for Screen-Free Family FunTechnology is ubiquitous; computers, tablets, gaming systems, smartphones—wherever we are or go these days, it seems that some sort of screen is right there with us. And while there are plenty of advantages to having technology be so accessible, overuse can become problematic for many. More specifically, research has shown that children and teens who spend too much time using technology experience higher rates of learning problems, behavioral problems, emotional problems, social problems, ADHD, and obesity.

If your spring break is coming up, now is an excellent time to consider the ways in which you want your kids or teens to have more balance in their lives with technology. But convincing your children to turn off their screens and put down their devices to engage more as a family can be a hard sell, especially if your children currently overindulge in technology.

Limit Tech Time for a Limited Time
You could take a firm and direct stance as a parent with ironclad rules about technology, but then you run the risk of arguing or fighting over screen time with your children.

A better approach to limiting screens is to let kids know they can enjoy their technology, but only at certain times (for example, when they are at home) over break. (You can do this for any period of time, even if your break has passed.) But also let kids know that you expect them to have a balanced and fun week and to do a variety of activities outside of the home. I call this the indirect approach to screen-time management: If your child or teen is active and having fun outside the home, their access to, and preoccupation with, technology should diminish.

4 Tips to Manage Tech Time
As parents, it’s important to understand exactly how technology works when it becomes too present in your child’s life. First and foremost, technology is pleasurable, and that’s because its use creates surges of dopamine—a brain chemical that, when released, provides pleasure. Thus, one of the main reasons your children return to their screens over and over again is the dopamine surge and associated pleasure; from quickly checking a text to playing a video game for hours, it’s all about stimulus seeking and the subsequent pleasure that’s derived from the activity. Thus, screen time can accurately be viewed as a form of self-medication.

So, here are four tips to help you better manage your children’s technology use so they (and you) can enjoy more screen-free family fun this spring break—and beyond!

  1. Get Amish. As a child psychologist, I often recommend a screen-free evening once a week to families when preoccupation with technology has become a problem. I’ve termed this night “Amish Night” since the Amish typically do not use technology in their daily lives. Cooking dinner, playing board games, doing arts and crafts, going to the gym, baking cookies, going on a treasure hunt, putting together a puzzle, playing hide-and-seek, going to the library, or doing some spring organizing or cleaning together are a few screen-free family fun ideas to consider.
  2. Get physical. Research has shown that physical activity improves academic performance—including both higher grades and better standardized test performance. While each family has unique interests, there are a number of fun, screen-free, physically oriented things you can do together: go on a nature hike or a family bike ride, garden, go bowling, go camping, join a gym, and so on. Make a point of doing something physical together on a regular basis, perhaps as a standing date once a week.
  3. Get engaged. Whether you live in an urban setting, a rural one, or someplace in between, teaching your children about their community and getting them involved is a great way to have some screen-free fun together as a family. The chamber of commerce in your area likely has plenty of information about your area’s culture and history. Visiting the local humane society to learn about animals might be fun for some. Or visit local shops or bookstores. Attending a local musical performance, event, or play is also a great family outing. I live in Virginia, and my family has made learning about the area’s Civil War battles and history and visiting the museums in nearby Washington, D.C., a big part of our screen-free time together.
  4. Get altruistic. Numerous research studies have found that oxytocin—a natural brain chemical that is released when we engage in positive social interactions—occurs at higher levels when we are empathic and generous with others. That warm and fuzzy feeling you get from doing good in the world and helping others is literally a chemical reaction. Visit a retirement home with your children and read books to the residents, gather old clothes and toys together to donate, or commit to volunteer once a week or once a month. These are just a few ideas to consider for your screen-free family fun moments.

And if you are planning to go away as a family for spring break, I recommend leaving as much technology behind as you can so you can fully be in the moment. Of course, you’ll likely need your smartphones as adults, but do your children really need to be on their phones or devices on a family vacation?

By implementing the above tips as a family—and with some time and practice—your children’s screen and media time management should improve. You also get to truly enjoy the time you spend together without technology. Remember, technology should be a positive thing for children and teens, and when used in moderation and appropriately, it can complement and enhance their lives. But there also are plenty of moments when it’s good to disconnect from screens and instead connect with loved ones.

Author Michael OberschneiderMichael Oberschneider, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and the founder and director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services, a private mental-health practice located in Northern Virginia. He has been featured as a mental-health expert on CNN, Good Morning America, and other popular media outlets, and he has written articles for several news agencies, including The Washington Post. Dr. Oberschneider has also received Washingtonian Magazine’s “Top Therapist” honor for his work with children and adolescents. He lives in Leesburg, Virginia, with his wife Liz and two children, Ava and Otto.

Ollie Outside: Screen-Free FunMichael Oberschneider is the author of Ollie Outside: Screen-Free Fun.

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