The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Life!

June 17, 2012

One father’s snaky solution to weeding out bullies

Dadvocate:

Imagine being the playground equivalent of a leper. The Skinny Kid with the big brain, bigger glasses and underdeveloped social skills. The Fat Kid whose only comfort is filling an insurmountable emptiness with food. The Poor Kid with second-hand clothes reeking of cigarette smoke, excluded from circles sporting the latest Air Jordans and iPods.  

Imagine feeling as rejected as a serpent, and as exposed as the concentric circles of a bull’s-eye. Imagine apologizing inside for your very existence.

Chuck Stump, West Virginian father and co-author, co-publisher with Four Dolphins Press, has imagined these scenarios enough to want to do something about bullying. His son, as he explains, is the 92-pound skinny kid, “the poster child for getting bullied.” When Stump asked him if anyone had bothered him lately, the response was a laugh, along with, “Dad, everybody bullies everybody.” The difference in his son’s ability to handle it with aplomb? A dad who cares enough to ask.

“When we were growing up, if you’d ask ‘Who’s the bully in your class?’, everybody would point to the same kid. When we were growing up bullying was physical. Now, it’s far more emotional and social.”

Since his own days on the dusty schoolyard, where he says a kid had at least a fighting chance at self-defense, the bully pool has augmented and attained powers of invisibility. Social media have cultivated a new crop of bullies and provided them a virtual anonymity and an arena-like playground from which to exact their punishments. Generally reserved for the big-boned and brawny, bullying rights have now been granted to anyone with wiliness and Wi-Fi.

“I don’t have to confront you now if I don’t want to. I can bully you from across town, especially if I am a chicken,” notes Stump.

Like the simple messages of the Sad Mad Glad books he conceived along with publishing partner Jim Strawn, Stump is taking his new message on the road to classrooms and children’s groups, issuing this challenge: Put yourself in another’s skin.

“Why Don’t You Like Me? A Snake’s Eye View of Friendship” is an e-based presentation and forthcoming e-book adopting the style of his existing series of character-instilling books for children, encouraging open discussion between the young and teachers or parents. Stump and Strawn’s shared goal is to address acceptance, challenging discrimination while the concrete of ideals and attitudes is still wet.

The character central to the message is Monte, Stump’s female pet python who has absorbed her share of blows from prejudice.

“You’d be surprised how many people say ‘EEWWW!’ when I tell them I have a snake. ‘Does it bite?’ they ask. Now, why would I have a pet that bites? Using Monte brings a message of awareness to kids that we’re all judgmental — we make judgments based on physical appearance or whatever it is we’re paying attention to.”

Chickens and not, kids flock for a chance to pet Monte. Beforehand, they admit their attitudes of misunderstanding: that snakes are cold and slimy, that they’ll kill you or that they’re born to be despised.

“Nothing on the kids’ list is true about my snake,” reports Stump. Afterward, he and Monte are bombarded with thank-you letters and book reports commenting on the crawler’s elevated status of coolness.

“You can have that same turnaround with attitudes toward people who are different,” maintains Stump.

In a recent study to gauge the effectiveness of their classroom presentations in Parkersburg, Stump and Strawn measured significant improvement in individual and overall classroom attitudes as indicated by teachers.

“100 percent of students improved in overall behavior,” Stump demonstrates from one school.

Pretest values of 2s indicating “rarely” or “sometimes” to questions like: “Shows care toward others” and “Smiles, displays positive attitude” became post-test 4s (“usually”) and 5s (“often”).

“Is that a monumental move?” Stump questions. “Maybe not. But it’s a move in the right direction.”

An independent evaluator examined Stump and Strawn’s study, finding all documented improvements in attitude to be statistically significant. End-of-year evaluations for 2011-2012 also indicated positive changes in two schools sponsored by United Way of Southern West Virginia, Mabscott Elementary in Raleigh County and Mount Hope Elementary in Fayette County.

Says United Way Executive Director Margaret O’Neal, “We wanted to be a proponent for education and prevention in schools. We felt we could be most effective in elementary schools to work on self-esteem and attitudes. We want kids to be more and do more than what they see around them and Sad Mad Glad was a tool for us to do that.”

United Way purchased books at a discount for all second graders at both schools.

“In September, we took the books and (Stump and Strawn) read them the first time.” Over the following school months, volunteers came monthly to read the books again and to do activities with the children related to the attitude lessons learned.

“All end-of-year evaluations showed improvement,” states O’Neal. “We can’t say it all came from the book, but we do believe it made a difference.”

United Way’s continuing goal is to follow the same second graders into third grade with the anti-bullying message, and to present Sad Mad Glad to a new group of second graders. The organization also hopes to expand the program into other schools to improve children’s chances of success in life.

“We give them a (Sad, Mad, Glad) book and a copy of the user guide for schools. Schools are our biggest clients,” Stump explains.

They are also prime breeding grounds for bullies, places where challenging them to check their attitudes and tapping into self-limiting introspection may interrupt the cycle. It’s what should be done at home, says Stump, but home isn’t the place it used to be in an alarming number of student’s lives.

“These kids need relationships,” Stump emphasizes.

A full three weeks after his presentation in one school, he returned to a rock star’s reception at Mabscott Elementary. Kids not only remembered him, they remembered his message and shared with him how it had changed their perceptions and attitudes.

“Imagine if you’re the teacher with a classroom full of kids. Kids today are growing up in a world that we, being older folks or grownups, would not recognize. So many don’t have two parents. They don’t come from a nurturing environment. They are starving for love and attention.”

With his Sad, Mad Glad books and anti-bullying presentations, Stump acts as adjunct and advocate, fortifying classrooms to make them better learning environments and kids to teach them character, something individual instructors have little if any time for on their own.

“The books and presentations are also a huge platform for parents to develop relationships with their kids. If the kids don’t have parents, maybe it will be for the grandparents, whoever is raising them.”

“The Sad Mad Glad Book,” winner of the 2008 Moonbeam Children’s Book Award Gold Medal, “Another Sad Mad Glad Book,” the 2009 Outstanding Book of the Year by Independent Publisher, and “Why Don’t You Like Me?” are each filled with questions where children are encouraged toward conversation. Like the one Stump had with his own son, he believes touching base may be all the reinforcement and confidence a child needs to overcome tough social situations. Call it the power of companionship.

“You’ve got to carve out 10 to 15 minutes before bed as a parent and review your kid’s day. ‘What did you do today?’ Ask yourself, if you were working, ‘Where was my kid today?’  Who are his friends? Get in their heads and find out if they’re having a hard time making friends, or if they get picked on.”

As schools and groups contact Stump, he and publishing partner Strawn will come to their facilities for a modest fee to cover the costs of their presentation. Monte tags along for free.

“It’s all about perception,” concludes Stump, as one dad proving perceptions can be changed.

“When you have people running on perception instead of facts, you have a foundation for trouble.”

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Go to SadMadGladBooks.com for more information on the Four Dolphins Press attitude series of books and presentations.

To support United Way’s current in-school prevention and other programs, or to help them expand into additional schools, call 304-253-2111.

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Signs a child is being bullied

— Unexplainable injuries

— Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics, or jewelry

— Frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or faking illness

— Changes in eating habits, like suddenly skipping meals or binge eating.

— Kids may come home from school hungry because they did not eat lunch.

— Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares

— Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, or not wanting to go to school

— Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations

— Feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem

— Self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, harming themselves, or talking about suicide

SOURCE: stopbullying.gov

 

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