Kids who go to Benfield Elementary in Anne Arundel County know their put-downs.

"It's saying someone's dumb," says Olivia League, a third-grader.

"Ignoring them," adds classmate Tommy Leahy.

"Or like if you say, a WHAT?" contributes Andre Butler.

"That's right! It could be just the tone of voice," confirms Benfield Principal Jean Marie Hofstetter.

Yes, these kids know from put-downs, and they should. They're participating in a session of "No Putdowns," a character education program that teaches how to identify put-downs, why people use them, and ways one can choose to react. The program attempts to bolster self-esteem in children and encourages self-control, responsibility and respect.

These children are attending a No Putdowns family meeting, where Hofstetter and guidance counselor Frances Walker are highlighting skills the students have been practicing. Hofstetter reads a story packed with put-downs, and then Walker asks the children how the main character might respond.

"He could say 'STOP,' " yells Olivia.

"He could walk away," says Maggie Leahy, a fifth-grader.

"Or tell someone," says Thad Bradley-Lewis, another fifth-grader.

"And keep telling until someone listens," Tommy adds.

"Right. Maybe he was just Detter Mind," ventures Andre.

Walker looks confused. "Could you spell that, Andre?"

"D-e-t-e-r-m-i-n-e-d."

"Determined! Yes, he was determined! And you have a great vocabulary!" Walker says with a smile. (Compliments are a big part of the program.)

Just what is a put-down? Well, as the children noted, put-downs can be critical remarks, sneering, mockery, a sarcastic tone of voice--any "words or actions used as weapons," according to the No Putdowns manual.

And they hurt most when they're used in front of peers, or when you're already feeling vulnerable. It may be common to hear young children tease or call each other names. But the feelings that cause the behavior and its effects may affect a child for years to come.

That's why Benfield is committed to No Putdowns.

"Children have to cope with what's happening in society. They need tools," declares Walker.

In fact, that's exactly why a group of New York educators developed No Putdowns in 1991. They cited an increase in school violence, greater cultural intolerance, and a lack of respect on the part of children as problems facing educators today. Through the teaching of communication and life skills, they hoped to create a respectful environment where children feel safe expressing themselves.

Now the program is taught in 40 states, including Maryland, Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia.

Everyone at Benfield participates in the program. Sessions are conducted not only by the classroom teacher, but by administrators like Hofstetter, support staff, and those who teach "specials," such as art, music and physical education.

"It's a total school program," says Walker. "Everyone's on the same page; everyone speaks the same language."

That's evident at Benfield. The program slogan "No Putdowns--Pass It Around!" is posted around the school. Everyone has buttons with the same catchy line. And during the morning announcements, students read a brief spot highlighting the lesson of the day.

No Putdowns instruction progresses through five child-friendly subject areas: Think About Why, Stay Cool, Shield Myself, Choose a Response, and Build Up.

All grades work on the same material, but the activities and manner of presentation vary according to the age of the children. For example, during a lesson on compliments, a group of first-graders find partners by matching halves of a torn paper heart. Then they have to say something nice to each other. By fifth grade, students practice the same skill by making sophisticated flow charts and bombarding a group member with positive comments.

Children from kindergarten to grade five have a 20-minute lesson every day for 10 weeks. Now, when teachers feel increasingly pressed to load their day with required curricula, that's a lot of instructional time. Is the program worth it?

Administrators at Edgewater Elementary in Anne Arundel County would definitely say yes. Edgewater implemented No Putdowns three years ago.

Guidance counselor Suzan Cotter saw a need to improve students' behavior. "We were seeing many situations where a teacher would have to stop teaching to facilitate a discussion on discipline. If the teacher can't teach, children can't learn."

Cotter says No Putdowns has streamlined the discipline process at Edgewater. "Our Media specialist had an incident with a child," she says, "and all she had to do was tap her No Putdowns button. The child knew just what she meant."

The program is making a difference: Edgewater's formal discipline referrals are less than one-third of what they were three years ago, and the number of children suspended is down by almost 50 percent.

And Cotter sees another change after several years of No Putdowns. "Our kids have become great communicators and great listeners. They're able to work out small things so they don't escalate into bigger things."

To extend the concepts of No Putdowns to the community, parents are encouraged to participate in family meetings like the one at Benfield. And information sheets go home regularly, with suggested activities for families.

Benfield parent Jud Durant has seen the effects of No Putdowns in his home. When his two children were fighting, "The kindergartner told her older sister, 'Maddie, that's a put-down.' There's a new level of respect between the siblings at home."

And even if siblings don't always go with the program, the strategies can help. Andre Butler's mother, Pam Spearman, says her high-schooler doesn't always let up on Andre, "but I see Andre trying to use the 'Stay Cool' skills to deal with it."

Do the kids think No Putdowns works? Fifth-grader Thad Bradley-Lewis likens being angry to being like a rubber band, a concept he learned in No Putdowns: "When you stretch it and stretch it and it snaps, that's you snapping and maybe giving a put-down. But you can let yourself go loose instead."

Counselor Walker is delighted to see these ideas taking hold. "Can you imagine how different a middle school environment might be," she says, "if all the children had these skills?"

No Putdowns is a nonprofit agency based in Syracuse, N.Y. For information, contact Deborah Borenstein, 800-561-4571.

HOW IT WORKS

A child who has experienced a put-down may feel frustrated, angry, and hurt. His first reaction might be to hurt back. What can he do instead?

Using "No Putdowns," the school administrator reminds the child he can choose his response: It's in his control. Then she analyzes the choice with the child: If he hit you and you hit him back, what was the consequence? Was that the consequence you wanted? What could you have done instead? If you'd chosen differently, what might have happened? What would you do the next time?

No Putdowns also encourages children to become more self-aware. Activities in the Shield Myself and Build Up units reveal the child's own strengths and preferences. Good self-esteem insulates a child from the effects of put-downs.