Heather Case is a licensed Mental Health Counselor in the State of Indiana. She talks to NoBullying.com about Dealing with School Bullying and what bullying really means in the United States.
Heather Case: My name is Heather Case. I live in Indiana, United States and in Indiana I am a licensed mental health counselor as well as a licensed guidance counselor. So, I have worked with families for well over a decade now predominantly with children and adolescents, mostly high school students, but I started my career working with younger children in pre-K (prekindergarten) through 5th grade here in the US and I’m also the parent of a child who was pretty mercilessly bullied and have lots of experience in both public and private school settings, working with children on academic and social issues.
Ciaran Connolly: Excellent. Thank you very much for taking time out to talk to us today. It will be great to get your experience and insight into bullying and what’s happening today and what we can possibly do to try and protect our children. Do you think that bullying is as big an issue today as it was 10, 20, 30 years ago?
HC: I think our awareness of the problem of bullying has significantly increased with media attention. I’m not sure that the problem of bullying has gotten any better. In fact, in some ways I think it has gotten worse because children and adolescents have access to so many more ways to influence others with social media and internet access. So, I think maybe it has gotten a little worse but you know, hopefully, we are intervening and doing something differently that will help to turn that trite thing.
CC: Of course and as you mentioned social media, you see a difference then in how bullying happens today with all the social media, the internet, mobile phones and text messages?
HC: Absolutely and I think the biggest difference is that it’s so easy to type, text, record, take pictures of stuff and send it to what would be an almost anonymous user. I mean obviously you know who you are targeting and you know who you are sending the message to but we can say things through electronic media that we wouldn’t have the guts to say face to face and so it’s so easy to type and hit send and then you know the kids are off to the races and other people can sign in where before social media you had the actually you and your friends had to be there in the present to actually harass, intimidate other students but now everybody can sign in from wherever they are all over the world and it can pounce the problem significantly.
CC: Of course and there is a lot of media attention on bullying and cyber bullying at the moment. Do you thinks this is helping things?
HC: You know I’m kind of torn on that. I think certainly the media attention may help raise awareness of parents and adults who can appropriately intervene and help try and stop the behavior but it also sends a message that this is acceptable behavior to our children and adolescents you know because they are like “Well, so and so is doing it. So, I don’t want to get left out”. So, I’m kind of torn on that. I think if we take the information that we were receiving through the media and begin to really take it seriously and intervene appropriately, the media certainly can be a positive influence in changing the behavior and how we treat one another.
Dealing with School Bullying and Different Age Groups
CC: Of course and if you don’t mind, I will just go back to some points you mentioned which were quite interesting. You have obviously worked with children of all ages throughout the whole spectrum. Do you think bullying impacts children at different ages in a different way?
HC: I do. I think the little guys you know when you are talking the elementary age kids especially pre-K (kindergarten) through maybe 3rd or 4th grade, they are very resilient and may not even take it as personally. Certainly, it can be a personal affront and they are feeling they are hurt but a lot of times they will come back at it the next day. You know, they are going to give it another try and those aged children are far less likely to be influenced by social media and electronic devices. Once you start to get to late elementary and middle school, which is what we call it here US so we are talking grades 3rd, 4th and 5thgrades, it’s kind of where it starts. Through middle school and high school, that’s when kids start to become even more wired. They start to have their own electronic devices whether it’s iPods, cellphones, whatever and middle school is just such a hard time socially and emotionally. I actually think sometimes the most damage can be done at that age because there are kids at that age who have so few social and coping skills and are often sometimes dealing with content that, as adults, we didn’t have to deal with until we were much older. So, that makes it so much more difficult because the combination of this barrage of information and a lack of skills because they haven’t developed them yet, they haven’t had the time in the practice to develop really positive coping skills, so it just can be really detrimental at that age.
CC: Of course and what age have you seen, I guess roughly children with mobile phones and may be even use the internet? I guess I’m thinking social media tends to say usually should be at least 13 years old. Have you ever seen people younger than that using social media and the internet?
HC: Oh absolutely and you are right. The laws, in US at least, say that you are supposed to be 13. You know, I have kids with cellphones easily starting 4th-5th grade. So, they are still in elementary school. Now, sometimes that has to do with the fact that parents lead busy lives and their kids are doing you know before and after school care and they want their kids to be able to have access to them but I’m not necessarily convinced that 3rd, 4th and 5th graders need smart phones. That is one thing to have a phone to be able to get a hold of mum, dad, grandma, grandpa, whoever your emergency contact is if something comes up but it’s an entirely different thing to have access to the internet 24/7.
CC: And this is something…exactly a very good point. We often don’t realize what our children might be looking at online and even children they are typing things into search engines and who knows what’s been returned and maybe they are typing things by mistake or even I guess exploring the world but the internet can be a tough place for anyone ever mind a young child.
HC: Well and it is an amazing resource.There are so many wonderful things that come from the internet but technology is evolving at such a rapid pace even if you are trying to be really on top of that as a parent and using the tools that are out there to help parents monitor their children’s electronic activity. The kids are coming up with so many new things. I mean every month there is something new that appears on my teenagers’ smartphones and I’m like “Come here. Let’s sit down. Let’s talk about this, what is it? What does this app do?”. It’s really hard to stay on top of… I personally have a 13 and 16 year olds so it takes a lot of energy on my part to stay on top of that and I get like sometimes parents just kind of feel overwhelmed and maybe don’t pay as close attention to it because they don’t have the technological skills or you know maybe they just don’t have the time to everyday be reviewing what their kids are doing electronically and may not have the tools to do that either.
CC: And this is it and it must be a real concern because there is as you say I guess the fact of our children possibly knowing more about technology than some of the parents and for a parent to try and engage and have a conversation with their young child about what’s right and wrong and what to do, it can be daunting and I’m sure a challenge.
HC: Absolutely and I think one of the things that we hesitate about is that we say “Oh! My kids deserve some privacy”. I absolutely agree with that but I also think that we are expecting kids to just know how to use this technology and if we don’t spend some time working with them, teaching them the skills that they need to manage it appropriately, we’re really just asking for trouble. So, you know, a lot of parents are like “I don’t want to spy on my kids”. My kids know that I have installed stuff on their phones, paid for a service that’s going to monitor their electronic stuff and so I told them right if I’m not doing it. You know, I suppose some parents might just install and not tell their kids but my kids know and I say “I am going to be looking at your stuff. I’m not going to read every text, I’m not going to read every email, I’m not going to look at every webpage you go to but I’m going to be checking in” and so just that fact that they know that I’m going to be reviewing it is a deterrent. I’m like, you know, “Don’t write anything that you wouldn’t like me to read because you just never know what day, what time I’m going to check in and see where you’re at electronically “ and it has been, you know, I think a deterrent with them not to have it screwed up. Not that we haven’t had to have some conversations about “Hey, is there a different way you could have communicated this message?” but none the less, the deterrent is the point I’m going for and I have been very open with my kids about that and I think that’s a really good way to help model for them the behavior that you want to see them display.
CC: It makes perfect sense and again you are right in what you are saying. We expect children to be able to go onto the world and that work where one billion people are connected and there are no barriers and anyone can connect with anyone and we don’t give them some guidelines and help them through the landmine that can be out there and we spend 20 years preparing them to go to work and to live the life as an adult. Yet, we can give them a phone and let them go and talk to a billion people without giving them any guidance. So, I think your strategy sounds like an excellent one and are you ever worried that children in general, good children, can see a post on a social media site and like it or re-share it or engage with it when it’s actually bullying but without even realizing what they are doing and without even realizing that the consequences? Because I know my own Facebook or Twitter account, I see something and within 2 to 3 seconds I might have liked it or re-shared it or made a smiley face on it but maybe I’m not even paying full attention to what it is and what they are saying and I guess can gang bullying or can this happen? Can people get ganged on if someone posts something negative and a lot of people engaged on it?
HC: Absolutely and that’s kind of what I was talking about before that. Bullying, at least when I was in school, really was [with] social and emotional pieces to it but you had to be face to face. So, if somebody likes something that’s mean and then pretty soon a hundred people like something that’s mean, that’s a hundred times the insult as opposed to me just saying you know something mean to someone else. It’s the two of us,and so there might be five of us, but the role of the bystander whether it’s an electronic bystander or whether it’s an in-person bystander is so significant because the research is bearing out that the group of people that has the biggest influence in changing the social behavior of bullying is the group of bystanders. When other people post “Hey, that’s not cool”, “You know that’s mean”, “Please don’t say that to that person” whether they are posting it or saying it in person, it still has the same effect of sending the message that this is not acceptable behavior and too often kids like something because they like the picture, they like the person who said it and they don’t pay attention and as I weigh what does this message mean, I just click ‘Like’because it is super easy. It’s instant gratification and ZOOM! It’s off to a hundred more people one of which might be the person that’s being attacked.
CC: Yes, of course and even as adults, I’m thinking of myself that I need to be a little bit more careful in what I’m liking or endorsing because I need to think and see exactly what people are saying and make sure that we aren’t posting negative things about other people because it’s so easy to do and you are right actually. Maybe it’s an acknowledgment of the original person who is the cool person that we like to engage with him and want to be part of the gang and make sure we are seen to be with the crowd. So, it’s very important not to get caught up in that. It’s very interesting, your point of view on the power of the bystanders and do you think bystanders as a whole are strong enough? Do you see a change especially in the US? Have bystanders been focused on more and more people saying no to bullying?
HC: I think that we are starting to see kids who are willing to stand up. It’s so hard for kids to stand up to other kids and until they have the skills, until you actually spend some time teaching and training them how to stand up, it is just really hard; they don’t know how to do it. It’s not something they inherently do because it’s not comfortable.We are asking them to come out of their comfort zone and to say “This is not ok”. One of the first things I do when I’m working with students is to say “Just walk away” and that’s not really easy to do when you are at school. Well, I shouldn’t say really easy but it’s easier to do in person. It’s really hard to walk away from social media. We are by design social creatures and so we just love to be involved with other people. So, a lot of kids really struggle to turn off their phones even just to do homework. It’s really hard to turn it off and walk away and especially the more Likes, the more attention, something is getting, it gains more momentum and you are just off to the races pretty quickly. So, you know I would like to say that I’m seeing it, I have seen instances of it. Is it happening nationwide? No, I don’t think it is happening nationwide yet.
CC: For sure and I don’t feel it or see it here either. So, definitely we need to focus on the bystanders more. You mentioned briefly that you have some experience in public and private schools. I was just wondering, do you think that bullying has anything to do with social class or is it something that can reach children and adults at any level and any institute across the country or world even?
HC: Oh, I think it’s a classless issue. I think sometimes people use class to engage in bullying and that’s what they bully around. I mean that’s the issue they use but no. I don’t see any difference probably in the fact that kids do it. What I will say is that I previously worked in a very large urban high school. We were pushing close to 2000 students over four grades and now work at school that’s an independent house preparatory day school so it’s very small. There are less than 350 students grades 9th through 12th and the big difference that I see is that the smaller school feels more accepting to students but I think to some degree that is their system much higher level of scrutiny. You know, when you are in class with only 15 to 18 kids as opposed to a class with 40 kids, you get to know the teacher better, the adults could be more accountable and there is just far more awareness and intervention because when you only have 350 kids to manage, it’s more familiar than trying to manage you know 2000 students. So, I think size probably makes more of a difference than class or I would say the kids that I have now have greater access to technology, have greater access to you know certain types of resources but I don’t see that that really makes a huge difference in the fact that they are all willing to engage in bullying behaviors.
CC: Very interesting and how do people bully others today. I know we have covered some of this already but just to get your view on that?
HC: I think there has definitely been a migration from boy bullying, not that it doesn’t still happen but that used to be the primary type of bullying where today it’s a bit more subversive. You know, it can fly under the radar a bit more and so when they are on social media and they are able to manipulate and intimidate other students without ever having to see them or touch them or even being at the same room at all, that is a much more common type of bullying today.
How to Begin Dealing with School Bullying
CC: Of course and in your opinion, how should a parent approach bullying with their children to ensure that they understand that it is wrong?
HC: Well, one of the things when I train, and I picked it up from somewhere else – from something I read somewhere and honestly I don’t even remember where I read it but it was just a phrase. It was “If it’s mean, intervene”. So, I would like to start there that you know not everything we do and say is intended to be bullying but the person who’s receiving those comments, those text messages, those pictures, whatever it may be might perceive it as being bullying. So, if it’s mean, we need to intervene to stop it and so that means that you have to have regular open discussions with your children about what’s going on at school. When my oldest daughter, when the bullying started, it was several months before I even realized what was going on and what was happening to her at school on a pretty regular basis and this was before she had a cellphone. It started in 4th grade and so part of it is just having regular conversations with your kids, paying close attention to their behavior. So, if the start to withdraw, if they maybe did an activity and loved it for a long time and just suddenly, immediately don’t want to do it anymore that could be a red flag. If kids grow, they change, their interests change and so overtime what they were interested in in 5th grade may not be at all what they are interested in by 10th grade and that is a really normal progression but if they loved something and want to do it all the time and suddenly don’t want anything to do with it and have a really strong negative reaction about it, there is probably a story behind that and it would be worth the time to have a conversation and kind of try to get to the bottom of that with your child.
CC: Exactly and children still try to deal with this themselves or don’t want to confide in the parents or worry the parents about bullying. It’s still something we hear from time to time again that communication is key and trying to get a child to open up and have confidence that they can talk to the parents about what’s happening to them in their school and maybe even on the social media as well. If a child has been bullied, what is the best advice for them?
HC: Well, research has shown that kids who have at least one good friend, somebody that they really can trust whether it’s at school, I mean the benefit is multiplied when that student goes to the same school with them but as long as they have at least one peer that they can confide in, that they can trust, that they have some of interests with and as long as they have one adult, their ability to respond and to be resilient through the bullying significantly increases. So the kids I worry about the most of the kids who really are the true loners; I don’t ever see them with somebody else at school. They don’t ever eat lunch with anybody, they don’t ever have conversations with somebody in at least one class. Those are the kids that really need at the very least an adult to come alongside them and say “Hey. How is it going?” and start with a daily conversation of just going out of your way to make sure that they feel that they have been noticed and that someone is paying attention to them and cares about them. So, for kids, you can tell them “Find that person” but is not that easy.
So, sometimes it really means adults have to go out of their way to help kids along the way. So it could be that adult could be a teacher, it could be someone at their church, temple, synagogue, it could be at a community center but just as long as there is an adult that they are seeing regularly and developing the social skills to interact with that adult may eventually translate to helping them find a peer. In my role, especially in the public school but even within the school that I’m at now, if I see a kid like that I try and find a kid, another kid, that I know and that I can trust and I can say “You know what? Someone doesn’t really have anybody to hang out with, could you just invite him or her eat lunch with you?” so the cafeteria is honestly one of the harshest places in the middle school and high school. Sometimes middle schools still are very, at least in the US, are very regimented and have them at assigned tables or whatever but when you get to high school and you can sit wherever you want, man! Does that just hurt to have to sit by yourself everyday. So, these little things that we can do to help intervene that are even are behind the scenes that I don’t go to the kid that’s being targeted or sit by himself everyday and say “Hey! By the way, do you want me to find you a friend to eat lunch with?” no because that actually serves to bring more shame and embarrassment. So, sometimes it really is behind the scenes kind of things you can do that audibly have big payoffs.
CC: Of course and do you think there is a long term effect on children who have been bullied?
HC: You know I don’t know of enough longitudinal studies that have really taken a look at that. So, I guess I could only speak to that inaudibly and I would say kids who have adults intervene on their behalf who get connected with someone who can help them with social skills training really tend to have good outcomes in the long run but I think there are still little pieces of that which hopefully the positive outcome would be if a kid has been targeted and we as adults provide appropriate intervention, which sometimes means maybe some individual counseling. You can do a lot in a few sessions of individual counseling to work on the social skills necessary to be willing to help the student learn self advocacy skills, to learn how to walk down the hall differently so that they are less likely to be the target of bullying but when we don’t intervene, when we act like it’s not a problem, it just breaks my heart when I see schools say,when kids have taken extreme measures, I will never be the one to say “Oh! It’s all bullying’s fault” but I do think often bullying may be a portion of the problem and for schools to just say “It’s not happening in our school” just totally reinforces the power of the children who are bullying and totally adds more shame to the child who has been the target.
CC: Of course and of course it’s a limited amount of schools now around the world that would even have that mindset but how would a school even change? Or how would a school’s mindset for the belief that bullying doesn’t exist [change]? What would happen for them to change the mindset? Would it need something serious to happen in the school or is it a change of leadership? And again I’m hoping it’s a minority of schools that exist like that, if any but it must be a tough thing to change to go from believing that bullying doesn’t exist in the school to actually being open and proactive and trying to bring change and improve the lives and environment of the people there.
HC: I fear that it happens more often than I would like to see. So, you are absolutely right. It can be a couple of different ways either for some reason new leadership comes in but more often than that unfortunately it is something pretty dramatic, something pretty negative, happens that cause it and usually it’s enough parents find out about it, enough parents aren’t abhorred that then the district or the individual school have to acknowledge that there is a problem. It takes a lot of time and energy and really constant vigilance to stay on top of bullying and it’s hard work.
Dealing with School Bullying For Parents and Teachers
CC: Of course and leading onto another question, do you think parents and teachers are dealing with bullied victims or targets or even bullies themselves in the right way?
HC: I think that that’s a tough question. I think that families, very often parents, the most common thing I hear from parents is “I don’t know what to do”. So, I think there are startingto be some really great resources out there especially if the media becomes more aware and they raise the awareness of parents. I think we also maybe sometimes have a knee-jerk reaction where we call everything bullying, “Oh my kid has been bullied because somebody called him a name”.Well, you know it probably really does depend on the context of the behavior. When 5 year olds call each other names, it’s a perfect opportunity for some social skill training, to redirect kids, to talk about how we use nice words. That doesn’t necessarily mean it is bullying. Bullying is really something that is done intentionally, is repeated overtime. There are some acts of bullying that are so aggressive, that are so extreme that they don’t have to be repeated overtime. It can be a onetime event but the problem is they usually are repeated overtime and we wait until they become so extreme and so much damage has already been done.
So, again it goes back to that communication for parents, and your kids may have responses like “Why are you all up in my grill? Leave me alone” and that’s ok. You know what? It’s better to be asking them everyday so “How is school?” but you have to ask more specific questions besides just the open-ended.You certainly can start with “How is school?” and see what they tell you. So, you know if you know they have been having a problem in math class you say “How did math class go today?” you know, “What did you guys talk about?” “What else happened?” and just keep giving them opportunities over and over again to share that information because honestly most kids that have been targeted, it is really [that] they are embarrassed and they are ashamed that they don’t know what to do and so most people don’t like to live there and feel that. So, it’s really hard for them to come forward and share that. So, just continuing from a parent’s perspective to be involved, to see who they are hanging out with, to have their friends over to your house if you can so you see how they interact and you can know “Ok. Yes, these guys are treating each other in an appropriate way, a way that is kind” or”Wow! They are really mean to each other. Maybe it’s time to get a little more involved in this and try and help my child figure out what’s safe, what’s appropriate”.
CC: Of course and I think you are right, a very tough question to ask. I do think that while schools seem to have a lot of attention on the parents and even the community as a whole,we all have our part to play in educating and watching out for bullying and trying to educate our children and I guess schools are also tasked with grades and attendance and so many things that if all parts of the puzzle aren’t working in the same way and in the same direction, then we are not going to be successful as we could be and do you think that parents as a whole understand that they need to pull their weights so to speak and be involved and try and educate their children as opposed to just saying pointing at the schools always and saying it’s a school problem if bullying was happening?
HC: I think, you know, when I grew up my parents were just like “The school is the expert and they will handle it”. I don’t really feel that way maybe because I have been involved in education for so long. I remember it hasn’t been that long ago that I worked in a public school where when I first started, I was responsible for more than 700 kids as their guidance counselor and so I’ve got to be completely honest with you, some days when kids would come in and they would have a bullying issue, it doesn’t take long for the kids in the school to figure out who’s going to help them. So, I would have kids come to my office and say “So and so said you helped them and I need help” but there were days that I’m like“OK…my principal has this list of a million miles long of things that need to get done today. I have to do: cover 3 lunches and so I did a bunch of supervision”. You know, the list is so long and some days they come in and you just like “I don’t have time for one more thing” and you have to make time and it’s really hard but I don’t know that everyone has that same approach and a lot of times luckily because I started in mental health and then went into education, I had that training. I knew what to do. A lot of teachers don’t know what to do and we don’t provide them with appropriate training so that they can begin to intervene so they do what they can but half the time it makes the problem worse but you can’t fault them for trying. They are at least trying to do something. So, I think a lot of parents do just assume that the school isgoing to handle it but I’m not sure that most of the people they are doing the day to day work with the kids have had the appropriate training to know what to do and to know how to intervene.
CC: Of course and what can schools do to ensure they provide the best educational advice to the children and also to the staff? I guess I hear a lot of bullying policy in schools and some schools have them and some schools don’t, what do you think is the most important thing?
HC: Well, I think it’s a great step in the right direction for schools to have bullying policies but I think that the policies are only as good as the people who take the time to follow up and enforce them and I strongly do not agree with No Tolerance policies because all that does is take the kid out for day or two, give them lots of attention if the kid who was suspended and does nothing to address the social skills for that student who is engaged in bullying lacks. We engage in bullying behaviors because we have a need that we want or need met and so if kids can’t find socially appropriate ways to meet those needs, they are going to find other ways which could include bullying in a whole hostile other behaviors so you know to say that we are just going to have a policy and it’s going to be no tolerance and we are just going to kick kids out and then they will come back with no other skills really just perpetuates the problem.
CC: Of course and I see some schools across, even here in the UK and Ireland and US, have a no bullying policy, a very strict policy where it does take severe action but you feel that maybe that’s not the best way. We also should look after bullying and try to find out what’s wrong and try to treat the problem as opposed to taking very tough reactive action.
HC: I think that the best outcomes [are] probably the most expensive. So,they involve lots of training in intervention for teachers, involves having you know counselors, social workers and other trained experts to come in and observe the system within the school and see what’s working, what’s not, helping them change it but certainly just having zero tolerance policies that remove kids and then they will come back still the same isn’t changing anything, isn’t helping anything, isn’t making anything better.
CC: Of course and have you any knowledge of severe cases or consequences of bullying?
HC: Yes, I have been peripherally involved or have been involved as a consultant with some pretty extreme cases and so ultimately sometimes damage is permanent and there is nothing you can do to fix it. So, that’s like the proactive of being involved on the frontend and seeing it when it’s happening and stopping it at early points in that cycle are so critical and important.
CC: Excellent and again just to say thank you very much for you time today and your insight has been amazing just to see what’s happening and what I guess good practice should be. If anyone wanted to find out more about yourself and sites and projects that you are involved in, is there somewhere we can send them?
HC: You know I think probably honestly the best way to contact me would be via email just because…I started to consult on bullying on the national level and now perhaps even internationally. So, my email is [email protected] and I would welcome questions or emails and would be happy to follow up and give some suggestions or strategies. If you can include that link and the 2 fact sheets that we found are really fabulous at giving you quick good information that is research based… I’m constantly reading, staying up on the research, the new article that are coming out just because I think that there is always new ways to handle the situation people that are discovering.
I think the only other thing I would say that perhaps we haven’t talked about yet is just if everyone could start to change their language about how they talk about bullying, so when you use the word “victim” and I’m using “you” very generally – we use the word victim in the media all the time, that really makes kids feel helpless and say “That’s it! I’m a victim. There is nothing I can do to change it” but when you start to talk about being the ‘target’ or the ‘intended target’ of bullying and that’s really empowering to the child who has faced those bullying behaviors. So, it just helps begin to change their mindset to believe that they can do something different, that they don’t have to just sit there and take it, that there are other ways that they can respond that will help them be safe and then on the flipside we talk about bullies, bullies, bullies. I really try hard to talk about the ‘student who is engaged in bullying behavior’ for the same type of a reason but on the other end that bullies, when we call them bullies feel like “This is me, this is who I’m” and it does not empower them or even give them the belief that they could actually do something different and they could engage with others in a different way. So, when we talk about the behavior that we see, that we like or don’t like as opposed to the person, it really allows kids to feel like they can make a change.
CC: Very good, very interesting and I will try and remember to use those phrases going forward.
HC: Yes, well that would be wonderful and you know what? It is all starts with one. So, when one person makes the difference, one person can literally turn a life of a child around and so if we each find one kid to make a difference in, we are going to have a change in the world pretty quickly.
CC: Of course and that’s what it’s all about and making that difference. Hopefully there is one or two children listening to this, feeling powered by what you said and again thank you very much for your time. It was great to have your time and share your insight with us.
HC: Ok, great thank you for reaching out and being interested in helping kids.