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 covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.