By: Diana A. Henry, MS, OTR/L, FAOTA
Sadly, bullying is considered to be one of the most common forms of violence in schools! Defined as an act of intentional aggression carried out repeatedly over time and occurring within a relationship that is characterized by an imbalance of power, 3 types of bullying are identified below (Bazyk and Kirschenbaum, AOTA virtual Chat):
- Direct bullying: Physical acts of aggression (hitting, pushing); verbal (taunting, name calling, malicious teasing); or even nonverbal (threats or aggressive gestures)
- Indirect bullying: Characterized by one or more forms of relational aggression (peer exclusion, spreading rumors, manipulating friendships to hurt the victim)
- Cyberbullying: Sending threatening or hurtful messages or images using an electronic device
Following a study at the Medical University of South Carolina, Michelle Diament wrote in her 2009 article titled Kids with Disabilities Bullied More Often, that children and teens with developmental disabilities and other special needs are bullied more often than their typically developing peers.
As an occupational therapist (OT) I have seen sensory processing disorder (SPD) impact students’ social and emotional development, making them vulnerable to bullying and other challenges with peers. On the flip side (because of poor sensory processing) when a child’s muscle system does not provide accurate feedback to his brain to let him know where he is in space and what his own body is doing, behavior that appears rough to other children, may be misinterpreted as bullying.
“Spirited Tots” and “Social Savvy” in Tools for Tots, “Making Friends” in Tools for Parents, “School Recess” the Tool Chest, “Sensory Diet” and “Teen Spaces” in Tools for Teens, and the SPM Quick Tips which complement the items of the Sensory Processing Measure (SPM) include strategies to address SPD challenges impacting bullying. These target increasing the child’s awareness of his body and its actions and making him aware of what things feel like. Activities which focus on increasing the amount of muscle and movement can improve his tone and strength. Others may also include touch pressure (such as massage) to help the brain recognize that touch can be safe.
A few additional SPM Quick Tips addressing social participation include:
- Teach the child to seek a “time in” place in which to calm down before escalating a behavior.
- Model using puppets/dolls/action figures.
- Review anti-bullying curriculum and respect for all children with the class.
- A practical anti-bullying and character building program created by Kathy Vosburgh for an elementary, a middle, a junior high and a high school in Arizona, is the Golden Mustang program. One of the many features of this program includes the “Friendship Benches” which she developed for each of the schools. (Photo Below)
Kathy explains: “These benches are in a prominent place on the playground. Kids who feel left out take a seat and will be ‘rescued’ by someone from their class. It alerts teachers to what’s going on and gives kids the opportunity to ‘fix’ the problem of not being included themselves.”
As an OT, I have worked on playgrounds with students who may not be able to join their peers in motor activities because of their coordination challenges. The large number of groups of children in an open area resulting in loud noises, and the possibility of unexpected touch may also cause “fight/flight” responses in students with SPD. One of the strategies I have used successfully during recess are “Friendship Benches.” They provide a “safe space” where new friendships can develop.
Other aspects of the Golden Mustang program have created ongoing positive and successful results. Below are photos of students at different schools with details regarding the Golden Mustang program:
High school and junior high students add to the gold recommendation box that can be found in a number of places around the school. Recommendations can be for setting a good example, stepping up to prevent problems, deleting inappropriate texts, including someone on the fringes, paying forward a kindness, showing respect, etc.
Bi-monthly certificates are awarded, a sweet treat chosen and their photographs are displayed on the High school Golden Mustang board. Their positive choices were chosen by a peer group of volunteers. The decision is made whether the recommendation is ‘wall-worthy’ or a compliment. All recommendations are returned to the students so they realize their actions really do make a difference. Teachers may participate in this part of the project also.
Middle School students pose in front of the many Inspirational Footprints they contribute each year. Last year a student population of 110 submitted 367 footprints; encircling the interior hallways 2 times.
A Friendship Banner now hangs in the hallway at the Middle School. Words were chosen by the students to represent the contract they have with each other to show respect and kindness.
Feedback from a teacher and student regarding the Golden Mustang program:
“I observed and believe, the Golden Mustang program helped a 4th grade student who didn’t fit in at all the year before in another school and hardly ever joined an activity. He needed to feel included and loved. By the end of the following school year he had a best friend, he always participated in everything with enthusiasm and he started looking for ways to include his peers. I caught him teaching another kid on the basketball court how to shoot. This is just a small snapshot of one of the many ways this program affects our school in a positive way.”
Sandee, 4th Grade Teacher
Dear Mrs. Vosburgh,
“There are so many ways to describe you; in fact, you’re amazing, wonderful, beautiful, nice, sweet and a person that I could be around for the rest of my life. I love you. THANK YOU for all you do.”
Marina, 5th Grade Student
These programs are possible in your school too! For more information regarding Kathy’s unique Golden Mustang program send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.