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Beating Bullying

By Laura Janota

Posted: 11/04/2011

From the Summer 2011 issue of Roosevelt Review

A unique new program offered by the College of Education offers pointers to teachers, youth counselors and others on best techniques for de-escalating conflict and handling bullies.

Almost every time Roosevelt University graduate education major Ernest Crim did his student teaching at a south-side Chicago high school last fall, he noticed the same sophomore girl getting picked on by her peers.

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“Everyone at the school knew about it. These kids would talk about her under their breaths, making fun of her clothes, her shoes, whatever,” recalled Crim, who tried to intervene, albeit unsuccessfully, in a conflict that on one occasion escalated into a fistfight.

“There was one guy in the class who bullied her mercilessly, and I was concerned because the girl seemed to have low self-esteem. It crossed my mind that she could be the type to commit suicide,” added Crim, who recently received tips on how to handle the situation in a new College of Education elective called Navigating Peace: Exploring Bullying, Conflict and Social Justice Issues in Education.

Offered last spring in Chicago and over the summer in Schaumburg, the course is an outgrowth of the national Conflict Resolution in Teacher Education (CRETE) project, which now has approximately 20 partnering institutions around the country. Temple University has a conflict resolution class and Kent State, DePaul, Wayne State and San Francisco State are among the universities that have participated in sponsoring the training.

“When I saw an invitation from CRETE to participate with them, I jumped at the opportunity because I know how important it is for students to feel safe in their environment in order to learn,” said College of Education Dean Holly Stadler, whose field of specialty is counselor education.

Since joining CRETE, three College of Education faculty members have been certified to train others how to effectively deal with bullying. They are Kristina Peterson, assistant professor of counseling and human services, who teaches the new course; Linda Pincham, associate professor of secondary education; and Maria Earmen Stetter, assistant professor of special education. In addition, two special training workshops in conflictresolution techniques — a precursor to Peterson’s new course — also were held at Roosevelt last year.

“Our goal has been to provide conflict-resolution training to the entire College of Education faculty,” said Stadler. “We’d like to see our faculty incorporate it into the curriculum and we’d also like to partner with outside groups, school districts and organizations to provide conflict resolution training in the community.”

Cases of bullying on the rise

At the start of the endeavor, few could have imagined that bullying would become a national priority issue that President Barack Obama would address at a special White House conference.

“If there is one goal of this conference, it is to dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up,” Obama said in March, just weeks after a spate of highly publicized suicides in which youngsters killed themselves after being bullied in school or on the Internet.

Counseling student Sandra Guzman uses conflict-resolution techniques taught at Roosevelt on the job as a youth counselorSandra Guzman (BA, ’08), a full-time youth counselor in Chicago’s western suburbs and a master’s student in Roosevelt’s clinical mental health counseling program, has seen increases both in numbers and in the intensity of bullying incidents, which she believes can have dire consequences for all who are involved.

“The name-calling, the teasing, the laughing and the gossiping have always been there,” said Guzman, who recently completed Roosevelt’s new course. “What we’re seeing now is that kids are using their phones, doing texting and Facebook, in order to bully someone who might not even be in the same classroom or school. On at least one occasion, I’ve seen a kid explode with rage, throwing chairs around and going off on his teachers because he couldn’t take being bullied anymore,” she said.

It’s estimated that more than six million school children experienced bullying in the last six months. What’s more, a 2009 study called “Indicators of School Crime and Safety” by the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics, found that teens were experiencing far more than just verbal taunting. Shoving, tripping, spitting, threatening, excluding one from activities of choice, coercing one into something not chosen, or destroying personal property, were reported by nearly a third of teens who were surveyed.

At the same time, the National Center for Education Statistics has reported that as many as a third of new teachers leave the profession within five years due to disruptive behavior and violence, particularly in low-income urban areas. “We’ve been seeing too many violent conflicts involving kids,” said Peterson, who has already taught bullying/conflict resolution classes to dozens of individuals. “Bullying hurts everyone involved — kids, their teachers, parents, the bully and the entire community, and we’ve got to do all we can to reverse this ugly trend.”

Balloon shows how anger grows

Besides classroom training, Peterson has given her students an opportunity to share what they’ve learned — including techniques for de-escalating conflicts and exercises promoting understanding of different perspectives — with youths, ages five to 18, who are attending after-school programs at two nonprofit Safe Haven sites in Chicago.

Kelly Longmire (MA, ’09), a junior high school teacher in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood took Peterson’s class last spring to help her teach youth how conflicts get started and what they can do to manage anger. She used a balloon at one of the Safe Haven sites to illustrate how anger builds up and explodes.

“I showed them the balloon and I told them, ‘This is the negativity you are feeling. Every time someone says something you don’t like, the balloon gets bigger and bigger.’”

Just before the balloon got big enough to pop, Longmire began suggesting how to deflate it a little at a time. “I told them, ‘Don’t say something mean right now,’” she said, letting a little air out of the balloon. “Don’t scream; walk away for a minute; tell your teacher you need help in handling the situation,” she added, deflating the balloon with each suggestion.

The Rev. Denita Armstrong-Shaffer of West Point Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, one of the Safe Haven sites where Roosevelt students have been volunteering, believes instruction for youth on what causes conflict and how to best resolve one’s problems peacefully is long overdue.

“I talk to kids all the time who are frightened by what’s going on in their classroom, on the playground, in their neighborhood and on the streets,” said Armstrong-Shaffer. “They don’t know how to get away from bullies and they don’t know how to handle them.”

Some of the exercises practiced by Peterson’s students used pictures of animals — a lion for aggression, a zebra representing peacemaking and a turtle for a slow and quiet approach to problem-solving — to teach kids about differing perspectives. Other activities included role playing in which kids put on a play about the three little pigs — from the perspective of the big, bad wolf.

“I’m really glad I took this class because we all have to adjust our teaching styles to a new group of kids who need to learn more than ever how to keep the world prosperous and on an even keel,” said Bettece Ghant, a master’s student in secondary education who has taught in several schools in Markham, Ill.

""She recalls an incident in which a boy who had been called a gay slur met with her to voice his displeasure. Although she held a classroom discussion on the topic, she now favors techniques learned in the Roosevelt course in which the bully could be brought before teachers, parents and the victim to acknowledge his or her actions, hear firsthand how the victim was harmed and then take responsibility so that justice can be restored. “I think this approach would work much better than just suspending someone from school,” she said.

Crim, who now teaches full-time as a social studies teacher at an alternative high school in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood, said he’s become more proactive because of the course — nipping kids’ bullying in the bud before the behavior takes a destructive turn.

“This course has equipped me with a lot of tools that I wish I’d had for that first class I taught,” said Crim, who will receive a master’s degree in secondary education in December. “It goes beyond anything I learned about classroom management in any of my other courses and it’s taught me how to deal with bullying, including how and when to intervene. I truly believe it should be mandatory for anyone who wants to teach.”