Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Patience is a virtue: A follow-up on preschool bullying

Almost two years ago, the parent's newsletter at preschool had a note asking the parents to talk with their children about bullying, there had been a few problems at the school.  I write a little about the journey on my previous blog (here: book reviews and reference articles and here: Memoirs, Pretty, and about fighting back).

I wasn't certain, at first, how much my son was involved.  But the number of times he would wake up crying in the middle of the night was a pretty good clue it was affecting him.  In November, his teachers' assessment showed concerns over his communication skills, it seems he wasn't talking much (at all?) at school.  They encouraged me/us to come and observe the classroom, then meet with the teachers.  I did both.  My husband has been active at the preschool, helping with parties and chaperoning field trips, he joined us for the conference.

My morning observation was quite the revelation.  In the four hours I was there, I noticed at least 5 examples of bullying-like behavior.  Some of it was low-key: a boy tried to blame my son for his mess, and the teacher called him on it.  Some of it was blatant, two girls took up the chant "Bad <son's name>," and the teacher put a stop to it.

It was frustrating, to think that our 3-year-old might have to face down bullying for the next 15+ years.  I could only imagine how badly that constant struggle would wear him down.  We took it seriously enough to tour about four other preschools in the area.

We asked Dear Son (DS) if he liked preschool.  He insisted that he did, he wanted to go to school, so we kept him there while we evaluated our options and waited for the parent-teacher conference.  (I will note that at this time he only attended two days a week, so his exposure was limited.)

One of the schools that my husband visited, I was scheduled to visit the next day.  However, my husband probed the teacher about bullying, and she told him "Kids will be kids."  We cancelled my visit, no need to waste my work hours there.  From the reading I had done,  Mom, They're Teasing Me emphasizes that adults need to be adults, not only to lead by example but also to teach the children what behavior is acceptable and what is not.
“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In !
From the poem " Outwitted”
― Edwin Markham
The holidays, alas, are a tough time to meet, so our conference happened in January.  The teachers explained their concerns, showing us the typical child development range for his age.  We explained our experience, how much he was talking at home, reciting whole books at bedtime.  I also described my observations from the morning I spent in the classroom, both by the students and one of the teachers.

I didn't demand anyone get fired.  I expressed concern about specific actions that one teacher made, that I felt did not reflect the philosophy of this particular school.  (It definitely helps to have read the source material.  I chose the school for a particular educational philosophy, which will not be disclosed until DS "graduates" to Kindergarten.)

I did recommend that the teachers talk with the students about how to treat each other, how to recognize bullying, and how to protect each other from bullying situations.  I encouraged them to include role-play, so the kids could practice the behaviors.  We also encouraged the teachers to lead by example, providing them with the Instructor's Creed from our martial arts practice.

We left the meeting feeling much better about the situation, that it was being handled properly now.  DS' nightmares slowed and have since stopped.  Several weeks later, my husband and I read stories to the students as part of Dr. Seuss week.  My husband read "Fox in Socks" first, then I followed with "Green Eggs and Ham."  While we were reading, DS insisted on sitting on a chair like us, next to me.  When I finished the book, I set it down on my knee, next to DS.

Well, DS picked up the book and opened it up.  Then he did his usual "after story-time" activity: HE started reciting "Green Eggs and Ham" to his class, using the pictures as cues.  His teachers jaws about hit the floor at this definitive proof that, in the right environment, DS does talk.  I wasn't sure whether to stop him or not, but the students seemed to enjoy the story and the teachers seemed content to let him finish, so he recited the entire thing.

Last academic year, the school did implement a character curriculum.  This much later, I don't remember which curriculum, exactly, it was, but it looked appropriate and it did seem to help the students.  

DS was much more comfortable in the school, and he began to 'adopt' younger new students at the school.  We particularly noticed at a birthday party that fall, every time we turned around, if she wasn't with him, DS would be asking "Where's <3-year-old girl>?"

Last weekend, DS had a play-date with his new best friend.  The parents were profoundly grateful that we stayed at the school.  DS looks out for his friends.

With a September birthday, DS has one more year of preschool left.  He will almost certainly be the oldest child at the school this coming academic year.  Much of my reading about bullying indicated that the child(ren) at the top of the heap can set the entire tone of the school.  I have high hopes that, between the teachers and the older students, they will have a warm and inclusive classroom.