By Torrie Dunlap

Back in the mid-90s, I ran a scholarship program for high school students. This was an annual program of the theater education company where I worked, and it was always one of the highlights of my year. I loved helping students with their applications and teaching them interview skills. As I sat through the interview with each student, I was always surprised to hear things like, “When I come to this program I feel like I can be myself. When I go to school I feel oppressed.” Or, “This place is my safe place.” These were talented, smart young people who were bound to be successful in life. But they all had stories of being picked on, bullied and tormented in settings they deemed “unsafe.” This is when it occurred to me that bullying is a culture and climate problem.

McCarthy’s Son Was Bullied at Camp

Recently, Jenny McCarthy shared on her TV show, The View, that her 12-year-old son Evan, who has autism, was being bullied at his summer camp. While Ms. McCarthy’s views on autism and its cause are not in line with our own at KIT, bullying is a serious problem and there is a small body of research that shows that kids with disabilities are experiencing it two to three times as often as kids without disabilities. As Ms. McCarthy mentioned to her colleagues on the show, because Evan has autism, he isn’t picking up on the social cues that would let him know that he is being bullied. He believes these tormentors are his friends.

There is a lot of work being done by a lot of great organizations to try and eradicate bullying.  Just a Google search of “bullying” yields over 25 million results which provide the best strategies for teaching children to be self-advocates and for teaching children who bully a better way to get their needs met. However, in some ways these efforts are a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. We can try to identify every child who bullies, and we can coach children who are being bullied to stand up for themselves, and that will help a little. But, in order to truly make a dent in the bullying problem and its detrimental effects on the lives of our children, we have to work at a higher level.

Bullying is a Culture Problem

We need to see bullying as a culture problem. If our school, camp, and community leaders are intentionally creating climates where every person is valued for who they are and what they have to offer, we eliminate the need to bully. In an inclusive community that respects and appreciates diversity, people don’t put down the weakest member in order to feel better about themselves. Inclusive communities serve the needs of everyone in the group, and because members know they are safe, they take care of others. The members of the group feel a strong sense of belonging and there is a pride in community that is palpable. Children with autism, like Evan, can thrive in a setting that truly appreciates difference. They can find and develop true, reciprocal friendships. A supportive team of adults helps all the children and youth learn to build their social skills and learn to solve problems with others in a productive way.

A culture like this has to start at the top. Bullying is really an imbalance of power, and leaders need to work to make sure that this imbalance does not exist. It starts with how the adults treat each other. Children are very sensitive to dynamics and they will pick up on the imbalance of power at the adult level. If bullying is tolerated among the staff, it is pretty hard to tamp it down at the child level. All of the adults should be modeling good conflict resolution skills, healthy release of emotion and appreciation and acceptance for everyone in the program community.

Staff working with children need to reflect on the messages they are sending through their own behavior. Are there clear favorites in the group? Are there children that they are not so fond of and it shows?  Are the cultural values of the program made explicit from the very beginning? Have the values been shared with not only the children, but also their families, since differences in family values can play a role and can undermine program efforts to create a positive environment?

What Can Adults Do About Bullying?

As adults, it is our job to make our schools, camps and enrichment programs a physically and emotionally safe place for kids. We set the tone by creating a climate where everyone’s contributions are important and we model appropriate behavior for the children in our care. In giving advice to Ms. McCarthy, or any other parent, I suggest getting a feel for the culture and climate of the program before enrolling. If a bullying incident does occur I would watch closely how the staff responds. Finally, I would make sure that the program staff are actively working on building the social skills of all children in the program. Once bullying occurs, swift action should be taken. I believe, however, that we can do a better job of prevention by being very intentional and explicit in creating safe and supportive environments for all children.

torrie dunlapTorrie Dunlap is the Chief Executive Officer of Kids Included Together, a national organization whose mission is to support child care, recreation and youth-enrichment programs to include children with and without disabilities.