Occupational therapy interventions to prevent bullying: First in a series


One of the biggest concerns that we hear about from parents relates to how their children are functioning socially in their schools. Most schools have 'anti-bullying' or 'bullying prevention' programs in place. Recently, there is a lot more talk about bullying in school environments but that hasn't seemed to stop the behaviors much in the perspective of many families whose children still struggle with the problem.

It is important for parents to know that there are different kinds of bullying - and just because a program is established or policies are in place in a school that doesn't mean that bullying will cease to occur. Broad programmatic anti-bullying efforts like those listed on the OSEP website tend to speak to the whole school population and attempt to create a culture of respect that works on a very broad level. As a result, most kids understand that peer exclusion, relational aggression, and even direct bullying is not acceptable.

However, these programs seem to work best when the differences between children are least notable. In other words, these bullying programs don't work as well to address problems related to helping children tolerate broader differences - so the more overweight, or the more short, or the more learning disabled, or the more speech-impaired a child is then the more difficult it is for kids to act and react appropriately to those differences.

Some of this is a function of normal social development - children struggle with understanding the complexities of social group norms and at the same time develop tolerance for differences from those norms. We have an opportunity to intervene when children react negatively to their peers because of perceived differences that really should NOT be a threat to the establishment of their social order.

I don't mean to imply that peer on peer bullying between relatively 'equal' kids is not a concern because in fact it is - but that we need to develop different interventions for kids when those differences are more magnified. This is difficult for adults to do, probably because most adults are not particularly adroit with tolerating differences themselves. In that sense, the behavior of children is not terribly different than the behavior of many of the adults in the room - but we need to start intervening somewhere.

Sometimes I think that the reasons why some forms of bullying persist is because it is what I call a 'Low-N' problem. That means that it is generally only impacting a very small number of children -those who are falling most far from the 'acceptable' ranges of the social order.

So, the first thing for parents and OTs to do when they want to understand how to address bullying behavior is to understand bullying in its various forms - and then think about what is driving that bullying behavior. I encourage both parents and OT practitioners to study bullying laws in their states and the programs in their local districts and understand how those programs are most directly effective in tamping down negative social behaviors for the broad population. This is a great place to start and will lay a good foundation for being able to intervene with persistent problems at the individual level.

My next blog post will talk more about what steps to take to address bullying problems on the individual level for those students who are still often subject to bullying despite the presence of school-wide prevention efforts.

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