Reduce bullying in schools by teaching children how to achieve inner peace
In reading recent articles on bullying in the schools I have a sense of "déjà vu all over again," to quote Yogi Berra. I'm remembering when I was chairwoman of a Board of Education task force on violence in the schools in the late 1980s. I had recently co-authored a nonviolent values curriculum called Peace Begins with Me, designed for kindergarten through sixth grade. The curriculum was shown to have a positive effect on school performance, self-esteem and behavior in the classroom. Although we couldn't get it adopted by the entire school system, it was adopted by the A+ afterschool program that Ben Cayetano launched when he was lieutenant governor.
Those were the days when I was devoting my life to stopping violence against women, in particular, and violence in society, in general. At the Family Peace Center, we sought to provide safety from violence but we also were intent on going below the surface to create an attitude of peace. Treating the symptom was not enough. We needed to go to the root source.
Nearly 20 years later, the problem is revisited and the solutions focus on symptom management -- identify and punish the bully, teach school employees how to handle it, and set up presentations, workshops and school discussions on bullying. A task force has been studying the problem for two years. It proposes having symptom-management programs in place within the next three years.
I share the impatience of the Star-Bulletin editorial staff ("Our opinion," Oct. 2). Three years is too long.
Two programs can be put into place by January. They go below the symptom to address the cause and require minimal time, effort or money. And, based on research elsewhere, they have a strong likelihood of changing the inner culture of the student and the outer culture of the school campus.
Bullying in the schools stems from two major causes: self-esteem and inability to handle stress. A bully doesn't like other people because he doesn't like himself. His behavior pattern in response to stress is impulsive, reactive and punishing of others, which makes others dislike and makes him dislike himself even more. The vast majority of us suffer from these same challenges -- stress and low self-esteem -- except most of us stuff down both the impulse to strike out and our feelings of inadequacy. Often we stuff them down with food, drugs (prescription or illegal) and other dysfunctional behaviors that result in illness.
In short, the bullying behavior reflects a symptom of a larger problem that is common throughout society. By addressing it at the source, we have the potential for not only diminishing the level of violence in the schools, but we might also diminish the level of chronic diseases and drug use.
My suggestion returns to the concept of "peace begins with me" -- achieving inner peace and self-acceptance. Research on the mainland and in Canada shows that two programs can have a profound impact on creating inner peace and, in doing so, can transform the school.
The first program, mindfulness, teaches people to take an inner "time out," to become quiet inside and peacefully observe and experience the fullness of the moment they are in and the thoughts that float across the surface of their minds. Research shows that children become calmer, more responsive and less reactive. Conflict in the playground and the classroom is greatly diminished with children who participate. One classroom went from having the most behavioral problems in school to having no behavior problems -- in only three weeks of mindfulness instruction.
One 7-year-old child said, "I like the class because it makes me calm and soft inside. It makes me feel good." Another student recalled how she "made a picture of a heart to give to a special friend of mine, but my little brother ripped it up. I was really mad at him (but) "breathing helped me to calm my anger. I realized, 'Hey, I can just do it over again.' I never would have thought like that if I hadn't taken the class."
An added benefit is that children involved with a mindfulness program can concentrate better and their test scores improve. Also important, this program has a positive effect on those other problems that grow out of low self-esteem -- drug abuse and obesity.
Mindfulness training is an outgrowth of work done by Jon Kabat-Zin in l979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. More than 1,000 peer-reviewed articles have documented its success in producing just what we seek to achieve in addressing the symptom of school bullying.
The other program teaches a grateful state of mind. It, too, is simple, goes to the source, is easy to learn and free of charge and has impressive outcomes.
By keeping a daily gratitude journal or starting off the day writing down five things they are grateful for, children experience both mental and physical benefits. They show increased scores of life satisfaction and optimism, feel better about life and about school and have decreased negative feelings. A study of middle-school children in Vancouver who were instructed in mindfulness and gratitude experienced almost immediate results.
Gratitude studies with adults also show that they are healthier, exercise more, experience fewer symptoms from chronic illnesses, report feeling more joyful, enthusiastic and attentive, and they sleep better.
There is every reason to believe that implementing these two programs, beginning in January, can have a transformative effect on children and their schools. Who knows, these children might even go home to teach their parents gratitude and mindfulness. Could this be the beginning of a nonviolent culture in Hawaii? Maybe this is the moment we have been waiting for.
Laura Crites was formerly executive director of the Family Peace Center and now is executive director of the Hawaii Consortium for Integrative Healthcare.