Preschool Podcast
How To Stop Bullying

How To Equip Children With The Skills To Stop Bullying

Episode 186 – Bullying amongst young children can be hard to identify and address. In this episode, Jeremy Rubenstein, CEO of Box Out Bullying, shares why it’s important to define bullying correctly and how to use age-appropriate strategies to equip children with the socio-emotional skills to call-out bullying. He also shares practical steps on how teachers can establish areas in their classroom that children can use to process their emotions.

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Episode Transcript

Jeremy RUBENSTEIN:

What I did is I went up to the student who was being bullied and I said to him, “You have a really good brain that tells you what to do. You’re in charge of your body. You’re in charge of the choices that you make. And you don’t have to do what another friend is asking you if you don’t want to.”

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Jeremy, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

RUBENSTEIN:

Hi, Ron, great to be here. Thanks for having me!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

It’s our pleasure, Jeremy. And for all of you out there that are listening, we’re really excited to have on our show today Jeremy Rubinstein, he’s the founder and creative director of Box Out Bullying. So, we’re going to talk to Jeremy today about bullying and what we can do about bullying in our classrooms and with the children we’re working with, in particular when it comes to the early-childhood education setting and getting the right start.

Let’s start off, speaking of starts, Jeremy, with you and how you got to be where you are today as the founder and creative director of Box Out Bullying. Why did you start this?

RUBENSTEIN:

So, I started Box Out Bullying, I can’t believe it, in 2008. So, wow, 12 years ago. So, at that time, nobody was really speaking about social-emotional learning or even bringing up what bullying is and what it’s not. If anything, it was a whisper. Since then, in these 12 years, it’s really turned into a roar.

So, at the time, when I was student teaching, a lot of focus was spent on teaching kids how to succeed academically. Very little was spent on making sure that children know what it means to be a good friend, the difference between good feelings and bad feelings, how to help somebody in need. And I decided I wanted to do something about it.

So, I have a very eccentric background where I had a chance to combine all my loves of theater, of education into something that was truly unique at the time, so that by the time that – in the [United] States – things started to kind of be mandated that we teach bullying prevention, we already had something that was proven effective, that was refined and that really met the needs of students and staff and parents.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. And let’s get into the really fundamentals. I think we all kind of know what bullying is and I’m sure we’ve all seen it in one way, shape or form in our lifetimes. But I guess the fundamental questions is, why do children bully other children? What happens to make that happen?

RUBENSTEIN:

So, for the question of why do children bully other children: well, Ron, there’s really not one single cause of it. Certainly there are individual factors and there are school factors; there are community factors. Though I will say that this is something that starts at home. And it’s important that parents model the kind of behavior to expect from their kids. And children are great imitators. So, it’s very important that parents give them something great to imitate.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that’s a good point. And from our perspective, whether we’re parents or early-childhood educators, what are things that we can do from that perspective to I guess display the right kinds of behaviors that we want our children to imitate?

RUBENSTEIN:

Well, I think you’ve really touched upon… I mean, you said that word of “display”. I’m approached by parents when I give my workshops across North America. And they’re saying, “Jeremy, what can we do to create… I want my child to be strong and resilient. What can I do for that? And how can I show that my child’s… how can I have kind children?”

And if you really want your kids to show strength and resiliency, you have to show strength and resiliency while they’re observing you. If you want your child to be kind towards others, you have to show that kindness towards other people while your children [are] there.

I also think that it’s a good idea for parents not to be very concerned or preoccupied with their child’s academic success. That’s not a way that we’re going to have children that are going to change the world for the better. Instead, I really want parents to lose sleep over whether or not they’ve taught child that they can sit with somebody who’s sitting alone at lunch; whether or not they can teach them to be kind, to offer help to others; if they try to include students that are feeling left out, not just to think about themselves, but to think about other people.

We have a whole generation of people that are growing up without knowing who Mr. Rogers was. To have that one adult saying, “I love you just the way you are. You’re one in a million.” It’s that kind of positive influence – so long as the child has one positive influence in their life, the effects of any kind of trauma or even bullying instance is actually mitigated.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And a lot of people out there are, I’m sure, trying their best to help their children learn about empathy and being a good friend so we can mitigate bullying. But what if you’re in a situation where, let’s say, you’re in a classroom as an early educator and you see bullying happening? What do you recommend in that specific situation or instance in terms of how to respond to that?

RUBENSTEIN:

So, I think when we say about making sure that they see bullying happen, I’m going to go back to make sure that we know exactly what bullying is and what it’s not. Ron, when we were speaking before the recording you said that you’re a father, too. But I forget, how old your oldest child?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

About two-and-a-half.

RUBENSTEIN:

Two-and-a-half years old, right?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Correct.

RUBENSTEIN:

Excellent. So, Ron, harken back to the time when you’re two-and-a-half year old was two-and-a-half days old, right? And you look into your child’s two-and-a-half day old face and you realize, “Wow, this two-and-a-half day old, it doesn’t know what bullying is or racism or any kind of bigotry.” But at the same time, that two-and-a-half day old, they don’t know what empathy is or compassion. These are things that have to be taught just like the ABC’s.

And to go back to that question, one of Box Out Bullying’s major thesis statements is that after our assemblies or our parent workshops or faculty professional development [sessions], everyone will walk away with a clear definition of what bullying is and what it’s not because the word bullying is oftentimes overused and sometimes it’s used appropriately.

And, Ron, there are going to be times when a child will call a child a bad name, which is unkind, but that’s not bullying. There are going to be times when a child will leave another child out of an activity on purpose. And again, that’s unkind but not bullying. And I just want to make sure that for something as serious as bullying, all or podcast listeners will know what it is and what it’s not, that we can’t give a mixed message.

And so when we talk about the definition of bullying that I like to use for elementary-aged children, it’s based on the research of Dr. Dan Olweus. It’s also used by the U.S. Department of Education, as well as nationally-recognized bullying prevention programs. So, if a teacher sees this, where bullying is defined as this: where bullying is when a strong person hurts or frightens a less-strong person again and again and that less strong person can’t easily defend themselves.

And for parents with children in pre-K, I’d actually modify that a little bit to: bullying is when someone is mean or hurts someone else many, many times. So, a teacher might see a child being unkind. But in order for an action to be considered bullying, it has to have three components. And Ron, I’ll ask if you agree with me on these three components. So, first, in order for an action to be considered bullying, first it has to be intentional – not by accident, but it has to be thought out. Would you agree with that?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Make sense.

RUBENSTEIN:

And – not “or”, but “and” – this is something that doesn’t happen once but it’s repeated over time. We can see that there is a pattern of aggression. Would you agree with that?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that’s what I would think.

RUBENSTEIN:

Okay, and it’s intentional, it’s repeated over time. Third – and this is one of the most important components that separates an act of conflict or misunderstanding from bullying – we have an imbalance of power. And again, that’s one of the most critically important parts that will separate an act of bullying from conflicts or misunderstandings.

And now an imbalance of power, for pre-[kindergarten], I’ll just defined that as, it’s not a positive relationship. But certainly there are many ways that people have power over somebody else – I’ll get into that.

But to really frame that in pre-K: when I was working with pre-K: One of my students came up to another student throughout the day and they kept on saying, “Do this or you can’t come to my birthday party.” Or, “Give me that toy or you can’t come to my birthday party.” Now, this was repeated over time. This was happening again and again to the same student.

And I remember two thoughts going through my head when I heard that. The first thing I was thinking was, “Who wants to go to your birthday party anyway, you spoiled brat?” But again, that’s from an adult perspective. But still, my second thought was, “Man, some kids don’t stand a chance.” That student didn’t learn that kind of behavior from me or any of the other students in my classroom. But that student learned that from either a parent or caregiver or something that they saw on TV.

So, to answer a question of what would you do, or at least what did I do when I saw that: What I did is, I went up to the student who was being bullied and I said to him, “You have a really good brain that tells you what to do and you’re in charge of your body and you’re in charge of the choices that you make. And you don’t have to do what another friend is asking you if you don’t want to.”

Because for pre-K, too, we want to focus on the last thing that was said. It’s important for teachers to de-escalate a situation, especially when [the children are] four years old. It’s that child who will not have friends later on that is being aggressive towards another one.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah. For me, it was fascinating to hear your definition of bullying because I had never heard any definition of bullying before. And it makes sense. And I think it really does differentiate between other events that happen that I think are part of learning.

So, again, I have a two-and-a-half year old that gets in trouble sometimes when he’s in the classroom and so do his friends. But I think sometimes they’re just sort of testing boundaries and seeing what they’re allowed to do and not to do. And so I think, as a parent, for me, too, it’s helpful to make that distinction between something that’s intentional and repetitive and that imbalance of power, versus just toddlers being toddlers and learning about things.

RUBENSTEIN:

Oh, absolutely, yeah. And when we talk about a definition of bullying, you’re not alone. When I first started this, when a district would contract with us, one of the first things I would do was ask to see their handbook. And I wouldn’t even… when I first started this, Ron, nobody even had a definition of bullying. It was pages and pages of subsections and definitions and, like, “The party of this, the party of that”. It was written by lawyers for lawyers.

And what our organization does, and so that it’s mandated with certain state laws, is to turn that definition into something that somebody in pre-K as well as 8th grade can understand. In order for us to solve the problem we need to know what that problem is.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And let’s talk a little bit more about what you’re doing at Box Out Bullying. So, what’s Box Out Bullying all about? And what kind of services do you provide to help schools or pre-K programs with this subject?

RUBENSTEIN:

So, Box Out Bullying is a national touring organization that focuses combining the power of interactive live theater with proven-effective bullying prevention techniques. And so there are a lot of keys to the success of our organization. One of them is just making sure that our services are age-appropriate. We have services that cater to lower-level elementary grades, pre-K to [age] two, upper-level elementary and middle school audiences.

As an educator myself, my lesson plan is different from an eighth grader than an eight-year-old. So, it’s very important that we play to the highest intelligence level, but also that we use materials and methodology and pedagogy that’s more appropriate to the audience that we’re presenting to. We do provide dynamic student assemblies, parent workshops, faculty professional development and social-emotional learning residencies in the classroom.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And so if you’re thinking about the youngest age groups that you’re working with – sounds like pre-K to two – what would you focus on in those sessions?

RUBENSTEIN:

Well, we would focus on two things. When we’re talking specifically with… when you say “sessions”, what are we talking about? The student assembly or the residency?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Whatever you think is most appropriate, I guess, for that age group? Because that’s the other thing our listeners might be interested to learn more about, is what are the different services or things that you’re doing with the children?

RUBENSTEIN:

Got it. So, you had mentioned before that a lot of times with pre-K, they’re just trying to test things out. And so you’re right, when we’re talking specifically with pre-K we have more of a focus on what it means to be a good friend, the difference between good feelings and bad feelings, teaching and treating empathy. I mean, these are things that we really, really want to hit home, especially with pre-K

With [kindergarten] through [grade] 2 we give that same clear definition of what it is and what it’s not, the difference between… we use the terms “telling” versus “tattling” or “snitching”. But our main focus is on this sense of bystander empowerment, turning students who would see somebody who’s being bullied or seeing somebody in need and do nothing and the students who would see somebody in need and try to do something to help stop it.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Interesting. Okay, cool.

RUBENSTEIN:

Oh, and for all grades, in addition to the assemblies, we actually introduce something in the classrooms as well as at home called a “peace table”. And that is like… oh, those are great. That’s like the gym for social-emotional learning, really exercising all those muscles.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And so tell us a bit more about that. What is a peace table?

RUBENSTEIN:

So like I said, with the selling… this is another one of our major thesis statements, where, in our Box Out Bullying parent workshops, we really want to sell the idea of peace tables for parents and so that they can set them up at home. And for our social and emotional learning residencies for pre-K we want to show students and staff what it is and then also how to use it.

I observed how well it works in a Montessori environment. And I’ve modified and adapted it so that it works in all schools. Maria Montessori, who created it, she wanted to empower students to be able to solve conflicts. So, Ron, this is like the calculus of peer mediation. But it doesn’t really involve an adult – it’s just student-to-student.

Also, we want to be able to have students associate acuity with problem solving. For parents, this is going to help answer their prayers to have peace in the house between siblings and even between spouses.

And a goal for teachers is this gets them back to teaching so students have a space to be able to solve kid-sized problems. Never again will a kid go up to a teacher: “Hey, they keep tapping my desk,” or, “They took my crayon,” because these are things that they can be able to solve on their own. So, I guess I’ll describe what a peace table looks like?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that would be great.

RUBENSTEIN:

Short. So, Ron, to have a peace table first you’ll need…. well, like, a small table and not one, but two chairs. Chairs should be the size of the students. I’m 6 foot 2 so when I’m kind of demonstrating this for pre-K, I look really silly in one of those and all the kids kind of laugh at that. But we want to make sure that it’s able to fit the students.

At peace tables… so, usually when I demonstrate this, or we’ll have one of our teaching artists demonstrate at the peace table, we’ll start it off and kind of build it one-by-one. So, once we’ll bring out the two chairs and the table. I was giving this workshop to the school district in Bar Harbor, Maine, and one student in kindergarten blurted out, “It looks like a lawyer’s office!” And he was right – it’s a table and two chairs. But a peace table needs to be warm and inviting. So, we’re going to use either a colorful tapestry or a piece of cloth to drape over it that just makes it more warm and inviting.

At a peace table we’ll then talk about what goes on the surface of it. And each serves a purpose. We’ll have something called an “object of piece”, which is just a fancy word for decoration. So, Ron, when you think of decorations what do you think of?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Flowers, maybe? I don’t know.

RUBENSTEIN:

Yeah, there you go! So, and I should ask, what’s the purpose of decorations? Why do we have so many throw pillows at home?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

To make you feel good? I don’t know.

RUBENSTEIN:

Yeah, no, you got it! It’s just that feeling that you get when you’re there. So, we recommend using… yeah, like you said, fresh-cut flowers, then sand gardens and words for peace in different languages, something small and tactile.

Don’t do – we partner with schools throughout North America, and we like to follow up just to make sure that it’s being implemented with fidelity – so, don’t do what this one teacher at a Catholic school did where she decided to put a three-foot statue of the Virgin Mary right in the middle. So, something a little bit smaller in that case.

A peace table is also going to have something called a peace lily. There’s actually a flower called a peace lily. But the purpose of that… it’s like this other student said, “It’s like a talking stick.” When two people are at the peace table, whoever is holding the peace lily, it’s their turn to talk and the other person must listen. When that person is done speaking, they’re going to put the peace lily down and then it’s the other student’s turn to respond and then the other person has to listen to him.

And finally, at the peace table, it’s timed so students can be there for no more than three minutes. So, we’ll have a three-minute stand timer as well. And that’s what a peace table is.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

So, I guess if I could summarize it, you’re sort of  creating an environment where children or people – adults, potentially, as well – can have a constructive conversation because there are certain rules in place, let’s say, for lack of a better word, that help people have that conversation, that important conversation?

RUBENSTEIN:

It’s heavily structured, yes. And it’s important to make sure that students and adults know what it’s used for, that it’s not a homework table; it’s not a snack table. It’s the peace table. Peace tables are used for two things, both of which will make somebody feel a lot better: the first is something called “quiet self-reflection”. What I mean by that, Ron, is there are times, even in pre-K, where a child would come in and they’re sad or they’re angry. And the peace table allows them a spot of beauty to stop and help calm their feelings, thoughts and emotions.

[Rubenstein takes a deep breath in and out] Did you hear what I just did?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

I did, [you] took a breath.

RUBENSTEIN:

Yes, in through the nose. Now, that’s a whole lesson and workshop that we give. I spent a whole week learning how to breathe. My one-month year old knows how to breathe; my dog, he knows how to breathe, just in through the nose and out through the nose, just as a way to settle your feelings, thoughts and emotions. The cool thing, is those things will settle over time, but this kind of breathing technique will help things settle down even sooner.

It’s important to also let parents… like, if parents do want to implement this at home, if you see your child sitting alone at a peace table, it’s very important not to disturb him or her. We even ask students this, too. Like, “It’s very important, if you see one person sitting alone at the peace table, don’t disturb him or her.” And then we ask, “Why do you think that is?” So, I’m going to put you on the spot, Ron: Why should you not disturb one person if they’re sitting alone?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

I guess the idea is, if you’re at the peace table, you’re looking for peace. And so you probably don’t want to be disturbed by other students. And you’re in that sort of thinking, reflective state that you mentioned earlier.

RUBENSTEIN:

Yeah, you’re right. They have a job. And that’s their job, to make sure that they can settle their feelings, thoughts and emotions so then they can rejoin the class. While we do say that you need to help each other out and show kindness towards one another, a child or a teacher or a parent coming over and saying, “Hey, are you okay?”, that makes their job a little bit harder.

Just to be able to recognize their emotions and excuse themselves before they would take it out, or they will say or do something that, because they’re stressed, for lack of a better term, that usually they wouldn’t do otherwise… I mean, this is such a mature thing that we want to teach at pre-K so that by the time that they are in upper-level elementary or in middle school, they’ll already have these muscles that are already flexed.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, and I guess that’s the key thing about that age, is really setting those strong fundamentals. Jeremy, I’ve learned a lot on this podcast, things that I never thought of or knew about. And I suspect there’s a lot more our listeners could learn from you if they would like to learn more about bullying. Where can they get in touch with you? Is there a place that they can go to reach out to you or get more information about bullying or Box Out Bullying?

RUBENSTEIN:

Absolutely. The best way to get in contact with us and get more information about Box Out Bullying is to visit our website: it’s www.BoxOutBullying.com. They can also visit us on social media at Facebook, Instagram, Twitter at Box Out Bullying.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Jeremy, I think we could have easily went on for another 20 minutes or much longer on this.

RUBENSTEIN:

Oh, we’re done?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Super-important topic. We’re done; we’re out of time! It goes by in a flash, doesn’t it?

RUBENSTEIN:

Yeah, I was just getting started!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Well, in that case, maybe we can have you back sometime and dive a little bit deeper into this subject. I think our listeners would be keen to know more.

RUBENSTEIN:

That would be great, Ron, this was a lot of fun.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

It was a pleasure from our end, too, Jeremy. Thank you so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast today!

RUBENSTEIN:

Thank you, Ron!

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