Q: My son Rashan got into a new, accelerated STEM program at a magnet middle school. He was excited until he and some other STEM students were taunted for "acting white." He gets ridiculed for reading on the bus. I called the principal -- she just seems overwhelmed. My husband tells him to "toughen up" because the world is full of bullies. While Rashan likes the program, he misses his elementary friends (who are stuck in a really bad middle school). I want him to stay in the STEM program to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor. Any advice?
A: While your husband has a point, school bullying and harassment threaten students' safety and emotional well-being and shift their focus from learning to self-protection. Being taunted for wanting to achieve can erode a student's confidence and decrease motivation to excel in school.
Over the last decade, much effort and money has been spent to help the nation's schools create a positive and supportive climate for all learners. This principal needs to get her middle school on board.
There are several concrete steps you (and other parents) can take to put a stop to this behavior, says Marissa Gehley, a California youth counselor and founder of KNOW (Kids Need Our Wisdom).
-- Educate yourself. "There are great resources, such as casel.org, Stopbullying.gov and search-institute.org," says Gehley. A little research will show you and your husband ways to help Rashan deal with bullying and give you important information when working with the school.
-- Be a squeaky wheel. The principal's overwhelmed? Meet with a counselor, assistant principal or Rashan's adviser. Ask about the school's anti-bullying and harassment policy. What programs are in place to discourage this behavior? What are bus drivers' responsibilities? Join your school's parent group to raise awareness. "The more folks in the loop, the easier it is to change school culture for the better," says Gehley.
-- Keep lines of communication open. "This is key! It's great that Rashan is talking with you about it," says Gehley. "It means he trusts and values your advice. Check in with him often -- about friends, schoolwork and activities. Don't make bullying the only thing you talk about." Encourage him to develop a trusting relationship with an adult at school, such as a teacher, counselor or coach, who he can turn to for advice.
-- Teach Rashan to deal with bullies. "Using humor, saying 'stop' with conviction and directness, ignoring or simply walking away are often effective techniques to stop a bully," says Gehley. "Discuss and practice techniques that fit Rashan's personality. He has to feel comfortable with them to be effective."
-- Support Rashan in doing what he loves. "Pursuing activities, hobbies and interests can help him make new friends and can boost his confidence," notes Gehley. "There's strength in numbers, so encourage him to invite new friends from the STEM program to your home. Since he wants to be a doctor, find an area mentor and role model who can help him keep his eye on the prize."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)