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