Kathleen has a problem. One of the other girls in her sixth-grade class is a bully.
When the class goes out to recess, the bully picks on other kids -- especially on Kathleen. Whenever she gets a chance, the bully shoves Kathleen, calls her names, teases her about the way she looks. "Pizzaface, fatso," the bully says.
The bully isn't satisfied until Kathleen starts to cry. Then she sneers, "You crybaby."
Kathleen doesn't know what to do about the playground bully. She feels awful about the situation, but she's embarrassed to talk about it with her teacher or her mom and dad. "They'll think I'm a baby," Kathleen says to herself.
Kathleen's solution was to stop going outside. She got away from the bully -- but she also missed spending time with the other kids. Staying locked up in the girls' room or sitting at her desk in her homeroom wasn't much fun. She was lonely.
Kathleen had always been sort of quiet. Now she became really quiet. "No one even notices me," she thought.
Luckily for Kathleen, her teacher has noticed the problem. Kathleen's mom and dad suspected that something was troubling their daughter, too. They have sensed Kathleen's dread of going to school.
"Kathleen used to be up and ready for school every morning when she was in fifth grade," her mom says to her dad. "This year she lies around in bed, dawdles over her breakfast and keeps on saying she's sick when I know she's not. I think she's upset about something at school."
Kathleen's mom talked with her daughter that afternoon. At first, Kathleen said that everything was fine. But then she broke down and started to cry. She told her mother all about the bully. "I can't go out on the playground anymore," Kathleen sobbed. "Don't make me go!"
Kathleen's problem is a difficult one. But it's not unusual. Almost every school has had trouble with children who bully and threaten their classmates. The problem isn't a new one; there have probably been bullies around ever since schools began. In recent years, many school systems have started trying to do something about this problem.
In Norway, a country in Northern Europe, the government has been involved in studying bullying behavior. Research in that country suggests that kids who feel like failures, who are sensitive to criticism or who are quiet and meek tend to be singled out by bullies. The research also shows that about one in 10 children falls victim to a bully sometime during his or her schooling.
Dan Olweus, the researcher who conducted the Norway studies, suggests that schools can do a lot to stop bullying behavior: :: Teachers can hold a class meeting to talk about bullying. They should make it clear that the threatening behavior is unacceptable. :: Bullies will be punished by being separated from the other students or by losing privileges. :: If bullying continues, the school can arrange meetings between the bullying child and his or her parents and the victim and his or her family. The clear message should be: Bullying will not be allowed in our school.
Kathleen and her mom had a talk with her teacher about the class bully. Her teacher agreed to talk to the bully, and tell her she could no longer get away with being aggressive, or pushy, to Kathleen.
Kathleen agreed to start going back out on the playground again. The teacher suggested that Kathleen make friends with Sarah, one of the warmest, funniest people in the class. Kathleen had always been shy about talking to Sarah, but she tried it. Her half-hour on the playground got easier.
The bully still glares at her sometimes, but Kathleen is learning to ignore it. She and the bully will probably never be best friends, but Kathleen's free time at school should be a lot more fun.
Tips for Parents
Douglas H. Powell, Harvard University psychologist and author of "Teenagers: When to Worry, What to Do" (Doubleday), attributes much of the aggression that crops up in the middle grades and junior high to the unusual amount of stress youngsters face during those years. Anxiety levels mount, but kids are unwilling to direct their aggression toward the source of the stress. Instead, scapegoats are found. When a child is scapegoated at school, Dr. Powell says, those who are able to ignore early provocations often find that the behavior lets up quickly. Other youngsters continue to be victimized, and may begin to lash out at other children in turn. If scapegoating goes on for more than a few weeks, Powell suggests involving the teacher and other school authorities in the situation. Getting the scapegoated child to talk to a counselor can be helpful at this point as well. Catherine O'Neill is a free-lance writer in Baltimore.