Q. My 10-year-old son was bullied by a kid at school last year.
I talked to the school and to the bully's parents, but nothing worked and I didn't know what else to do.
Now my son is back in school, and so is the bully. What can I do to help my boy if the bullying starts again? It affected his school work and I don't want that to happen again.
A. Children inevitably jostle each other to find their places in the pecking order, but bullying should never be allowed. And yet it happens all the time.
One in seven schoolchildren is either a bully or a victim, and one in five victims has academic problems because of it. Another study showed that 25 percent of the school bullies it tracked had criminal records before they were 30.
A bully not only interferes with good grades and good times, but also can turn a shy child into a loner, and a hurting child into an angry one. Worst of all, he can destroy the courage a child needs to raise his hand in class, to try out for a sport or to say "hi" to a popular girl at school.
Bullying even affects the students who aren't involved. When one youngster is allowed to intimidate his classmates, others try that game, too, and their behavior quickly upsets the equilibrium of the whole school.
You can't expect the bully or the victim to stop it. That's up to the teacher and the principal, with perhaps a few prods from the parents. At the first hint of trouble, ask permission to observe at the school for a day, so you can discreetly check out the classroom, the playground, the lunchroom, even the bathroom.
It's easy to pick out the bullies. They are the ones who trip the child who is weaker or smaller or doesn't fit in; who talk or make faces while he recites; who laugh when he misses the ball on the playground.
If you observe any bullying at school, make a date to present the facts to the teacher. If the teacher can't or won't stop it, go to the principal. As long as you are calm and objective, a good principal will listen to you, and either help the teacher resolve the problem or resolve it herself.
You'd also be smart to call the PTA president and ask the organization to adopt an anti-bully policy, and to give the school a copy of "The Bully Free Classroom" by Allan L. Beane, PhD (Free Spirit; $19.95). It's a great how-to book to help teachers.
If none of this works, go to the school board and ask it to set an anti-bully policy for the whole system, even if the schools already have conflict-resolution measures in place. It's not that small problems always get big, but that all big problems start small. You just have to say "Littleton" to make the board see your point.
The board also needs to know that a child may become a bully because it gets him what he wants, or because he feels bad about himself or gets bullied at home. But he can also change, for bullying is a learned behavior and it can be unlearned. The board just has to set the right policies, and the principal and the teachers have to carry them out.
Studies show that the percentage of violence in schools is less if the schools and the classes are smaller; the discipline is fair; the principal takes a strong, active role with the students and works well with the teachers; and if the school offers counseling, early intervention, staff training in violence prevention and a clear set of well-enforced rules.
It's as important for children to learn how to behave as it is for them to learn how to read.
Please send your questions to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003 or to firstname.lastname@example.org.