By Anne Collier
There was some of the best advice for parents and school staff on cyberbullying that I’ve seen yet in the New York Times’s health blog this week. The advice is from Elizabeth Englander of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center. She looks at how we can help our children deal with cyberbullying trauma and how schools should respond. On the first question, Dr. Englander acknowledges – based on her own experience with cyberbullying cases – how much parents just want to take away their child’s pain as quickly as possible. Because instant relief is almost impossible, with many kids often involved, she says “the trick is to focus on (a) restoring your child’s sense of safety in school, and (b) building up his or her other emotional resources so that the trauma has as little impact as possible.” Then she offers tips on how to do those things, concluding that “the goal is to make their good feelings about the people in their lives ‘stick out’ more than their anxieties or fears around the cyber-related incidents.” As for the second question, unfortunately for parents focused on pain relief, schools often feel constrained by law from disciplining cyberbullies (she explains why), but the good news is, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things schools can do to help targeted children, and Englander offers some examples I hope school officials will read. I hope against hope that every school staff has at least one caring adult who will go the extra mile to stop the victimization as fast as possible and support students who have been targeted.
Then eventually, all schools will come to see that 1) the “substantial disruption” (of learning in the school environment) test that courts currently use to determine whether it was ok for a school to intervene in cases of off-campus behavior will kick in even if there is substantial disruption of a single (bullied) student’s ability to learn, something Nancy Willard of the Center for Safe & Responsible Internet Use calls for; and 2) the immediate goal in a school’s investigation of any bullying incident is not discipline, but more along the lines of what Englander prescribes. The goal must be first to support any targeted student(s) and restore order. The ultimate goal is to turn bullying incidents or cases into “teachable moments” for everyone involved, ideally the whole school community, and stepping stones in the creation of a school culture of respect, or dignity, as author/educator Rosalind Wiseman puts it (see this blog post for more on that). What might be learned? Critical thinking about what is posted, uploaded, and produced online (or just how we treat each other online and offline), mindful decision-making, perspective-taking, and citizenship.