Spot the Bully; Stop the Bully… Modeling Positive Communication for our Children and Students

As an “ADR Skill,” this one may seem like a stretch, but it’s nonetheless important – and not just to me.  A parent support group recently asked me to facilitate a workshop titled, “Bullying… What Is It? Working Together to Figure This Out.”  I tried to get out of it, suggesting that I had no expertise in this area; that a school psychologist or counselor would be better qualified.  But they insisted I was “the man for the job,” so I went about putting together a program.  The real story is that I didn’t want to do a workshop on bullying because it hit too close to home. Childhood memories of being bullied never go away; they just get pushed below the surface – and now they were coming up again for me. I couldn’t help but wonder why I was chosen to lead this workshop. Must I suffer old wounds? Might it provide me with some free therapy?  Then I thought, “Hold on; it’s not about me!” and I refocused on this job I have enjoyed for so many years; about how lucky I am to be able to bring parents, school district personnel and outside professionals together: all doing their best to advocate for their children/students. Then something dawned on me. When we are caught up in advocating for a cause that has special importance to us, all our previously learned “ADR Skills” (positive communication), sometimes go out the window. The stakes become so high that advocacy turns to competition. We so much want to “win” that, although we are adults, we take on “bullying characteristics.” If that is ever the case with you – and I’m telling you from personal experience as someone who had an I.E.P. growing up – please stop it! We (students) are watching you. We learn from you. You are our role models.  We want and need you to advocate for us but, despite our disabilities, we are smart enough and intuitively know when you go overboard. We know when it becomes less about us and more about the fight: your fight.  We may then pick up the behaviors that you are modeling or, just as bad, we may get embarrassed or anxious about them; then cover up that pain by repressing our feelings and behavior. After all, we are children with disabilities and we don’t want to get you mad, out of fear you will stop advocating for us.   So, in those cases when you feel that no one is listening or recognizing your hard work, please remain an adult. Be aware of rising tensions, especially your own, because that can escalate the intensity – even desperation – of our communication styles, including turning to the characteristics of bullying. (Some may call it harassment.) We all know the topic of bullying has gained recent media attention, and that has prompted such positive measures as schools and districts developing curricula, “task forces” and sharper disciplinary policies. So why am I writing about this in an ADR forum? It’s because students with disabilities are not only among the most likely targets of bullying, they are also less able to stand up for themselves. They rely on you… parents, teachers, specialists, administrators, etc. to keep them safe and healthy. The last thing they need is to put that trust in you, only to observe you yelling, using foul language and otherwise putting each other down, supposedly on their behalf! If they are going to experience our behavior – and model their own behavior from it – it’s far better for them to see us sitting down to talk, listen and brainstorm reasonable ways to move from disagreement into agreement.