First Person

Ask an Expert: Dealing with a lunchroom bully Part 2

EdNews Parent readers were very interested in the first response to this question, so we’re running a second response from another expert. To refresh your memory, here is the question:

Q. We just moved here and our son started middle school. Everyday he comes home upset because when lunch arrives, he is told by other students to go sit at the “loser” table since that is where he belongs. He is having a tough time making friends out here. I told him to talk to his school counselor but he says he is afraid of looking like a baby. He says he is a loner at the school, no one talks to him, no one eats with him, etc. He says it makes him sick to his stomach and so sometimes he cannot even eat his lunch. My son has never had a problem making friends, but then when we moved out here there was a problem. Please advise, as I am unsure what to do.

A: Your story is heart-breaking and, unfortunately, all too common; your son is dealing with “new kid syndrome,” trying to find a place in his new social group.

contemplative teenFirst off, acknowledge your son’s feelings because he needs to be heard. The physical symptoms you mentioned are caused by his social stress and are very real.  Even if you know things will get better in time, this is probably not what he wants to hear right now.  What your son needs is a plan, methods and strategies, he can try out at school.

The more you can frame your son’s situation as a problem to be solved instead of a personal shortcoming the easier it will be for him to deal with.  You will protect his self-esteem and build his confidence. Reframe his situation as an experiment in making friends, where he can try some strategies out at school and talk to you about what worked and what didn’t.

Reassure your son that he has made friends in the past and that there are good children here as well.  The key point here is to remind him that he has made friends in the past so he can do it again. Challenge him to be like a detective and find potential friends.

The new surroundings

Being told to go sit at the loser table is cruel. These kids are telling your son – in not so many words – that he is at the bottom of his class hierarchy, that he has no status yet. Every social group has its rules and norms. It may be that your son is now learning what they are. Learning to go along with the group and become accepted by the group does take time. Being accepted is a process.

Your son may be less confident or more shy and unsure of himself than he was at his old school. Other kids pick up on these subtle messages – his body language, his facial expressions and his speech patterns – and may see him as an easy target for derision.

Fortunately every school has multiple social groups, not just one social hierarchy. Finding children with a common interest is a key step to finding a place in his new school. Encourage your son to pursue his interests and activities he enjoys at school. The advantage of your son pursuing his interests is that while he begins the process of meeting other people and making friends he is doing something he enjoys.

The right way to join a new group

To successfully join a group the first step is to observe the people and stay on the outskirts of the group.  He can make eye contact, cheer someone on if kids are playing a game and ask questions like, “What are you guys doing?” These are all signs that he wants to join the group and is waiting to be asked.  Either he will be asked to join or not.  How your son reacts to not being asked to join a group is key. There may not be a place for him in the game currently so he may be refused this time.  If so, he should just watch. As long as he remains upbeat with a friendly face, eventually someone will ask him to join in.

Smaller groups are sometimes easier to be accepted into than a larger group. Your son may even look for other children who are not in a group at the moment. He is likely to have more success with a child who is by himself.  “Hi my name is… Would you like to play?” might be all it takes to break the ice.

Part of your son’s social stress may be coming from his feelings of not knowing what to do or how to change his situation. Once you give him suggestions and tools to help him make friends he will regain a sense of control and empowerment. If he winds up sitting by himself he can change his mindset from feeling bad to looking for kids who may want to sit with him, or just sit near him. This will also give him an opportunity to observe other children and how they interact with each other.

How teachers can help your son fit in

Your son’s teachers can help and I recommend you speak with them. None of the children in your son’s class need to know about this so you will help him save face.

His teachers can create opportunities for your son work with other students and give him chances to succeed in social interactions. They can pair him with other children who his teachers think may be a good match with your son and make good friends.  Teachers can temporarily break up and shake up social groups to create new interactions and relationships-building opportunities for your son.  Such activities will give other children a chance to get to know your son and not see him as an outsider.

Keep it up, and forge alliances

Your son is fortunate to have a mom who listens and takes his experiences seriously.  The next step is for the school to follow in your footsteps; they have a legal and moral obligation to keep your son safe. With the vast majority of bullying happening outside the purview of adults, it’s important that your son join alliances too.  He has one with you, and with your love and support, it will strengthen and expand.

Get more advice

Read this response from Kevin Everhart, a child psychologist.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.