Jerry is a quiet child, small for his age and very cautious about taking risks. When other kids want Jerry's toys, they don't ask, they just grab them. Passively, Jerry walks away from any confrontation. At home, he tells his parents that kids are mean to him, so his parents bring their anger and frustration to Jerry's teacher. How can the teacher help Jerry and his parents? As teachers, we see this scene re-enacted on a regular basis and we often feel as if we should be doing something about it. In a minute, we'll talk about some strategies, but first let's try to put some perspective on this problem.
Every human being has certain characteristics. Some of us are naturally more aggressive, some more passive. As we grow, our environment teaches us skills that enable us to function in society. Aggressive kids learn how to restrain their urges in order to make friends; passive kids learn how to assert themselves enough to get their needs met. The skills we learn don't transform us into someone else. They only help us live reasonable lives in spite of our differences. When a parent or teacher sees a child behaving passively, like a victim, there is a strong urge to rescue that child, but rescuing can actually damage a child. If the parent treats the child as a victim, the child will also begin to see herself as a victim; she may feel hopeless and helpless and just give up. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy where the child, who could have been helped to assert herself, really does become a victim and the parent's worse fears come true. Rescuing deprives a child of the chance to overcome obstacles, to become stronger, gain self-assurance and self esteem. It is crucial to say at this point that bullying by any child should not be tolerated. A real bully is a child who sets out to do harm to other children. This is not the normal kid who takes toys or hits to get what he wants. This is a child who hurts in order to feel more powerful. He's in deep trouble and may himself be a recipient of or witness to physical or verbal abuse in his home. A real bully needs professional help. He may have to be excluded from your program to keep him from doing permanent damage, or suspended on the condition that the family seek therapy.
Problem Solving helps children who seem to be victims without rescuing them. This is accomplished by a strategy called equalizing, and by teaching the passive child some assertiveness skills. But first, we must teach ourselves to be accepting of passive children, to value them and respect their right to choose to walk away. After all, many very accomplished people consider themselves passive and the world needs them. Equalizing is part of the Problem-Solving process called negotiation, used when a bigger, stronger, more powerful child confronts a smaller, less powerful child. It can also be used when tow or more kids confront or exclude one child. The teacher's job is to impart power to the 'victim.' This is done physically, by kneeling down beside the victim and facing the aggressor together, and psychologically, by giving moral support to the more passive child. Let's return to Jerry:
Jerry is playing with a toy truck. Along comes Ryan, who is bigger and more assertive. Ryan grabs the truck and walks away.
Teacher: Jerry, is it O.K. with you if Ryan takes your truck?
Jerry smiles weakly and shrugs.
Teacher: If you want to keep the truck, you can put your hand up and tell Ryan to 'Stop.' I'll go with you to talk to him if you want to. It's up to you.
Jerry declines the teacher's help time after time, but one day Jerry comes to the teacher.
Jerry: Damon took my shovel.
Teacher: Do you want me to help you talk to him?
Jerry: Yeah. The teacher kneels down next to Jerry, facing Damon.
Teacher: Damon, Jerry wants to talk to you about the shovel. Jerry, what do you want to tell Damon.
Jerry: I want the shovel.
Teacher: Damon, Jerry is saying he wants the shovel back. What can you do when two kids want the same toy?
At this point, the situation becomes a normal negotiation between two kids who want the same toy and the teacher helps them find a solution that is agreeable to both of them. Kids who have been passive for a long time, may eventually get fed up and begin to act aggressively. Typically this is only role-playing. The child wants to know how it feels to be aggressive. Before long, this child will return to behavior that is natural and comfortable for him, but now he is equipped with assertiveness skills; it's unlikely that he'll ever be a willing victim again.
Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.