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Ask an Expert: Handling bullying at school without violence.

Q. Can you give me basic suggestions for handling a bully in elementary school without fighting?

A. Parents of bullied children across that nation have been turning to martial arts schools to give their children the skills to handle bullies, and rightly so, but not for the reason you might be thinking.

The traditional “dad solution” to bullying is to teach your child how to win a fist-fight. Parents instinctively turn to martial arts schools to teach their children these physical self-defense skills and I’ve had many frustrated parents come to my academy so their children can learn “how to kick butt.” While there are many benefits to learning physical self-defense skills, fighting is the lowest level of handling conflict and not the true purpose of martial arts training. Bully Be Gone teaches children how to realize the highest aim of the martial arts: to defuse conflict and stop physical fights before they start, while making the bully face and overcome the violence within himself. Transforming the bully into a compassionate person without hurting him is the highest expression of martial arts. It is also the most difficult skill to acquire and takes more training than platitudes. Bully Be Gone focuses on giving children the power to repel bullies by how they walk, talk and carry themselves with confidence.

Let’s look at one example that also gets to your question about how to handle a bully in elementary school without fighting. How your child responds to bullying at this young age will set the stage for how he or she can become a victim of bullying in middle school and beyond. It’s crucial for your child to understand:

  • What bullying is (e.g. repeated & intentional actions that hurt another person).
  • Why it is unacceptable.
  • Appropriate responses to bullying behavior.

Firm, clear and consistent responses to bullying threats is the best answer at this age. The bully learns that his or her attacks will be met with stiff resistance from the very beginning. At the very least, the bully will look for another target and s/he may learn to interact with other children more peacefully. Second, your child gains more confidence to stop bullying before it gets out of control. He or she will learn and practice how to stop bullies in their tracks.

Teach your child what we call The Power Voice. In the martial arts, Kiai-jutsu is the art of self-defense with the power of your energy gathered into a focused, well-timed shout. The startle reflex, which we retain from infancy, makes us freeze when we hear a sudden, unexpected loud noise. Using only the power of his voice, your child can stop a bully, disrupt his bullying plans, and alert others to the situation.

A simple Bully Be Gone drill for teaching children The Power Voice is as follows:

  • Have your child stand in one spot.
  • A second person – playing the bully – walks toward him with malicious intent. (You can use a well-padded stick to help children take the drill seriously).
  • When your child (the target) feels threatened he puts his hands up, takes a step forward, looks the bully square in the eye, and forcefully shouts, “STOP!”
  • When done successfully the aggressor invariably freezes. It takes practice to get your child to gather his energy and project it toward the bully with power. At first your child, especially if he’s more inclined to be shy or timid, may speak in low, hushed tones with little energy and fail to make eye-contact. If he says, “pleeeese stoppp,” or “leave me a-lone” the bully runs him over. Your child may giggle at first and play shy, but with practice any child can and should learn the invaluable skill of The Power Voice.

The goal of this exercise is to teach your child to speak assertively and authoritatively when he needs to. The fear caused by bullying often causes suffocating tension in your child’s throat and prevents him from breathing or speaking up for himself. Learning to overcome this fear response through the Power Voice drill teaches your child to stand up for himself and advocate for himself. It also has the added benefit of alerting teachers to a bullying situation.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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