Strategies for Kids Responding to Bullying

By William T. Mulcahy, LPC, NCC, CEAP, author of the Zach Rules series

Strategies for Kids Responding to BullyingIt’s not easy to admit it, but when I was younger, I bullied another kid in my parochial grade school while out on the playground.

I remember that Bobby’s clothes were wrinkled and often too small. He was awkward playing sports and was in the lowest reading and math groups. I also remember that he came from a large family, and there were rumors that his father was an alcoholic, or perhaps something even worse. Looking back now as a therapist, it is clear that Bobby’s family system had some kind of dysfunction—perhaps trauma, poverty, or addiction—and perhaps Bobby had an undiagnosed learning disability. Whatever was going on back then, I thought I was better than him. After all, I was in higher math and reading groups, I was a good athlete and a popular kid, and my parents were willingly involved in my school. Writing these words makes me cringe with guilt and embarrassment, but as far as I saw, Bobby was an easy mark.

I was also a target of bullying in school. When I was a freshman in an all-male high school, every day in Spanish class an upperclassman would walk by and slap me on the back of the head. At first, I tried to develop ways to avoid him, but he always seemed to circumvent my actions. Next, I tried sticking up for myself by shouting obscenities or telling him to knock it off. This only made it worse. He continued his bullying behavior and even recruited some other upperclassmen. These kids would laugh when he slapped me or make lewd comments when I tried to verbally fight back. Sadly, like Bobby, I never told anyone what was going on, even when I got an F in the class and my parents wondered why I was struggling so much.

My most memorable experience as a bystander to bullying came later in high school. One summer, I volunteered at a camp for children who had cognitive disabilities. Many of these kids were marginalized and isolated, and they often bore the brunt of bullying behaviors. As someone who was there to support them, I saw up close how painful bullying could be. It was here that I began to learn to stand up for those who are bullied, going from a bystander to an upstander.

We Need One Another
One of the myths about bullying is that it is wrong or wimpy to tell an adult or a friend about what is happening. But in actuality, the most helpful strategy for kids who are targets of bullying is to seek support from an adult at school or from a friend. As I say to my clients about a lot of issues, “It’s just too big for one person to handle.”

We need to create cultures and environments where it is okay to confide in trustworthy adults and friends. But perhaps just as important, we need to show kids how to move beyond being a bystander to being an upstander: someone who stands up when they see bullying happening. It is these witnesses who often hold the most important power of all—the power to stop the bullying.

The most effective thing an upstander can do is support targets of bullying by helping or being kind. This includes listening to them, walking with them, spending time with them at school, giving them advice and hope, helping them get away, distracting someone who’s bullying them, and helping them tell adults. In general, show you care.

Looking back to when I was in grade school, I wish someone would have intervened on behalf of Bobby. Besides helping him, I know it would have helped me understand how hurtful I was being and that it was not okay to treat someone that way. An upstander would have taught me empathy and respect.

Looking back to when I was a freshman, I wish one of my friends would have stood up to that upperclassman by sitting next to me, walking with me to class, and helping me tell an adult. And I wish that adult would have said, “There is nothing wrong with you. You did the right thing. It’s not your fault.”

Looking back to when I was a junior working at camp, I feel a deep sense of gratitude for being a part of something that empowered me to learn to stand up for my fellow humans, no matter the situation.

Stand-Up-to-Bullying STAR
A strategy to help kids remember how to be an upstander is the Stand-Up-to-Bullying STAR. STAR is a four-part process that gives kids a specific plan for being an upstander in a way that keeps everyone safe and helps them stay in charge of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

  1. Speak up—talk to the person being bullied.
  2. Take off—get the person away from the bullying.
  3. Actively listen—let the person talk about what happened.
  4. Report—tell an adult what happened.

It is not always easy being an upstander. As someone once said, “Things that are worth it never are.” But that is why it is so important to teach and train kids to be a STAR, because if they do nothing, the bullying will continue.

Looking to the future, it is our job to help create a culture in which it is clear to everyone that bullying is not allowed. Teach your kids to be a STAR.

bill-mulcahy-webWilliam Mulcahy is a licensed professional counselor and psychotherapist. He has served as a supervisor at Family Service of Waukesha and as a counselor at Stillwaters Cancer Support Center in Wisconsin, specializing in grief and cancer-related issues. He has also worked with children with special needs. Currently he works in private practice in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, and is the owner of Kids Cope Now, a program for providing books and tools to help kids in the hospital. Bill lives with his wife and family near Summit, Wisconsin.

Free Spirit books by William Mulcahy:



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Does Your Child Need a Mental Health Evaluation?

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

Does Your Child Need a Mental Health Evaluation?Young children achieve their developmental milestones through engaging in life—moving, acting, speaking, learning, and playing—and while development isn’t perfectly linear, developmental milestones are expected to occur within a certain range. When delays do occur outside of that range, the appropriate professionals are then typically engaged. For example, a five-year-old child with significant speech articulation struggles should be evaluated by a speech and language pathologist. A four-year-old child with significant gross motor delays should be evaluated by an occupational therapist.

Insofar as there are distinct moments in development when a child should be crawling, walking, talking, smiling, and so on, there’s typically an evaluation and a treatment to help the child get back on track when she has a delay or problem.

Although research has shown that early intervention for neurodevelopmental conditions (e.g., autism or ADHD) and emotional and behavioral conditions is extremely important for symptom reduction and improvements in well-being, parents don’t always know exactly when a mental health problem lies outside the norm or the normal range for their young children. Moreover, accepting that there’s a mental health problem is also challenging for parents for a variety of reasons—parents may not want their child to be “labeled,” they may feel ashamed or responsible for the problem, they may want to protect their child (and themselves) from the problem, or they may not be ready to deal with the news of a real or perceived negative diagnosis.

Here are four tips to help parents decide if a mental health evaluation is warranted for a young child.

In my opinion, parents are the best first responders and diagnosticians for their children; when children have social, emotional, developmental, learning, or behavioral problems, nine times out of ten, moms and dads are aware of the issue or issues before anyone else. So, use your paternal and maternal instincts and love to identify your child’s struggles when they occur in your presence. Parental observations across several different settings (structured and unstructured) and with different individuals is helpful in determining the seriousness of a possible problem. It’s one thing for your child to become overly sensitive or upset with himself in one setting or with specific individuals (e.g., when his soccer team loses), but it’s an entirely different thing for your child to experience more pervasive symptoms of anxiety or depression.

Listen to others.
Being open to what others say is important when it comes to accepting that your child may have mental health problems. Teachers, family friends, and grandparents, among others, may have very important information about your child for you, even if what they say is difficult to hear. I recently diagnosed a four-year-old boy with autism, and although that diagnosis was upsetting for the boy’s parents, they weren’t surprised—the boy’s grandparents and speech therapist had already expressed concerns regarding notable communication, social, and self-regulation struggles for the boy.

Address your feelings.
As parents, we all want to do what’s best for our children, but we also want to avoid upsetting our children in the process whenever possible. Parents often turn to me for help after the social, emotional, or behavioral problem(s) has become very serious. In these cases, the delay to have the child evaluated and treated doesn’t happen because the parents don’t love their child; rather, it’s because they do. Whether a child is experiencing anxiety, depression, behavioral problems, or developmental delays, coming to terms with the notion that professional help may be needed can take time. Speaking openly with your partner about your concerns is a good starting place toward working together to get your child evaluated and treated.

See a child specialist.
If you’re concerned about your child’s mental health, your child’s pediatrician, in my opinion, is the best professional to speak to initially. Pediatricians typically don’t treat mental health conditions, but they will educate you regarding your concerns as well as provide you with support and guidance and referrals to specialists in your child’s area of need. Board-certified child psychologists and child psychiatrists are trained to evaluate and treat mental health conditions in younger children.

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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Detect and Demystify OCD with Unstuck: An OCD Kids Movie

By Alison Dotson, author of Being Me with OCD: How I Learned to Obsess Less and Live My Life

Detect and Demystify OCD with Unstuck: An OCD Kids MovieHow would you respond if a student told you he’s sure he’ll turn into the Incredible Hulk if he wears green? What would you think if a student refused to go near that one tree on the playground because she’s convinced it will poison her?

No one would blame you for being confused and not immediately suspecting obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Maybe you’d even laugh and brush off the fears as normal or harmless childhood phases. How can you possibly know how to help students with OCD if you aren’t quite sure how the disorder manifests?

Trust me, as someone with OCD myself, I get it: OCD is tricky. There is no one symptom, no one obsession or compulsion. Even if you read about common obsessions and compulsions, you’re still only getting the broad strokes of a complicated disorder. In kids, OCD can come across as disobedience when the child refuses to follow through on homework, chores, or bedtime routines and adults don’t realize the refusal is due to overwhelming fear. Kids with OCD may seem bossy because they demand that adults perform rituals or that they refrain from certain activities that trigger the child, and they may act out in anger and frustration.

The silver lining of OCD, though, is that it’s treatable, and teachers and school counselors can play an important role in detection and maintaining recovery. The new short documentary Unstuck: An OCD Kids Movie helps demystify OCD, giving teachers, counselors, parents, and students an intimate peek into the lives of six kids who’ve struggled with OCD and been through the proper treatment.

In Unstuck, you’ll hear firsthand what OCD feels like; how it affects the whole family, including siblings (some of whom share their experiences in the film); how the kids and their parents realized the issue was OCD; and how they went about treating it.

As you watch, you’ll not only be surprised about how specific OCD symptoms can be, you’ll also be moved by how each subject can be at once vulnerable, articulate, and strong. OCD is hard for adult sufferers to handle, and we have the benefit of life experience and kind of getting it. Throw growing pains, lack of independence, and classmates into the mix, and you’ll understand how incredibly resilient these young film subjects are. Watching the film—either on your own, with colleagues, or as part of a classroom activity—can be a stepping stone toward a greater understanding of OCD and toward becoming a valuable resource for students.

Author Alison DotsonAlison Dotson was diagnosed with OCD at age twenty-six, after suffering from “taboo” obsessions for more than a decade. Today, she still has occasional bad thoughts, but she now knows how to deal with them in healthy ways. Alison is the president of OCD Twin Cities, an affiliate of the International OCD Foundation. You can read more about Alison on her blog at

Being Me with OCD Alison is the author of Being Me with OCD: How I Learned to Obsess Less and Live My Life.

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Supporting Students with LGBT Parents

By Kelly Huegel Madrone, author of GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens 

Supporting Students with LGBT ParentsThere’s a lot of talk about how to support LGBT students, but what about students with LGBT parents?

According to 2013 data from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law:

  • More than 111,000 same-sex couples in the United States are raising roughly 220,000 children under the age of 18.
  • As many as 6 million American adults and children have or have had an LGBT parent.

Even the most well-meaning educators, in their efforts to create open and accepting classrooms, forget that some of their students may have one or more LGBT parents. Here are some tips for how to support these students.

Treat Them the Same
Wait, isn’t the point that these students are different from those with traditional family structures? While kids with one or more LGBT parents may face some different challenges from their peers, at their core, they—and their families—are the same in a basic but very important way: They want to feel safe and welcome in school.

As one friend with a preteen told me, she and her wife just want a sense of normalcy for their son. They don’t want or expect any special treatment, just to be extended the same respect and given the same sense of belonging as every other family in the school system.

Extend Recognition of Diversity
You probably already take great pains to create a classroom and curriculum that recognize diversity based on culture, race, religion, and other factors. Plus, you know families can have a single parent or a student might be in a foster situation or being raised by a grandparent. Just think of supporting students with LGBT parents as an extension of these efforts.

Part of that begins with expanding your own understanding of LGBT family structures. Students may have two same-sex parents, they may have same-sex parents and a parent of another gender (such as two moms and a dad), or they may have one or more parents who are transgender or nonbinary (not identifying as male or female).

If the idea of any of those structures or identities has your head spinning (“But I don’t know anything about what it means to be trans or nonbinary!”), don’t worry—there are tons of resources out there for you. I’ve listed some great ones below, and, of course, there’s always my book, GLBTQ.

Be Sensitive to Outing Students
You may be thrilled to celebrate the diversity among your students, but at the end of the day, it’s up to students to decide what they’re comfortable with their peers knowing about their families. You don’t have to ignore the fact that a student has one or more gay, trans, or gender nonbinary parents, but, rather, be inclusive in a respectful way. For example, if you’re doing a lesson on families and would like a student to share about his family structure, instead of putting that student on the spot in front of the class, approach him quietly at some point before the lesson and give him the opportunity to tell you whether he’s comfortable with that.

Give Options for Assignments
Again, given the fact that you already know that family structures frequently differ from the traditional mom-and-dad model, you are probably already adept at modifying assignments to accommodate for these differences. If you’re making Mother’s Day cards, for example, you can allow a student with two moms to make two cards. Or you can give students the option to make cards for their mother or for another parent or caregiver.

It doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, making these things as normal as possible is the key. Here’s an example of what you might say: “Mother’s Day is coming up on Sunday, so we’re going to take the next 30 minutes to make cards for our mothers or any other parents or caregivers we’d like to say ‘thank you’ to.”

Have an Inclusive Curriculum
Having a curriculum that is inclusive of all kinds of LGBT people goes a long way toward creating a safe space in general, as well as supporting students with LGBT parents in particular, by normalizing being LGBT.

Make Your Classroom a Truly Safe Space
Safety is the number one concern for most parents, but for LGBT parents, this can take on another dimension. They may be concerned that their kids will be singled out and bullied for being part of a nontraditional family. If you have any indication that this is happening, intervene. The best, most effective way to do this is with compassion for all students.

Among the resources below, I’ve included a wonderful story about how one elementary teacher intervened when she noticed homophobia in her classroom.

Talk to Parents
If you’re not sure how to support LGBT parents, one of the best things you can do is simply ask them. If their child has been in school for a year or longer already, ask parents about the child’s experiences—what has been helpful in the past, and what has not? Then, if any issues come up over the course of the year, you’ve already established a positive connection with the parent(s) and it will be easier to sort things out together.

Be Aware of Language
It’s easy to slip into the old “mom-and-dad” speak, but when you’re talking about parents, maybe it’s best to do just that—use terms such as parent, parents, or caregivers. Instead of saying husband or wife, using the words spouse or partner makes sure your bases are covered with regard to gender.

Here’s an example involving a phone call to a parent: “Hi, Chris? This is Karen Hitchins, Monique’s teacher. I’d love a chance to introduce myself and chat about how I can best support Monique. Are you and your partner available after school next Monday?”

Once you get used to these little changes in language, they become second nature.

If you’re aware of diverse family structures and you understand that LGBT parents want what all parents want—a safe, productive, welcoming, and fun environment for their kids—you’ll do just fine.

Author Kelly HuegelKelly Huegel Madrone is a freelance writer, editor, and educator. She has worked for the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., chapter of PFLAG where she helped provide support and educational services to LGBT people and their families. The author of two books and more than one hundred published articles, Kelly holds a degree in secondary education. She lives in Colorado with her wife Margaret and their daughter. Kelly welcomes readers to follow her on Twitter at @GLBTQguide or visit her website at

GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning TeensKelly is the author of GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning 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.

Suggested Resources
Welcoming Schools
This Human Rights Campaign project provides a variety of information on creating an inclusive classroom.

“Supporting Gay and Lesbian Families in the Early Childhood Classroom” by Anna Paula Pelxoto da Silva
This helpful article from the National Association for the Education of Young Children includes a list of LGBT-friendly books.

“How I Handled Homophobia in My Third-Grade Classroom” by Ilana Greenstein
This early elementary teacher’s story is instructive and inspiring.

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Simple Strategies to Incorporate Character Education into Your Classroom

By Barbara A. Lewis, author of The Kid’s Guide to Service Projects: Over 500 Service Ideas for Young People Who Want to Make a Difference

Simple Strategies to Incorporate Character Education into Your ClassroomHey, classroom teachers—are you frustrated with trying to incorporate character education into your classroom? You may have:

  • Too little time
  • Too much paperwork
  • Too much curricular material to cover
  • And on and on . . .

You believe in developing good character in your students, but parents aren’t impressed with “fluff.” Teaching good character does not have to be hard to do. It does have to be relevant to students.

There are many great character education programs available. But as a former classroom teacher, I know what worked best for me: Connect character education to your curriculum.

It’s that simple. Your students are already acquainted with the topic you are studying. It doesn’t require extra research. Look for connections between curricular topics and good character traits. Here are some examples.

What does Newton’s third law of motion have to do with your students’ world today? It sounds remote, but it isn’t. “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Can your students connect this law to the way they treat one another? Anger might trigger an angry reaction from someone. Kindness might trigger a kind reaction. Discuss the analogy with your students. What they send out might come back to them. It usually pays to be kind.

Here’s another example: Why do trees that grow in low places die sooner than the bristlecone pine tree that grows on high cliffs? On cliffs, there is little water and rough weather. This can lead to a discussion. When we struggle and overcome problems, we can grow stronger. Challenges can develop strength of character. Your students might find examples of people who have overcome obstacles and made great contributions.

Suppose you are teaching a lesson on the Roman Empire. What does teaching character have to do with the Roman Empire? How does it connect with today? Hmmm. Some of the problems that led to the decline of the Roman Empire were the lack of unity and endless infighting. Sound familiar? Do we have any similar problems today? Your students can brainstorm ways to develop unity.

You might say, Really? Math? Okay, I understand your skepticism. But how about studying percentages? You might challenge your students to survey their class, family, or club to find out how the public feels about an issue the student is interested in. Students might choose a topic, such as:

  • How much time do students spend on cell phones, tablets, or other electronic devices?
  • How much junk food do people eat?
  • What do you think is the main crime in our area?

After collecting their information, students might graph the percentages on a chart. This can lead to discussions of the use of time, how food affects the way you feel and behave, or ways to reduce crime—all of which involve developing good character traits.

Discuss how people respond emotionally to different types of music. Are some types better than others for creating a peaceful environment? Do we sometimes want different music to stir people into action?

This is an easy one. Students can watch for examples of good sportsmanship. Discuss athletes’ good behavior with students. Hint: Positive examples will do more to develop good behavior than negative ones.

Your students can write about metaphors from nature that connect to good character traits. Examples: What happens to water when it is frozen or heated? (Analogy: How do people react when being frozen with fear or angry and overheated?) How quickly does the Venus flytrap chomp down upon an unsuspecting insect? (Analogy: Humans need to be careful when getting too close to dangerous decisions.)

If you have the time and flexibility, provide opportunities for your students to get involved with real-life problem-solving and service. These opportunities can connect and extend from your curricular studies. Although these experiences usually involve a larger investment of time, your students will grow more in good character, confidence, and leadership. Each of the examples above could also develop into problem-solving and service.

For example, let’s extend Newton’s third law of motion into problem-solving and service. Students could survey classes for examples of their peers’ kind acts and report the acts over the school communication system. They might give speeches during assemblies demonstrating Newton’s law and how it connects to humans. They might create a “Pass It Forward” program. The ideas are endless.

I could go on with examples, but you get the idea. Look for connections in your curricular areas to encourage good character traits in your students. You will thank yourself for doing it. Research from the Character Education Partnership shows that in schools that incorporate character education, the results are worth it:

  • Reduced violence and bullying
  • Fewer discipline referrals
  • Improved attendance
  • More cooperation and solving interpersonal conflicts
  • More concern for others
  • Increase in test scores, grades, and homework completion
  • Increase in communication and problem-solving skills
  • Increase in student engagement and involvement

I remember well an experience with one of my students. I had watched him perform kind acts every day. One day I told him I had a secret I wanted to share with him. His ears perked up.

I whispered, “Alan, you do such kind things for people.”

He didn’t miss a beat as he grinned and said aloud, “Why, Mrs. Lewis, that’s no secret.”

We both laughed. Humor is a good character trait, too.

Author Barbara LewisBarbara 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 and magazines and on news programs, and her books have won Parenting’s Reading Magic Award and have been named “Best of the Best for Children” by the American Library Association, among other honors.

Free Spirit books by Barbara A. Lewis:

What Do You Stand For? For Kids What Do You Stand For? For Teens  Kids With Courage Kids Guide To Service Projects The Teen Guide to Global Action

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