Bullying and Mathematics

Like anyone else a little bit different in any way, the gifted child is at risk of bullying, and at risk of becoming a bully. The more different the child, the greater the risk. If kids show hugely asynchronous development, with intellectual skills way ahead of chronological age, and social skills way behind, you can almost guarantee that bullying will be a regular occurrence. In New Zealand schools, the playground is where the risk of bullying is greatest.

When bullying occurs in the playground, what is really going on?

It usually boils down to conflicting goals that kids do not know how to handle. The child who is different wants to join in, suggest a game, or suggest a rule for a game. The other children don’t want that. Whoever is the most frustrated will behave badly first, and things will often escalate through retaliation. The child who lacks likability or skills of persuasion is particularly at risk of being excluded or thumped, and of resorting to foul tactics in wielding power when fair ones fail.

Teachers can all too easily assume that kids haven’t followed advice given:
“Did you ask nicely?” (Probably, the first time, but after that…).
“Did you say, ‘Stop it, I don’t like it.’ ?” (Yes, but they seemed to think that that was the whole point of being nasty to me, duh!).
“Did you walk away and play with someone else?” (Yes, but they followed me, calling me names, and there was nobody else who wanted to play with me anyway).
“Did you look for the duty teacher” (I tried to, but I couldn’t see through my tears).

Adults need to realise that most of the advice given only increases the odds, and mostly works for socially competent kids who seldom need it.

What is more, we need to admit this to kids. We need to tell them that any advice they follow only increases the odds of solving playground problems successfully. Talk mathematics and probability. Talk about saying please working better than not saying please in the same way that rolling a die twice gives you a better chance of scoring a six than rolling it once. It doesn’t guarantee that someone will include you, listen to you, or play the game your way. Commit to kids to help them monitor for small improvements that suggest they are successfully changing the odds.

Time is on your side

Playtime is made of two things – play and time. When we talk about play, we also talk about time. I have a five minute rule. We have little chats before new kids are due to join our classes about how some new gifted kids are as far behind in their social skills as they are ahead in their thinking skills, and how this can make them really annoying playmates. (We are honest). We talk about celebrating diversity – that being different is not a problem to be solved, while lacking social skills is – and how to figure out which is which. We remind everyone that annoying kids won’t learn social skills without chances to practice, and that our playtimes will be much more enjoyable if we can give them as many chances to practice as soon as possible. We agree (again) to a five minute rule. If someone wants to play with us, no matter how uncool, we will let them, for five minutes. If everyone gives them five minutes, they will have more than enough playmates to get them through the day. Sharing the load in this way is collegial, and we strive to be collegial. We role-play saying things like “Hey, that’s not cool, try it this way”, quite gently and supportively in case our new friends need lots of help. We also role-play ending the 5 minutes graciously, and perhaps helping our newcomers to find someone else to join in with if they seem to need it.

We also talk about fractions

If you’re playing with someone who is easy to like, you tend to make the decisions in a half-and-half way if there are two of you, or make an even three-way split if there are three. You aren’t even really conscious of it. It just happens. Once you become really good friends, you often make the same decision as each other without even having to negotiate.

Play with someone new (and a little bit annoying) and it is different. You have to be careful and conscious to give them an even share of having their ideas listened to, and of calling the shots. Make the decisions on a half-and-half basis if there are two, by even thirds if there are three, and so on. Figuring this out can be hard work, but that’s ok, because you only have to do it for five minutes. What is more, the better we do it, the faster our new “friends” will become genuinely friendly and likable.

In my experience, the five minute rule and making decisions by fractions increase the odds of avoiding bullying a lot faster than saying “Stop it, I don’t like it”. Adults with an interest in preventing bullying need to get mathematical as well, and consider the effect sizes of their advice.

Two dice, one in focus which shows a five.

The five minute rule increases the odds of avoiding bullying situations at school.

This photo, by Flickr member doug88888, has attribution and non-commercial licenses.


About Mary St George

I teach in gifted education, both online and face-to-face.
This entry was posted in education, gifted, New Zealand, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Bullying and Mathematics

  1. Carmen Downes says:

    Mary, thank you for this blog. My own son (gifted with asynchronous development) has had problems in preschool/school, both from being bullied, then from learning those behaviours, and bullying others. The extent of the teacher’s advice seemed to be either to “let the kids sort it out themselves”, or the rules you listed above (Did you ask nicely?, Stop it, I don’t like it, etc.). Although these SOMETIMES stopped the immediate conflict, they were not at all effective in any kind of long-term learning of social skills on the part of any parties involved. I’m going to print this blog, and try talking to my son from this perspective. Thanks!

    • Hi Carmen, I really hope it helps. A lot of the strategies I have suggested work best with teachers on board, so feel most welcome to give a copy to teachers as well.

  2. Cindy says:

    Interesting ideas. I teach first grade, so will think about how to use this with my first graders. I like the five minute rule. I also like the idea of “sharing the load”. Talking to the students in general about half and half decisions or three way split is an interesting way to discuss sharing decision making with others.

  3. Lindsey Wright says:

    Hey Mary,

    Sorry to leave an unrelated comment, but I couldn’t find any contact info for you on the blog, and wanted to ask about a guest post. Please drop me an e-mail!



  4. In a somewhat related post, another blogger mentions a New Zealand Herald item (published in Canvas, during Gifted Awareness Week) that seems to advocate bullying of gifted children. See http://axwellsmart.wordpress.com/2011/07/07/the-g-word/. Herald people, you would not have said that about any other minority group. If you have printed an apology, please link it here. Many would be grateful.

    • Carmen Downes says:

      Wow, that bit in the New Zealand Herald was mind-blowing. I don’t think that it “seems to” advocate bullying of gifted children – it actually gives specific examples of how to bully them! I have been surprised at how prevalent this attitude toward gifted children is here in New Zealand. I almost lost a friend by suggesting to her that her child showed many of the traits of being gifted. You would have thought I suggested that the child was a criminal.

  5. Myra says:

    Hi Mary
    I really appreciated your comments titled “Bullying and Mathematics”. My immediate thoughts after reading this were that the title is a little ambiguous. My perception is that your article is really about playground bullying – with a strategy to counter it (the 5 minute rule). This simple strategy could certainly be a great teacher tool when faced with dealing with the persistent social skills issues that ocurr – one that I will definately be recommending teachers at our school trial as necessary! The [usual] strategies you refer to that teachers tend to use were only ever meant as strategies to support one off situations – My understanding of these is that they should not be used as the only formula for a particular child with significant delays in social skills. It is a shame that general classroom teachers have taken these as their “one and only suggestion” to deal with every situation!

    • Hi Myra, it’s great to hear from you! Yes the title is ambiguous, but making it about maths has really worked for many of the kids I teach – the fractions and probability as well as the time. If a child believes they are making some progress with mathematics, but that they are not with bullying and/or being bullied, a focus on the mathematical aspects really helps them to believe they can make progress in this realm as well.

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