Archive for the ‘Adolescent Development’ Category

Bullying is big news. With kids cutting and killing themselves, the media, legislatures, and school systems are just now waking up to an epidemic that has been thriving under their noses for way too long.

We are searching for answers. Whose fault is it? The bully’s? The teacher? The Principal? The parent?

The truth is, we are missing the boat about what causes bullying and why it exists in the first place.

Bullying, at its core, is about relationships. The whole system promotes and allows bullying. Kids increasingly do not know how to be in relationship with each other so they resort to surviving the best they know how.

We don’t teach a “how to get along in the world” class. Kids must figure out the complexity of relationship on their own, making interpersonal interaction a Darwinian experience. Many think back to their childhood and view survival of the fittest as a positive way to learn about life. But the truth is, school is increasingly a Lord of the Flies existence, where teachers opt out of being in relationship with their students.

This leaves kids to flounder right before their eyes.

Bullying is the disintegration of intimate, caring relationships in a society gone digital. Bullying is not just a kid-on-kid phenomenon.

And here is the surprising part. IT EXISTS EVERYWHERE, especially in school between teacher and student.

Teresa is a 15-year-old who is chronically overwhelmed by the expectations of her teachers and her mother. An impatient mother demanding excellence coupled with teachers who never stop giving homework, grading and moving on to the next chapter has Teresa living in a constant state of anxiety and fear.

She has panic attacks at night thinking about her failure and inadequacy. Teresa attempted to talk to her teachers but mostly they ignore her, dismissing her as someone who has given up. Though clearly emotionally drowning in full view of everyone, no adult “bystanders” have stepped in to help Teresa.

Reaching her breaking point, she stabbed herself in the neck – all in an effort to stop the intense and unbearable feeling of rejection and inadequacy.

What makes this a case of bullying is how teachers caused Teresa’s fear and anxiety without attending to her obvious suffering. There is no relationship of caring between Teresa and her teachers. They were able to walk away (like any bully) and not take responsibility for their actions.

Too many teachers bully students to get their work done instead of being in relationship with them. Bullying bypasses the intimacy and work of real relationship. It is more than being rude or insensitive; it’s emotional harming of another in exchange for power, prestige, control, dominance or playing out unresolved issues on others.

Most kids, when asked about school, will answer that it is an impossible situation. They have no rights or privileges and absolutely no voice. Too often parents join with teachers to push, prod, threaten, humiliate, ridicule, judge, grade, embarrass, all in an effort to get kids to good student status, to get them to tow the line.

But in the end, what will work and what will always work is being in caring and respectful relationships. Everyone wins in a healthy relationship. It is harder and needs to be taught. But it is the only way to stop bullying.


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Tyler is five years old. He is going to school for the first time. In school, he will learn to read and write. He will meet other boys and girls who he will play with. He will make friends and laugh and get mad and sad. He likes painting and playing tag during recess. He likes that his name is painted in red and blue by his own cubby. Everyday, the teacher reads stories and he likes that also. The teacher wants him to sit and write letters and numbers and color in between the lines. She wants him to be quiet during quiet time and to have an “inside voice” all the time. Tyler is confused about all the rules and cries at school. The teacher has a “nice voice,” but she also has a “mean voice.” Tyler is afraid of the “mean voice.” Tyler feels sad more and more, especially when the “mean voice” is there too much. When the teacher asks him why he is sad, he looks down at his basketball shoelaces his dad double-ties in the morning and more tears come out. He wants to go home and play with his own stuff and he tells the teacher this. She tells him that he can go home when school is over and that’s not until after afternoon snack. How long is that he asks? That is four more hours, she said in her nice voice. When Tyler looks up he sees another little boy, the one with red hair, doing something he wants to do. He tells the teacher he’s not sad anymore and he runs to his friend. The teacher calls out “Walk Tyler.”

Penelope is eight years old. She is an old hand at school. Third grade. She knows what’s expected of her and for the most part, she is pretty good at school. She kind of likes it, especially when she gets good grades. Grades are new to her and Penelope feels nervous in her stomach when Miranda gets a better grade than she does on spelling. Penelope wishes the other children in her classroom were better behaved, especially the boys who are always talking and getting into trouble. She makes sure she doesn’t do what they are doing and tells the teacher when someone is doing something they shouldn’t be doing. This way the teacher knows she is a good girl and that’s important. Penelope wants to do everything right but the other girls don’t like her as much. She’s not sure why. But she has one friend, Rose, who is really quiet. They gave each other friendship necklaces this year and spend every recess playing House by the trees next to the blacktop. The other girls usually jump rope or play Chase but Penelope doesn’t like doing that. She wants them to come to her and play her games, but they never do, except Rose, so that makes Rose her best friend. Raji wants to be her friend too but she is too talkie. Raji also gets into trouble for talking in class and Penelope has to sit next to her, which she hates so she ignores her. Sometimes Penelope talks to Raji and sometimes they are friends, maybe for a day, but then they’re not because Raji is annoying. Nobody likes her.

Zach is 10 years old. He always sits in the back of the class at his own desk. He doesn’t mind so much. He gets to look out the window and think about video games and recess. Zach is not doing so well in school but all the boys like him because he is brave and says things out loud to the teacher which makes everyone laugh. Zach knows he’s a cool kid. He’s good at sports but his teacher doesn’t like him so much, he thinks. That’s why he’s in the back. His parents get mad at him because the teacher writes them notes telling them when he does something wrong, which is like a couple times a week. The teacher doesn’t talk to Zach about “doing better” very much anymore maybe because he knows Zach’s parents get mad at him instead, which they do, a lot. The teacher just tries to ignore him, that’s why he’s in the back. It’s like he’s not in the class at all. This is so the teacher can teach and he doesn’t have to deal with Zach. Zach knows if he can keep his mouth shut, then his teacher would like him but he can’t because then the other kids wouldn’t think he was funny anymore. His parents yell and scream and take away stuff. They say, “you’re embarrassing us” and stuff like that. But he can’t help it. He tells them over and over that school is sooo boring and the teacher doesn’t like him. They don’t care whether the teacher likes him or not and it doesn’t matter if schools boring. Do the work, they say over and over, or else you can’t play baseball, you can’t play basketball, you can’t, you can’t. Who cares if it’s boring? Zach cares. He’s the one who has to go to school. Not them. They don’t care what he has to say. They want him to do better NOW – or else. No discussion. So Zach does try again. He doesn’t want his parents to be mad and disappointed. But no one notices that he’s trying. Actually they seem to notice only when he doesn’t try. They have radar eyes for the not trying and even when he is trying, they think he’s not trying. So what’s the point of even trying? So looking out the window is fun and it doesn’t get the teacher mad.

Telia is 12 years old. She is a little overweight and thinks about her body a lot. She asks her Mom if she can get her ears pierced and wear a little make-up. He mom says alright. Telia likes Brandon who sits in front of her in Science. He has dirty blond curly hair and is tall for a 7th grader which makes him like an 8th grader. Brandon doesn’t know that Telia likes him and besides he likes Julia, everyone knows that. Telia is nervous because all the girls are starting to do things with boys, to get their attention. LIke at Samatha’s 12th birthday party, almost every girl went in the closet, one at a time, to kiss Jake or Mike. Telia wouldn’t do it. She likes Brandon and thinks Jake and Mike are sleazy. There is a lot of homework and the teachers are always frustrated with the class because there is too much “side talking” and “note passing.” There is so much drama now and Telia is unsure about everything. Her body is changing and she is having these new feelings about boys and her mind seems to be different also. It’s like she has two brains, like she is always having a conversation in her head. Is something wrong with her, she worries? Is she crazy? She doesn’t tell anyone she has crazy thoughts and tries to push them away, which only makes them stronger. Telia’s mom is worried about her and asks if she would like to talk to the school counselor. Telia says no because all the other kids would find out and then everything would be worse. Besides, there’s another birthday party coming up and maybe this time Telia will be brave enough to go in the closet.

Joshua is 14. He is the youngest of four kids and has seen it all. He knows what ‘s up and is very relaxed about school and girls and the whole party scene. His older brothers and sister they went through it and they give him advice all the time. So Josh is very chill when he gets into high school. No worries. The teachers don’t seem to notice him and the kids are really immature. Josh wants to make friends with the older kids. He feels like he is more like them, more mature and worldly so he ignores his classmates and they ignore him. He can feel lonely at school and out of sorts. He looks forward to art class because a few cool older kids are in that class and he sits with them. Josh finds school more challenging than he thought it would be. He really thought everything would be really easy but it’s not. Maybe he’s not as smart and cool as he thought he was. Maybe he doesn’t have any idea who he is. That is scaring him. But he doesn’t want anyone else to know. He can’t appear unsure, that is a death sentence, so he speaks with a deeper voice than he really has and starts to smoke pot during lunch with the older kids. Josh tried out for the tennis team and didn’t make it. He tried out for the school play and got a tiny part he didn’t take. Then he stopped trying out. Why bother. I can’t fail if I don’t try, he reasons. That’s the safest way to get through school. Josh feels better when he is getting high and he is doing it more and more. He even got high before school the other day. That was crazy. He couldn’t stop laughing, then he felt really tired and a little depressed, so he wanted to get high at lunch again, which he did.

Victoria is 15, a sophomore and gay or at least she is experimenting with being a lesbian. She’s not troubled by it too much because most of the people she hangs out with hook up with anyone, boy or girl, when they’re drunk. When you’re drinking and getting high, there are no rules, anything goes, and the next day, you just Facebook your friends and say that you hardly remember what happened, “i was wasted.” But Victoria really wants to get into a good college. She wants to make money so she can get the things she wants to get. She wants choices and freedom. She hates her parents and wants to move as far away from them as possible and she hates school but she plays by the rules because what choice does she have. She smokes pot at parties and drinks and then spends the night at a friends so her parents never know what’s up. She lies to them all the time. Actually the only real problem she has is shoplifting. It’s a cool thrill to go into a store and take something without paying for it. High school sucks because there is way too much work and there’s just no way anyone in their right mind can keep up with it without cheating. And she needs to get into a good college so she cheats and is as sweet as she can be to her teachers. She wants them to like her even though she thinks they’re all idiots, except the art teacher, she’s cool. How can you like someone or even be friends with someone when you know they’re going to grade you in the end and that grade will determine your future. What’s that about? She lives on texting and is an amazingly fast. Her mom said she would take her phone away if she went over again. She did of course and her mom didn’t of course. Adults definitely don’t have it figured out. There just so consumed with following their own rules. Victoria is about making her own rules in secret so she doesn’t get in trouble and hurt her chances of going to a good college.

JC is 16 and all about chilling. He thinks he probably has a learning problem because he can’t remember much and his grades are bad. But that’s cool. What does he need to remember anyway. He’s got the school thing down. He shows up because school is where he hangs with his friends. It’s about socializing – that’s it. Some of the teachers are cool. The history teacher is cool to listen to. He likes the 60’s. JC likes the 60’s also. They don’t talk personally but JC likes the way he thinks, the way he sees things. JC’s into trying new things. He’s done a lot of drugs. No he hasn’t done opiates but he’s into narcotics, prescription drugs, you know, percs and adderal. It’s good stuff but he knows his limit, when it’s too much. He feels pretty good about how much he has the drug thing under control. Not like some other guys he know. He gets his stuff at school and a lot of days takes something to get through the day. Otherwise it can be pretty monotonous. When you’re high at school, listening to your music, being around your friends, life is pretty sweet. All you got to do is go to class and sit there. You can even put your head down and take a nap. Most teachers won’t bother you and the ones that say something, you just keep your head up, yo know, resting your head on you hand. It’s no big deal. JC is not interested in college. He’s not thinking that far ahead. Right now, he’s got a job at Stop and Shop stocking shelves where he works about 15 hours a week. JC’s parents are divorced and he lives with his mom. Most nights he is home alone because his mom has to work nights. He hasn’t seen his dad since he was 11. He sends birthday cards. Maybe he’ll be there for graduation. No matter.

Molly is 17 and will be an 18-year-old freshman. She thought about taking a year off but is anxious that she will not make friends easily because she’ll be a year older than other freshman. Molly is hyper worried that her SAT scores are good enough. She has taken a total of six AP classes and went to Kaplan to prep for the SAT I and II’s. She’s not taking any chances. She’s hyper worried she’ll be rejected from everywhere, nobody will want her. She’s applied to 12 colleges and is frantic the world will then find out she’s not smart and has nothing to offer, that really, she’s empty inside, a feeling she’s been fighting for years. It’s why she stays so busy. When she slows down, she gets that feeling of dread. When that happens, she has a secret way to handle it. Absolutely no one knows she cuts and restricts. She doesn’t let it get out of hand, then all hell would break loose. She does it just enough to ease the pain when it’s unbearable like during exams and now cause she’s waiting to find out if anyone wants her. But once she gets into college, she feels then that she can start to relax and maybe get to know herself a little bit. Molly won’t have to prove to colleges she is good enough because she will be in one, that is if she gets accepted.

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New York Times Op-Ed
July 22, 2010

HERE in Massachusetts, teachers and administrators are spending their summers becoming familiar with the new state law that requires schools to institute an anti-bullying curriculum, investigate acts of bullying and report the most serious cases to law enforcement officers.

This new law was passed in April after a group of South Hadley, Mass., students were indicted in the bullying of a 15-year-old girl, Phoebe Prince, who committed suicide. To the extent that it underlines the importance of the problem and demands that schools figure out how to address it, it is a move in the right direction. But legislation alone can’t create kinder communities or teach children how to get along. That will take a much deeper rethinking of what schools should do for their students.

It’s important, first, to recognize that while cellphones and the Internet have made bullying more anonymous and unsupervised, there is little evidence that children are meaner than they used to be. Indeed, there is ample research — not to mention plenty of novels and memoirs — about how children have always victimized one another in large and small ways, how often they are oblivious to the rights and feelings of others and how rarely they defend a victim.

In a 1995 study in Canada, researchers placed video cameras in a school playground and discovered that overt acts of bullying occurred at an astonishing rate of 4.5 incidents per hour. Just as interesting, children typically stood idly by and watched the mistreatment of their classmates — apparently, the inclination and ability to protect one another and to enforce a culture of tolerance does not come naturally. These are values that must be taught.


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Dr. Ron Taffel writes that increased adolescent mental illness is the result of kids living within a “culturally induced divided state” undermining healthy identity work by making invisible much of who they are and who they want to be.

This is so because kids are challenged in the wrong ways, endlessly pushed into developing a weaker sense of self.

From very early on, they (children and adolescents) are challenged to cultivate a veneer – to dress right, to get the right stuff, and to become voracious consumers. They are seduced into worshipping physical perfection, to strive for an absolutely flawless body. They are slowly encouraged not to talk about internal experience, but rather to be glibly articulate, to diss, or to dispense the hollow wisdom of mass-market psycho-babble. They are challenged by national testing to measure up on standardized tests – from preschool to high school – often without understanding the material and without a love of learning.

They are clearly instructed to maintain a “wall of silence,” not to approach adults until a friend is practically drowning. They are challenged to multitask, to engage in as many activities as possible, without necessarily mastering one passion deeply. More and more are challenged to develop meaningless “resumes” for college, to sign up for extracurricular activities and community service points because it is expected of them, not because of inner commitment.

Kids are challenged to create portable relationships: to develop superficial connections with professional grown-ups – coaches, after-school leaders, tutors, program directors, religious instructors and social skill facilitators. Some do challenge, but their coming and going is structured into the assembly line of normal development. Kids move along a conveyor belt from one child wrangler to the next. It is almost impossible for any adult to mentor, to be around long enough to encourage kids to put off instant gratification or to handle the frustration necessary to achieve mastery.

Breaking Through to Teens – A New Psychotherapy for the New Adolescence by Ron Taffel

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ScienceDaily (6/30/09) — When students are underachieving, school policymakers often examine class size, curriculum and funding, but University of Missouri researchers suggest establishing relationships may be a powerful and less expensive way to improve students’ success. In a review of the research they show that students with positive attachments to their teachers and schools have higher grades and higher standardized test scores.

“In this era of accountability, enhancing student-teacher relationships is not merely an add-on, but rather is fundamental to raising achievement,” said Christi Bergin, associate professor in the MU College of Education. “Secure student-teacher relationships predict greater knowledge, higher test scores, greater academic motivation and fewer retentions or special education referrals. Children who have conflicted relationships with teachers tend to like school less, are less self-directed and cooperate less in the classroom.”

The authors summarized a range of research on attachment-like relations with parents, teachers and schools. They found that student attachment influences school success through two routes: indirectly through attachment to parents which affects children’s behavior at school and directly through attachment to teachers and schools. Children with healthy attachment are able to control their emotions and are more socially competent and willing to take on challenging learning tasks in the classroom.

“To be effective, teachers must connect with and care for children with warmth, respect and trust,” said David Bergin, associate professor of educational psychology, and the other author of the article. “In addition, it is important for schools to make children feel secure and valued, which can liberate them to take on intellectual and social challenges and explore new ideas.”

To help enhance student relations, the authors offer research-based tips for teachers and schools:


* Increase warm, positive interactions with students
* Be well prepared for class and hold high expectations
* Be responsive to students’ agendas by providing choices
* Use reasoning rather than coercive discipline that damages relationships
* Help students be kind, helpful and accepting of one another
* Implement interventions for difficult relations with specific students


* Provide a variety of extracurricular activities for students to join
* Keep schools small
* Keep students with the same teachers and/or peers across years
* Decrease transitions in and out of the classroom
* Facilitate transitions to new schools or teachers

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ScienceDaily (12/7/07) — Parents prefer teachers who make their children happy even more than those who emphasize academic achievement, a new University of Michigan study shows.

When requesting a teacher for their elementary school children, parents are more likely to choose teachers who receive high student satisfaction ratings than teachers with strong achievement ratings, said Brian Jacob, the study’s co-author and director of the Center on Local, State and Urban Policy at the U-M Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

These findings, however, mask striking differences across schools. Families in higher poverty schools strongly value student achievement and appear indifferent to the principal’s report of a teacher’s ability to promote student satisfaction. The results are reversed for families in wealthier schools.

“The value of this study is that it helps education practitioners and policymakers better understand how factors such as family poverty can influence what parents are looking for in a school,” Jacob said. “While all parents presumably want what is best for their children, this can mean very different things depending on the school and neighborhood context.”

Lars Lefgren, an economist at Brigham Young University, co-authored the study.

The study is the first known review of its kind to examine parents’ preferences using information on parent requests for specific teachers within a school. The sample included more than 300 kindergarten through sixth grade teachers in a mid-sized school district in western United States. This district did not have a formal procedure for parent requests, but parents could submit requests to principals before class assignments were made.

Within a school, there were no differences between more and less advantaged parents who requested a teacher in terms of the value the parents placed on student satisfaction versus student achievement. Continue

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ScienceDaily (2/11/09) – Students who feel connected to their peers and teachers are more inclined to alert a teacher or principal if they hear a fellow student “wants to do something dangerous,” according to a new study published by the American Psychological Association.

But those students who don’t feel connected are less likely to act. Researchers from The Pennsylvania State University and Missouri State University looked into why some students adopt a “code of silence” when faced with a fellow student’s dangerous intentions.

The researchers presented a hypothetical scenario of a peer’s plan “to do something dangerous” to 1,740 middle and high school students from 13 schools. The students were asked if they would (1) intervene directly, (2) tell a teacher or principal, (3) talk it over with a friend but not tell an adult, or (4) do nothing.

High school students (964) were less likely than middle school students (776) to talk directly to the peer planning to do something dangerous or tell a teacher or principal, said lead author Amy K. Syvertsen, MEd. “High schools are generally larger than middle schools and provide less opportunity for teachers and students to interact, which is the foundation for building trust, caring and community between the two.”

Most students who said they would take action favored directly approaching the peer rather than telling an adult. “This may be a reflection of where many of these students are developmentally. They want to assert their autonomy, make decisions and handle the situation on their own,” said the authors. Continue

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