Bullying Prevention at Camp — Second in a Series of Three Articles
How do children deal with bullying issues in summer camp? The first step has to do with awareness of bullying issues (Haber 2006). Awareness allows you to know the "ins" and "outs" of bullying and what makes it different from normal conflict, rough play, and fighting. In this second article in our series, we will look at successful strategies to address bullying in summer camp.
Think about how children play and work out conflicts with each other. When you observe them at different ages, both boys and girls can be very physical with each other. They run around, horse around, and play — which sometimes can appear to be aggressive. Sometimes it is aggressive, but the important thing to remember is that most children have a natural built in capacity to regulate their own aggressiveness in their social world. They use their empathy to notice other children's reactions to their aggression, and "stop" being aggressive when others let them know they have crossed the line and have hurt them (Thompson 2001). The language used by kids becomes their social skill set and helps them develop ways to fend off aggression, if they use the skill set the right way.
What Are the Dynamics of Bullying?
Bullying dynamics are part of the social scene in all children. Most children, 80 percent – 85 percent, have developed the social skill (social competence set) to function well in their own age-related space without significant adult intervention (Thompson 2001). When they have conflicts — get teased or "dissed," and feel excluded from their friends — they can find a way to deal with it. Sometimes they get angry, feel hurt, give it right back, but do not break down. They can find a way to connect with their friends again and come back in to a group, because they have the skills to "stay cool," "tough it out," "let it go," "laugh," or "react without reacting." Most importantly, they learn that these situations are usually temporary. They can read the cues from others and usually find a way to get over it once the incident has passed.
The main problem has to do with a natural, evolutionary human and animal trait: "social dominance" (Pratto & Sidanius 1999). This is a natural ordering of people based on skills that will always put some of us on top, in the middle, and some on the bottom. In children, there will always be kids who want to be on top of the totem pole. Because of the need to dominate and lead (top 20 percent), there has to be other kids in the middle (the next 60 percent), and others on the bottom (20 percent). The top 80 percent of kids (top and middle) can manage much of the bullying and aggression they experience on their own because they read each other well and have these social competencies to stop it and regulate each other. They know when they hurt someone by the reaction they get, or they see when they have crossed the aggression line by the other child's reaction. Most of these kids have friendships that are supportive so when tough times occur in their social world, they have each other, and get over the "bad stuff" without consistent adult involvement.
Bullying issues are especially problematic for the 20 percent of kids who are at the bottom for many reasons. These children may not have honed social competencies that signal kids to stop aggressive behavior the way that others do. They generally do something to signal a "bullying kid" to pick on them because the reaction they give is an open invitation to aggression from the kid(s) who want power and control over them. In fact, their emotional reactions to the bullying become enticing to the child seeking attention from his peers in his/her quest for power and attention.
Here's the problem and the solution stated simply: Teach kids to handle bullying, and they won't be victimized repeatedly. If we can help kids who get teased learn more effective strategies, they will develop better social competencies and resilience. Does this mean that we can teach all kids to eradicate bullying? No, because kids test out aggression with each other all the time. But we can make kids less "victim prone" and less apt to be singled out for the bad bullying behavior that can make them feel terrible.
You may be asking where the bullies fit into this? Because kids seek dominance, they test out aggressive interactions with most kids, but don't continue with 85 percent to 90 percent of them because they don't get a strong emotional reaction of anger or crying from them or a sign of weakness that may come across as meekness or passivity. When bullying kids receive an emotional reaction or see weakness in a "victim," they have identified their target. They may test out bullying behavior with lots of kids until they find the targets that are vulnerable because they know they can win the power game. This is social dominance at work. However, working with kids to develop better skills can reduce their experience of victimization significantly.
What else makes the bottom group of kids a target? Many of these children do not have a strong social network to rely on, and without a social network, they risk exclusion, isolation, teasing, and physical bullying. Making a friend can reduce bullying
50 percent or more for these children. That's the number one successful strategy for reducing bullying in camp (Coloroso 2003). If your camp can help children develop friendships and link kids to a "real friend" during the summer months, you have found the number one ticket for children to come back to camp every summer and develop a sense of resilience and eligibility for social connectedness. It's a win-win.
What Skills do Kids Need to Manage Bullying?
Watching children play and observing their interactions can be an illuminating lesson for you in the "right and wrong" on managing bullying. The kids who are the best at managing bullying behavior may get right up to a kid who picked on them and give it right back with words. Other kids push someone back if the bullying gets physical in a regulated way without escalating it. Other kids roll their eyes when others are around to let the aggressor know that they have crossed the line. Some children walk away smiling so they don't look like losers. Children who bully move quickly away from those who don't give them power.
The 20 percent without power and without the "toughness" or "ability" to fight back with words or actions need our attention the most. These children need the most support from staff and counselors! However, what they need the most is not our intervention during every social conflict.
We need to build skills and resilience in our children to provide them the skills to deal with these problems. If campers do not learn to do this on their own, they will never develop self-esteem — which is building confidence from one's defeats and finding their ability to overcome adversity. Think about this — if we intervene all the time as adults, what have we taught our campers? We have taught them to rely on us for their problems, which creates further dependency on us and a diminishing belief in themselves. That model is a "no-win" model. So what can we do to manage bullying in summer camp? Let's work toward achieving the following twelve goals as a means toward successful bully prevention and management in camp and attain a true "win" for your staff and campers.
Twelve Goals Toward Bullying Prevention at Summer Camp
Goal 1 Changing our belief that we as adults have to "fix" the bully problem for children.
We have to work with kids who become victimized by helping them develop tools that reduce the emotional reaction they exhibit. The victim's reaction may make bullying worse because it makes aggression toward them more likely because of the power the bullying child experiences. Therefore, victims need to be taught to "toughen up," get less serious about the teasing, walk away with dignity, and/or create humor in negative social interactions. When you can take away the social enjoyment that bullying kids receive, you've taught a great skill to that camper who will feel more confident.
Goal 2 Focus on the bottom 20 percent and encourage positive roles for observers of bullying.
Since most bullying is a problem for the 20 percent of children at the bottom of the social confidence ladder, it is critical to find things that make these campers shine and feel successful. Enlisting the help of socially skilled peer leaders either in the bunk or during activities to help kids who are victimized feel less alone can be very effective. This works best when there is a confidential arrangement with staff and campers so this doesn't appear staged. This is far better than a staff person becoming the "parent" for a child who yearns for social connectedness. Of course, finding a "friend" for a child who needs connectedness is the number one priority to reduce bullying. When we encourage all campers (the bystander solution) to include others as part of the social language of a positive camp experience and reward these observers to include others or help others in distress, we attain a positive win-win for everyone. This can only happen when you spell out your wishes for inclusive behavior, and reward individual, groups and/or bunks of campers who bring others in or report problematic bullying to staff.
Goal 3 Encourage reporting to adults only when things are serious.
When a camper has a possession stolen or broken, children need to report this to their adult supervisors. Children who are hurt physically by others need immediate supervision and attention so any injuries are managed. When kids are completely isolated and excluded and have no social interaction, we as adults need to intervene because it is serious. When children who don't have skills are repeatedly tormented because they can't be taught skills easily, we have to develop a plan to observe them and encourage positive social interaction above and beyond. We don't want kids to come to the adult staff at every turn when they feel teased or picked on because that undermines their own abilities to manage in social situations. Our role is to help campers believe they can manage things on their own because they can — with needed encouragement and support. When we help kids feel good inside and overcome adversity when things are anything but serious, we help kids feel resilient.
Goal 4 Role-play skills with them.
When children play aggressively, they should be watched to make sure someone isn't hurt or injured. We have policies in camp against hurting others. If staff see physical aggressiveness, it is perfectly acceptable to ask the child if he/she is injured. If the child is not injured, encourage the child to move on. This prevents greater emotional dependency on you, helps a child learn that he or she can be okay, and also deescalates the situation with the victim quickly. This also prevents kids who have been aggressive from feeling "ratted out," which can escalate their interest in revenge to the kid who "tattled." This illustration may help: When you observe children falling down when they are young, they look for the adult reaction before they cry. If there is no adult available, sometimes there is no crying. If they see a sympathetic adult rush in and rescue them, their tears may become bigger. They are taking their cues from others to learn how to gauge their reactions. If we lessen the emotional reaction to bullying events, we begin to help children emotionally regulate themselves. Obviously, if the line is crossed and a child is injured or hurt, the child who was the aggressor earns the potential for discipline and consequences because they crossed the line.
When a child is teased about something, don't create an emotional reaction as the adult. Instead, try to show children that they can be winners and feel good if they don't show their emotions too strongly, and can move on quickly. When children can smile or joke about the teasing and learn to keep their emotional thermometers in the "cool" range without getting upset, the teasing begins to end. I try to role model to kids how I get teased by making fun of myself. When I show them that I am vulnerable and don't care what people say about me, I deescalate the situation and help them see that teasing does not have to "break" them. Role-playing scenarios like this with campers can be very effective.
When someone is excluded from a game or activity, they need to be "desensitized to showing how much it hurts them" because it won't continue to become an "issue" if excluded kids don't give aggressors the reaction they want. I've seen kids excluded and walk away as if it didn't matter — only to be included later because the excluding child wondered why the victim was so "cool." If kids who are excluded don't react with emotion, other kids who watch may feel badly, and include a kid who doesn't make a scene because their natural empathy kicks in.
In addition, children should learn to question the excluding child directly by asking if they did something to deserve the exclusionary behavior. Have a camper say to the excluder, "did I do something to upset you?" This teaches direct communication between children that helps them know what role they may have had in the situation. If they didn't make someone mad, and an excluding kid is just being mean, then they need to learn to "not care and be fine with it." If they did something wrong and can apologize, the situation is over. Helping kids learn how to defuse their reactions especially when left out by "mean" kids can also be a teachable moment in a discussion of the true value of "real friends."
Here is a great opportunity for a counselor observing these interactions to think about doing something fun with that excluded camper at a later date — hanging out with or doing some activity with the camper to show others that he/she has social worth. When staff notice this kid is hurting, they don't necessarily have to jump in immediately, but can build the social worth of this child by giving him or her their attention at another time. Don't overdo this attention and create dependency on you alone. Staff attention is very powerful and sought by all children. Remember, helping kids feel good about themselves by keeping their feelings in check works wonders for their resilience building.
Goal 5 Teach kids to lighten up by laughing at themselves and with others.
The real power in our campers' ability to decrease bullying is helping them learn how to lighten up. I like to do this by showing kids that we are good role models in this regard. If you as adults can laugh at yourselves and share your own vulnerabilities and experiences with them, it helps them feel less emotionally vulnerable and alone. Helping a child who has been picked on find humor in the situation is helpful. Or, showing kids that you can laugh with them about themselves can open up some new ways of looking at things. If you can make fun of yourselves, and be "real" because we are all flawed, you've begun to teach kids that imperfection is fine.
Goal 6 The administrative and decision makers in camp take a stand.
The American Camp Association (ACA) has developed a program "Camps Take a Stand," which provides materials to begin the process of education and training in bully prevention. These materials are available on ACA's Web site — and individualized training is also available. The first administrative step in bully prevention is creating a policy that lets children know the parameters and expectations of their behavior. The definition of acceptable behaviors in camp as well as those behaviors which constitute bullying and "crossing the line" begins the process of developing meaningful distinctions of appropriate and inappropriate behavior for campers. Campers need to understand what you expect from them and see you reward campers and staff who help others and do this well. Your consistency determines the culture of the camp experience and whether or not you model the behavior that you expect from your campers. A policy is only as good as the behavior you back it with. Campers pay more attention to what they observe and what you do rather than what you say. This line needs to be continually reinforced and discussed with all staff and campers on a continual basis.
Goal 7 Create discipline and consequences that are fair and reasonable.
Discipline and consequences should match the crime and always have the intent of repairing the hurt or damage caused when campers abuse their privilege and hurt others repeatedly. Kids who hurt others and do not respond to emotional regulation themselves need specific time to reflect on their inappropriate behavior. Kids who like to hurt others won't change by discipline alone, because they haven't learned skills to think about their behavior from an empathetic self-regulating response. When children reflect upon their behavior with "I" statements without blaming others, and have time to think about alternative choices for their actions you will improve your chances to decrease their aggression. Helping them make reparations for their damage shows them that they need to learn appropriate lines of social connectedness and hopefully find some empathy in themselves when faced with the same choice next time. One of the more successful strategies to deal with bullying is to have children make a call home to parents if they are involved in repeated or serious incidents of bullying against another camper. This is a great deterrent and provides campers with emotional reflection time when they have crossed the line repeatedly. This can be a prelude to a director sending a camper home for repeated and/or serious bullying acts.
Goal 8 Parent partnerships can diffuse bullying ahead of time.
Parents are a fabulous source of information about their children. Providing parents with information on your camp's policy and philosophies around bullying is the first step, but having them sign a contract with their children prior to camp helps define to parents your philosophy on bullying behavior. I encourage camps to partner with parents on these issues during the off-season and to help parents understand that if their children are involved in bullying problems in camp, there will be consequences. You can ask parents to address this with their children prior to camp. This allows parents to understand your view on the importance of emotional and physical safety in your camp, and how much you value this. When you involve parents in the process up front, there is less opportunity for them to blame the camp for bullying behavior from their child during the season.
Goal 9 Teach empathy by role modeling empathy for kids.
When you provide children with opportunities for pro-social caring and involvement with others you nurture whatever empathy they have within them. Kids need to know that your camp culture values such behavior and gets rewarded for behavior that promotes cohesiveness and inclusion. When you show empathy to others and demonstrate inclusiveness and interest in everyone, you teach kids to challenge themselves to raise the bar on their own behavior. Being strong and clear with your boundaries can be a form of empathetic modeling as long as your style is consistent, you don't show favorites and demonstrate that you do not exclude others.
In the first article in this series, I mentioned that popular kids sometimes do the worst bullying because they can get away with it more easily. Make sure that you're consistent with staff and campers or you promote the social hierarchy and dominance issues that further victimize campers.
Goal 10 Create environments that match words with actions.
I encourage the development of camp programs that incorporate values into action. For example, if you want to prevent bullying, and build respect and inclusiveness, your activities have to match these values. It is helpful to have campers involved in planning or building aspects of their community both physically and emotionally as a way to connect them more closely with their experience (Harris and Smyler 2005). Consistency is quite difficult to achieve unless you have identified your values in camp and see how your staff and programs follow through with this commitment. Many camps use their core values to build programmatic activities for their campers. When your values match your commitment to the camp program goals in action and words, your campers learn consistent language and behavior which provides structure for them which they need and trust. Consistency allows kids to focus on what's fun in camp and their own personal challenges.
Goal 11 Take a look at your style and your staff to reduce bullying.
A camp director who uses bullying behavior or hires administrative staff that bullies other staff and/or campers promotes this behavior in his or her camp culture. Taking inventory on the way you manage conflicts, and addressing discipline and consequences is critical to successful bully management. Ask yourself, "Do I let my aggression take a front seat when I manage people?" Your style in managing conflict is critical to how others perceive the boundaries of working things out with others. Aggressiveness can breed more of this. Do you promote a positive, nurturing environment consistently from the top down? This determines how much bullying you will tolerate and/or promote in your camp.
Goal 12 Challenge kids to rise to new levels of behavior.
Camp can challenge children to rise above their comfort zone and challenge themselves through safe risk-taking. Challenging campers to do the same on the bullying is no exception. Creating programs to reduce negativity by challenging campers to bond collectively can be powerful alternatives to social behavior which creates the bullying dynamic. For example, camp programs (Dellasega 2005, Honigfeld 2005, Vaughn 2005) which encourage adolescent girls to participate in clear, direct communication are great examples of programs that aim to change the typical behavior patterns of communication patterns and bullying in this age group. All children need programs that encourage them to find the best in themselves in skill building and behavior with their peers. Incorporating training to promote excellent communication skill building and character development for all campers and staff really raise the bar for camp success. Remember, the bottom 20 percent of children can take up 80 percent of your time, so increased training in bully prevention strategies should always have this group in mind to maximize the camp experience that allows kids to have real fun, growth and social success.
Staff training is a critical part of the success or failure of bully prevention efforts. The final article in this series will address staff training for successful bully prevention and management.
|Coloroso, B. (2003). The Bully, The Bullied and the Bystanders: from Pre-School to High School — How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle of Violence. Harper Resource Press.
|Dellasega, C. (2005). Camp Ophelia: A Relationship Camp for Middle School Girls. Camping Magazine.
|Haber, J. (2006). Raising Awareness to Reduce Bullying in Summer Camp. Camping Magazine.
|Harris, B. & Smyler, A. (2005). Incorporating URJ Values into Camp Experiences (Personal communication during summer consultation).
|Honigfeld, M. (2005). Mean Girls Not Allowed- Creating a Healthy Environment for 13 Year Old Girls. American Camp Association Tri-State Camp Conference.
|Pratto, F., Sidanius, J. (1999). Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression. Cambridge University Press.
|Thompson, M. (2001). Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Worlds of Children. Ballantine.
|Vaughn, G. (2006). Managing Relational Aggression in Girls. To be included as part of Symposium on Preventing Bullying and Relational Aggression in Camp. American Camp Association National Conference.
Joel D. Haber, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and founder of the Respect U program. He has held positions at University of Alabama, Birmingham Medical School, White Plains Hospital Center, and New York Medical College and has authored numerous articles and led conference sessions on topics including bullying, building resilience in children, and positive parenting. For more information about the Respect U program, visit www.ACAcamps.org/bullying or go to www.RespectU.com.
Originally published in the 2006 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.