Custom Class: post-landing-hero

PrinciPALS Podcast Transcript: 2.03: Bullying

By Jij de Jesus, Emma Wellman, and Conor Bentley

Listen above or on Apple Podcasts.


In this episode, Rowland Hall's princiPALS take on the topic of bullying. While parents and caregivers are undoubtedly familiar with this term, the definition can shift depending on who’s talking. Knowing this, Jij and Emma explain what it means when educators use that word, as well as walk listeners through what’s happening to kids developmentally during the early childhood and elementary years so that they understand what behaviors are typical and which may require intervention. Listeners will walk away with a better understanding of what is behind children’s behaviors and tips on supporting them.

Podcast resources:

The transcript of this episode appears below.


Conor Bentley (00:02):
From Rowland Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah...

Jij de Jesus (00:05):
I'm Jij de Jesus.

Emma Wellman (00:06):
And I'm Emma Wellman.

Conor (00:08):
And they're the princiPALS.

I'm Conor Bentley, and on today's episode of princiPALS we'll be discussing bullying.

Emma (00:22):
On The PrinciPALS Podcast, we tackle big questions and share big ideas about how to raise excellent humans.

Conor (00:32):
Well, Emma and Jij, it is so good to see you again here in the virtual princiPALS' office. Today we are here to talk about bullying, and we are going to talk about, you know, ways in which we can identify it and what it means. But the driving question is, then, what is bullying? And as parents and caregivers of young children, how do we think about it and what do we do about it?

Jij (00:57):
It's such an important topic and such a great driving question. And I think before we dig into this driving question and this topic, I want to lay down some underlying assumptions. And this is for us as educators, also, I'll just say, for me as a parent as well, I use these assumptions to remember how I understand my child.

So, the first important underlying assumption that I want to throw out there is: kids are not their behaviors. I'm going to say that one more time: kids are not their behaviors. Instead, behaviors can tell us what kids truly need. And, you know, I think it's really important to remember that when my five-year-old is acting like a total terror around bedtime, she is not a terror. Her behaviors are terrible. Right? So there's a distinction there. And, you know, I think if we think about kids' behaviors, most behaviors are driven by three important underlying needs. And those needs are: belonging, wanting to be part of something larger than themselves; significance, so that's feeling like they're important, feeling like they have control over something; and fun. And that one's straightforward, right? Like, kids like to have fun, as the grown-ups. Again, kids are not their behaviors. Sometimes we see negative behaviors, it doesn't mean the kid is negative. And oftentimes negative behaviors can actually come from positive needs or positive intentions. So that's the first underlying assumption: kids are not their behaviors.

Second one is: we take the same approach and lens on social and emotional learning that we do with academic learning. So if a kid is struggling with a math concept, we don't just decide in that moment, "Oh, they don't get it, and they're not good with that math concept." Instead, we try to understand what is underneath that struggle, identify the misconceptions or gaps, and target our support and instruction to improve in that area. So, just like with social-emotional learning, if a kid is struggling with friendship issues or to control their impulsive actions with their friends, well, we think they can improve on that, so we target our support and instruction to address that. We take a growth-mindset approach when it comes to both kinds of learning, social-emotional and academic. Also, you know, I think it's important to recognize that kids have specific developmental stages and associated needs that come with those developmental stages. And so, when we're thinking about their behaviors, we don't layer on our grown-up stuff and expectations onto what they can or should be doing.

And then finally, ultimately, and this is the most important one, we love our kids, whether they're our students or our kids that live with us at home, we love them. And that doesn't mean we always love their behaviors. So these are, again, back to that kids are not their behaviors. While we love them always, we don't always have to love their behaviors. So those are my underlying assumptions when it comes to this conversation about bullying.

Emma (04:28):
Thanks, Jij. I think that's super helpful and I hope—look, I find the comparison with supporting kids around academic skills really affirming, and hopefully clarifying for some of our listeners.

I want to talk a little bit about the word bullying and how we think about it as educators because it has, in my lifetime, it's shifted a bit. When I was a kid, I think the word bully just meant somebody was being unkind or mean in one instance. But over the last couple decades, there's been a change where, as educators, and this is true for psychologists and even various kinds of supporting agencies, you know, there is a particular kind of behavior—cluster of behaviors, really—that we now call bullying that are different from the sort of everyday, run-of-the-mill, unkind, mean behaviors that are definitely not ideal—stuff that we don't like, just as Jij said—but we want to separate that out from what is actually bullying. And so, as educators, we use the word bullying in a very particular way.

And so, you know, in particular, there are some components of bullying, which are: that it's repetitive unkind behaviors that are intentionally doing harm—like, the point is often to do harm to another person—and they're leveraging social power. So, in order for that to be happening, children have to be at a certain developmental level, right? Four- and five-year-olds are not really aware of their differing social powers, and in fact I don't think that there are persistent social power dynamics amongst people who are four and five years old. Maybe there's differences in volume or energy at any given moment, but that doesn't translate to power. And so, you know, the research and our experience suggest that true bullying doesn't usually turn up before the end of second grade, the beginning of third grade, in terms of what children are developmentally capable of. That doesn't mean that all of a sudden in third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade, all the unkind behaviors are definitely bullying. It just means it's more possible than it was when we're talking about younger children.

And to be clear, kids can be mean to each other. That's real life and it’s not a good thing. It doesn't make it okay, but it is expected. It is a part of growing up and learning how to be a good human in community and in society. The goal for unkind and mean behavior can't be to eliminate it, because it is part of life, but it is to help kids learn to deal with it, to address it, to give them skills, just as Jij was talking about a moment ago, so they can feel efficacy in navigating these social dynamics. I hope that's helpful in terms of making this distinction between typical unkind and mean behaviors and this more complicated and nuanced thing, which is bullying.

Conor (07:30):
I think it's interesting to think about it in terms of the developmental stages because, you know, what you're saying is kids that are younger aren't really capable of the types of things that we would classify as real bullying. So I think that is interesting to me, and helpful. And I would say, you know, when does this behavior become bullying or count as bullying? Because, as you're saying, it is sort of a progression and it's based on developmental stages of kids, and where they are, and kind of what they're capable of at those ages. And so I would love to explore the idea of, you know, what it looks like at these different ages for kids and as they kind of progress through their development.

Jij (08:15):
Yes. You know, I think "When does it become or count as bullying?" is a complicated question, and there's no hard line; it's often very contextual. And, you know, I think the key factors are: is it repetitive in nature? Is it consistent—you know, on purpose hurting the feelings or hurting, physically, someone else? And then, again, that taking advantage of a power dynamic, and that can either be size, it can be social power. So these are the things that we look for. And know that we as educators, we're always looking at social dynamics and how kids are interacting, hoping to see positives and ready to swoop in if we see anything negative or concerning. And I think, you know, as we discussed, when we're making these observations, we know developmentally the younger kids aren't as capable. And I think really the point isn't about labeling the behavior so much as it is understanding what's underneath or behind the behavior, and how to target our support, and how to help everyone involved learn to do better and be better. You referenced this, right? Like, we have these things that we typically observe based on age and grade level. And between Emma and I, we've seen thousands of kids and a range of behaviors, so that gives us a huge sample size with which to make good judgment about what's going on for a kid or between kids or in a group of kids. And, you know, I think this is where I often think for a family at home, for a parent, their sample size is pretty small. They probably have their one kid at home, or maybe a few kids at home, and so, you know, it's hard to locate how much worry or concern to place on an experience that their kid is having at school when they don't have all of the observations and context available to them. So, you know, because Emma and I have seen so many kids, we can often predict what kids need socially, and also when they're going to experience successes, and when they may encounter challenges based on their age and grade level. So there are highs and lows, and it doesn't really require a crystal ball. It's just kind of based on observations, research, and our understanding of the typical developmental stages of kids.

Emma (10:49):
So just, you know, I think when parents have, when their children are very young, they spend a lot of time learning about ages and stages, right? Like, when you have a little tiny infant, you're like, "When do they roll?" and "When do they sit up on their own?" and there's lots of engagement with child development in that first year or two, which sometimes can recede for parents and caregivers because there are fewer, kind of, big highlight moments. And also, like, life gets busy and the complexity is increased and they're spending more time away from you, probably, and with other people. But as educators and people who work with children, we think about typical development all the time and try to build supports and programs and experiences that are aligned developmentally—you hear these words developmentally appropriate practice often, especially with respect to early childhood, and it's really about that. So there are some things that are very typical, that we expect. And so people who are three and four years old, who are often first coming to school at a place like Rowland Hall, they find peers very interesting and also sometimes frustrating and baffling and amazing. They're just beginning to be able to share materials and ideas, so that doesn't always go very well because they're still pretty self-interested and really quite impulsive and impatient. By the time kids find their way into kindergarten, they're able to think more deeply, a little bit, about friendship because they have developed some empathy—they're less self-interested than they were before—and also some embarrassment. So they start thinking about what it is to be a friend: What do friends do? Who are my friends? Those kinds of questions are important to kindergartners, along with, you know, being a knower. Kindergartners love to be experts in things like dinosaurs or rocks or gymnastics. And so those two qualities can sometimes bump up against one another and cause some social conflicts that are really productive, actually.

Jij (12:47):
So once kids learn how to be friends in kindergarten, then in first grade they just want to practice being friends with anyone who's near them. So in first grade we often see: friendship is just based on proximity—like, "Who's at my table? Who's in my class? Those are my friends. Those are my best friends." And, you know, that's wonderful. And the challenges we often see come about from, you know, impulsive behaviors or sometimes aggressive behaviors. First graders aren't the best at using words to express their feelings every moment. And we see that often—like, one specific time: lining up is a time when first graders can encounter challenges, either, you know, typically physical challenges of pushing because they want to be first in line or last in line.

Actually, I've always wondered, Emma, we should talk about this: why do we line up? Like, we should just circle up, then there's no front and end, right?

Emma (13:50):
Yes. That's a thing, actually, going around like a bunch of grapes.

Jij (13:54):
Uh-huh, yeah. And then, you know, first graders often can be bossy, right? And that's kind of that need of significance. They want to exert their control over the play or what's going on in their group in the classroom. And so that can, you know, that can be hard. And we get to second grade. You know, second graders are, that's kind of the Baskin-Robbins year—Baskin-Robbins, that's a national ice cream brand, right? Like everyone knows what Baskin-Robbins is? All the flavors?

Conor (14:24):
Yeah, 31 flavors.

Jij (14:26):
Yeah. So, you know, kids are looking for, like, different flavors of friendship, and that's developmentally appropriate. And in second grade, we can sometimes see fairness and competitiveness come up as challenges. Second graders have a strong sense of what's right. And so when they're trying out all these different friendships and they're encountering different ways of understanding what is right, that can lead to some, you know, some rough edges and pressure points and conflicts.

You know, the transition to third grade is really interesting because that's when we see a shift, you know, again, academically, third grade we think of, that's the shift from learning to read to reading to learn. Similarly, socially, we start to see that as the shift from "I'm friends with everyone" to "Who are my friends?" Right? And looking for close friends and close friend groups. Third graders can really experience that shift as a challenge when it comes to including and excluding because they haven't done that before developmentally. And if you're being excluded, that can really feel like being left out. So this is where the idea of bullying can start to enter into conversations with third graders, when they feel like they're being left out on purpose, when it may or may not be on purpose. Those other, the other group of kids may not be as aware or as empathetic as they need to be to notice that someone is being left out. So that's, you know, that's where our coaching as grown-ups can be really helpful.

Then we get to fourth grade and fifth grade. So fourth grade—I taught fourth grade, so I have a bias toward loving fourth graders—they want to be who they are in fourth grade. They have their strong sense of self, they're seeking their best friends, and they're starting to compare their abilities and skills with those of their peers and with the people around them, right? So that gets into even more complicated including and excluding. Right? Because, you know, it's not just like close friends, but now who's my best friend? So that can be really challenging, with friendship triangles, hierarchies starting to develop socially, and lots of comparing of who's in, who's out, who's good at this, who's not good at that. So those are the challenges we typically see in fourth grade.

And then fifth grade is pre-adolescence, so that's: I want to be my own person and I need to separate from my family. And that's wonderful for kids to go through that experience, and really hard, sometimes, when they are not successful in seeking that independence. But, you know, it's a beautiful time for fifth graders because close friends begin to emerge, and those friends typically begin to be those lasting friendships. And so, you know, in fifth grade, we start to see cliques and groups form, you know, kids trying to be cool or funny to impress their friends or to elevate them in the sort of hierarchy of friendships that's developing. And then we start to see this thing called relational aggression. You know, it has been described in the past as, like, mean girl behavior, but we know that it's not just girls who demonstrate this behavior. And that, you know, going back to what's underneath it, that's typically from the belonging need. They want to be in the group and being in the group sometimes, in their mind, means they have to push someone else out using words, actions; you know, it can be really subtle. So that's what we see of kids as they progress, and knowing that we may see these things means we know what to look out for and know how to intervene when needed.

Conor (18:27):
This all, it's making me think back to those ages now in my life and kind of thinking, like, okay, when someone did something like that, they weren't really bullying me, right? Or I wasn't really, you know, capable of that at that age. And I think it's really interesting to look back and see that because, you know, I definitely feel like I had some times where I felt bullied or I felt ganged up on. And I think that, you know, thinking about it in this context of like, okay, what kids are capable of developmentally kind of changes the perception of that. Like, okay, like maybe I wasn't really being bullied. It was just people learning how to be friends and figuring these things out and navigating it. Because I think one of the things is, you know, when we see these bullying tendencies or kids acting out or behaving in certain ways, you know, there can be questions about like, you know, what is the school doing about that? And so I know that that can be a question that comes up for parents and for other kids, too, when these things kind of start happening.

Emma (19:31):
Yeah, I appreciate that question because I know for families it can be really hard if you're hearing about painful experiences, social experiences that are physical or emotional, or both, of course, like, you're going to have a mama or papa bear—you know, it just happens. It's just what is the right thing to happen. And so as a school community, we try to see both sides of it and really be committed to that growth mindset and to the opportunity to coach kids. So, you know, generally speaking, especially in the earlier grades, the most supportive approach for kids who are struggling around social issues, whether they are enacting mean behaviors or experiencing them, you know, is not going to be to, like, just kick kids out, because that doesn't give them any tools to fix the problem and it removes them from the situation in which they could possibly fix the problem, right? If you just go to a totally different situation, you can never repair the mistake you've made. And so then maybe as the kid who did the mean stuff, you're going to carry it for your whole life because you never got to fix it, right? So that's not good for anybody involved.

Conor (20:36):
So that seems really good. And it seems like the school is being proactive and dealing with these things, but you know, if someone's kid comes home and talks to their parents about some kid being mean to them repeatedly day after day, is that cause for them to be worried? And would they be overreacting?

Jij (21:00):
No. To Emma's point, right, like if you as a parent are having a concern about your child's experience at school, then make sure the school is aware. And if you're worrying about your kid's experience at school, are you overreacting? No. You're being a parent, right? Like that's actually, biologically, you're being a mammal. So mammals are warm-blooded, they have hair or fur, and they care for their young. Right? And so when, in that moment, if you're worried about your kid, you're caring for your young, right? This is typical mammalian behavior.

So when a child comes home and reports the negative social experience or harm that's been done, then yeah, our mammalian parental instinct kicks in. We want to protect and care for our child. And that's a good thing. It means we actually do care about and love our kids. Now, fortunately, we're not in a situation where it's about survival. We're not in the woods or on the grasslands, just trying to make it through every day, so we can decide in those moments when, if our child comes home to talk about this negative experience or this mean thing that's happening, we can decide what to do with our instinct to care for our kid, right? We can decide if that's a moment to protect.

So I can share what not to do: don't elevate your worry or focus in that moment on the negative, right? And that's a moment to be curious and to monitor for your own overreacting. Because, you know, sometimes that overreacting and expressing that worry or concern in front of your child can be actually counterproductive to your child's development. And it might not be what they need in that moment. So, sort of back to the science, human brains are trained to remember negative experiences more than they are positive ones. Negative experiences require more negative emotions and involve more thinking. And it's actually been proven, like MRI studies show that there's more activity in the orbital frontal cortex (I can't believe I just said that word successfully) and the amygdala (I did that one, too, that's two in a row), you know, the two emotion-processing regions of your brain, there's like more stuff going on, more activity after a negative experience. So we think about and process, mentally and emotionally, negative stuff more because back in the day, that's how we learned to survive. So when your kid comes home and talks about this negative experience, then it's our job to figure out, like, okay, does our kid need to process that or do they need protection?

Emma (23:39):
Yeah. So it's our job as grown-ups to discern—this is such an important skill in life, and maybe especially in life with little children—to discern what they need because there is this emotional response happening for us and for the child. Luckily, we benefit from many more years of maturation, lots and lots more experience, and the capacity to calm ourselves down, hopefully, but more successfully than little children can. And so we need to take a minute and find out what is happening and then help figure out: what can the child do about it? Again, guiding toward that sense of significance and control and autonomy for a child is going to be really effective and powerful in terms of coaching them to build skills that'll be useful.

And in particular, I want to share that sometimes this mammalian instinct that Jij was just talking about can sometimes work against us when we start seeking negative experiences. So we're worried, very naturally, about what's happening for our child, say at recess, and we want to find out if anything bad happened at recess. And so the child gets in the car at the end of the day and you say, "Did anything bad happen at recess?" And it seems like a good question, right? Coming from concern and wanting to check in. But, in fact, we have a label for this in education; it's called interviewing for pain. And it's giving a child a message that there is something to be feared or something negative that is happening, that you care about it and want to hear about it, like that that's something that is important to you as their parent or caregiver, and so then you can be training them, inadvertently, to go around with whatever the opposite of rose-colored glasses might be, whatever color that is. And it also gives them the sense that maybe they don't have control over those negative things in their life because you're sort of calling them up for them every day. And so I think it's important that we take a moment to separate, as much as we can, our own feelings and worries from the coaching that we're giving our kids around social troubles.

Conor (25:48):
Well, that sounds really good. You guys really know your stuff.

Emma (25:50):
Or we sound like it.

Conor (25:52):
Hey, either way.

Emma (25:54):
Okay, so here's the part everybody looks forward to in a princiPALS podcast, which is homework. Okay, what do we do? What can we practice? How do we help kids?

So the first piece is probably familiar to fans of the podcast, which is sort of related to the survey-the-scene advice that we've given in other episodes, and it's: if you get a report of bullying, like if your child uses that word or is repeatedly talking about a friend being mean, the first thing you do is ask questions to develop specific understanding of what's been happening. And we would ask that you assume that you don't have the full picture, and also probably that your child, especially your younger child, doesn't have the full picture. But even, you know, even as an adult, I have social interactions where I have understood a thing one way, and it turned out the other person in that situation understood it a different way, and the only way I figured that out was by checking in with them, right? So that's a skill I've learned as a grown person because people around me coached me into it because they knew I didn't have the full information, right? So we've got to assume you don't have it, and your child probably doesn't, so you can loop in the next person who's probably got more information, which is your child's teacher. And that's a good first place to start with a question.

Jij (27:08):
Second bit of homework is: make sure that your child knows what it means to be a good friend. And that's just good parenting, right? Talk about what friendship looks like, model what good friendship looks like, highlight for them times when you are noticing that they're being a good friend. And oftentimes kids at school these days are having social-emotional learning as part of their school experience, so you can reference strategies or ideas from school.

Emma (27:39):
Another thing you can do, and this is sort of related to the first point, but I just want to call it out as extra special homework, is: partner with your kids and the school as, like, a kind of a three-legged stool in support of your child, of course, but all the kids. Right? All the children in the community are children that we care about. And one way that we ask families to do this is by giving everybody the gift of a growth mindset. And knowing that, if a child is being mean, it doesn't mean they are a mean human, right? They have mean behaviors, they're being mean in this moment, but, you know, the hope is that they're going to stop being mean and they're not going to be mean all the time in their life because we're going to help them with that.

Jij (28:24):
And the last thing is just: establish and maintain open communication with your child. Right? And this is, especially in the early childhood/elementary years, establishing that great communication with your child, and the right kind of communication, right? Like, not the interviewing-for-pain type of communication, but the, you know, asking your child about the full range of their experiences at school. This is important because, well, when they leave the elementary years and get into more complicated and dynamic years—middle school, high school—that foundation of clear communication with your child is going to be really important.

Conor (29:06):
So this is another great example of, you know, just the princiPALS coming forward with some great information to help parents and children. But we should say that we might be a princiPAL down going forward because Jij de Jesus is going to be leaving Rowland Hall for another opportunity. Jij, do you want to tell our loyal listeners?

Jij (29:31):
Of course I do. I'll be going to a wonderful school in Santa Monica called PS1 Pluralistic School, and I will dearly miss the Rowland Hall community and also the opportunity to share insights with families, parents at home via this podcast. So, I don't know, maybe I can figure out a way to hang on here.

Emma (29:58):
Well, now that we've learned to do a virtual princiPALS podcast, I think it'll be easy to have you on as a guest speaker, Jij, because we will surely miss your insight and your unparalleled humor.

Conor (30:11):
No, I would say there's always room in the virtual princiPALS' office for Jij, and we know that that school is very fortunate to have you, Jij, and we will miss you. But again, there's nothing that says you can't be a guest because Emma and I will still be here. And you know what? We may make some more friends. And isn't that what this episode is about? To making friends and getting to know new people? And you know what? We may have some new fun princiPALS that—

Emma (30:39):
New pals palin' around.

Conor (30:42):
We want to pal around. So, you know, we look forward to what comes next with The PrinciPALS Podcast. But know the princiPALS will return in one way or another.

Emma (30:52):
Happy summer, everybody.

Conor (30:55):
And with that, that is the end of this episode. There are going to be resources on the website at rowlandhall.org/podcast, so check out those resources there. And until next time, I'm Conor Bentley.

Jij (31:10):
I'm Jij de Jesus.

Emma (31:11):
I'm Emma Wellman.

Conor (31:13):
And they're the princiPALS.


About Jij de Jesus
Jij de Jesus is the Lower School principal at Rowland Hall, an independent private school in Salt Lake City, Utah. Prior to Rowland Hall, Jij worked at Town School for Boys in San Francisco, where he held a number of leadership positions, most notably as director of the Exploration of New Ideas program, and was a fourth-grade teacher. He began his career in experiential education by leading wilderness trips. Jij holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from Northwestern University and a master’s of education in private school leadership from the University of Hawaii.

About Emma Wellman
Emma Wellman is the Beginning School principal at Rowland Hall. Emma joined Rowland Hall in July 2018 after working as a teacher and administrator at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Emma has also been an adjunct instructor at the City Colleges of Chicago and the owner of a childcare business, Banana Mashers. She holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of Michigan and a master’s in child development from the Erikson Institute.

About Conor Bentley ’01
Conor Bentley is a graduate of Rowland Hall’s class of 2001. He holds a master’s degree in education, works in higher education, and has produced several podcasts, including the public-radio parody
Consider Our Knowledge.

Parent Education

PrinciPALS Podcast Transcript: 2.03: Bullying

By Jij de Jesus, Emma Wellman, and Conor Bentley

Listen above or on Apple Podcasts.


In this episode, Rowland Hall's princiPALS take on the topic of bullying. While parents and caregivers are undoubtedly familiar with this term, the definition can shift depending on who’s talking. Knowing this, Jij and Emma explain what it means when educators use that word, as well as walk listeners through what’s happening to kids developmentally during the early childhood and elementary years so that they understand what behaviors are typical and which may require intervention. Listeners will walk away with a better understanding of what is behind children’s behaviors and tips on supporting them.

Podcast resources:

The transcript of this episode appears below.


Conor Bentley (00:02):
From Rowland Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah...

Jij de Jesus (00:05):
I'm Jij de Jesus.

Emma Wellman (00:06):
And I'm Emma Wellman.

Conor (00:08):
And they're the princiPALS.

I'm Conor Bentley, and on today's episode of princiPALS we'll be discussing bullying.

Emma (00:22):
On The PrinciPALS Podcast, we tackle big questions and share big ideas about how to raise excellent humans.

Conor (00:32):
Well, Emma and Jij, it is so good to see you again here in the virtual princiPALS' office. Today we are here to talk about bullying, and we are going to talk about, you know, ways in which we can identify it and what it means. But the driving question is, then, what is bullying? And as parents and caregivers of young children, how do we think about it and what do we do about it?

Jij (00:57):
It's such an important topic and such a great driving question. And I think before we dig into this driving question and this topic, I want to lay down some underlying assumptions. And this is for us as educators, also, I'll just say, for me as a parent as well, I use these assumptions to remember how I understand my child.

So, the first important underlying assumption that I want to throw out there is: kids are not their behaviors. I'm going to say that one more time: kids are not their behaviors. Instead, behaviors can tell us what kids truly need. And, you know, I think it's really important to remember that when my five-year-old is acting like a total terror around bedtime, she is not a terror. Her behaviors are terrible. Right? So there's a distinction there. And, you know, I think if we think about kids' behaviors, most behaviors are driven by three important underlying needs. And those needs are: belonging, wanting to be part of something larger than themselves; significance, so that's feeling like they're important, feeling like they have control over something; and fun. And that one's straightforward, right? Like, kids like to have fun, as the grown-ups. Again, kids are not their behaviors. Sometimes we see negative behaviors, it doesn't mean the kid is negative. And oftentimes negative behaviors can actually come from positive needs or positive intentions. So that's the first underlying assumption: kids are not their behaviors.

Second one is: we take the same approach and lens on social and emotional learning that we do with academic learning. So if a kid is struggling with a math concept, we don't just decide in that moment, "Oh, they don't get it, and they're not good with that math concept." Instead, we try to understand what is underneath that struggle, identify the misconceptions or gaps, and target our support and instruction to improve in that area. So, just like with social-emotional learning, if a kid is struggling with friendship issues or to control their impulsive actions with their friends, well, we think they can improve on that, so we target our support and instruction to address that. We take a growth-mindset approach when it comes to both kinds of learning, social-emotional and academic. Also, you know, I think it's important to recognize that kids have specific developmental stages and associated needs that come with those developmental stages. And so, when we're thinking about their behaviors, we don't layer on our grown-up stuff and expectations onto what they can or should be doing.

And then finally, ultimately, and this is the most important one, we love our kids, whether they're our students or our kids that live with us at home, we love them. And that doesn't mean we always love their behaviors. So these are, again, back to that kids are not their behaviors. While we love them always, we don't always have to love their behaviors. So those are my underlying assumptions when it comes to this conversation about bullying.

Emma (04:28):
Thanks, Jij. I think that's super helpful and I hope—look, I find the comparison with supporting kids around academic skills really affirming, and hopefully clarifying for some of our listeners.

I want to talk a little bit about the word bullying and how we think about it as educators because it has, in my lifetime, it's shifted a bit. When I was a kid, I think the word bully just meant somebody was being unkind or mean in one instance. But over the last couple decades, there's been a change where, as educators, and this is true for psychologists and even various kinds of supporting agencies, you know, there is a particular kind of behavior—cluster of behaviors, really—that we now call bullying that are different from the sort of everyday, run-of-the-mill, unkind, mean behaviors that are definitely not ideal—stuff that we don't like, just as Jij said—but we want to separate that out from what is actually bullying. And so, as educators, we use the word bullying in a very particular way.

And so, you know, in particular, there are some components of bullying, which are: that it's repetitive unkind behaviors that are intentionally doing harm—like, the point is often to do harm to another person—and they're leveraging social power. So, in order for that to be happening, children have to be at a certain developmental level, right? Four- and five-year-olds are not really aware of their differing social powers, and in fact I don't think that there are persistent social power dynamics amongst people who are four and five years old. Maybe there's differences in volume or energy at any given moment, but that doesn't translate to power. And so, you know, the research and our experience suggest that true bullying doesn't usually turn up before the end of second grade, the beginning of third grade, in terms of what children are developmentally capable of. That doesn't mean that all of a sudden in third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade, all the unkind behaviors are definitely bullying. It just means it's more possible than it was when we're talking about younger children.

And to be clear, kids can be mean to each other. That's real life and it’s not a good thing. It doesn't make it okay, but it is expected. It is a part of growing up and learning how to be a good human in community and in society. The goal for unkind and mean behavior can't be to eliminate it, because it is part of life, but it is to help kids learn to deal with it, to address it, to give them skills, just as Jij was talking about a moment ago, so they can feel efficacy in navigating these social dynamics. I hope that's helpful in terms of making this distinction between typical unkind and mean behaviors and this more complicated and nuanced thing, which is bullying.

Conor (07:30):
I think it's interesting to think about it in terms of the developmental stages because, you know, what you're saying is kids that are younger aren't really capable of the types of things that we would classify as real bullying. So I think that is interesting to me, and helpful. And I would say, you know, when does this behavior become bullying or count as bullying? Because, as you're saying, it is sort of a progression and it's based on developmental stages of kids, and where they are, and kind of what they're capable of at those ages. And so I would love to explore the idea of, you know, what it looks like at these different ages for kids and as they kind of progress through their development.

Jij (08:15):
Yes. You know, I think "When does it become or count as bullying?" is a complicated question, and there's no hard line; it's often very contextual. And, you know, I think the key factors are: is it repetitive in nature? Is it consistent—you know, on purpose hurting the feelings or hurting, physically, someone else? And then, again, that taking advantage of a power dynamic, and that can either be size, it can be social power. So these are the things that we look for. And know that we as educators, we're always looking at social dynamics and how kids are interacting, hoping to see positives and ready to swoop in if we see anything negative or concerning. And I think, you know, as we discussed, when we're making these observations, we know developmentally the younger kids aren't as capable. And I think really the point isn't about labeling the behavior so much as it is understanding what's underneath or behind the behavior, and how to target our support, and how to help everyone involved learn to do better and be better. You referenced this, right? Like, we have these things that we typically observe based on age and grade level. And between Emma and I, we've seen thousands of kids and a range of behaviors, so that gives us a huge sample size with which to make good judgment about what's going on for a kid or between kids or in a group of kids. And, you know, I think this is where I often think for a family at home, for a parent, their sample size is pretty small. They probably have their one kid at home, or maybe a few kids at home, and so, you know, it's hard to locate how much worry or concern to place on an experience that their kid is having at school when they don't have all of the observations and context available to them. So, you know, because Emma and I have seen so many kids, we can often predict what kids need socially, and also when they're going to experience successes, and when they may encounter challenges based on their age and grade level. So there are highs and lows, and it doesn't really require a crystal ball. It's just kind of based on observations, research, and our understanding of the typical developmental stages of kids.

Emma (10:49):
So just, you know, I think when parents have, when their children are very young, they spend a lot of time learning about ages and stages, right? Like, when you have a little tiny infant, you're like, "When do they roll?" and "When do they sit up on their own?" and there's lots of engagement with child development in that first year or two, which sometimes can recede for parents and caregivers because there are fewer, kind of, big highlight moments. And also, like, life gets busy and the complexity is increased and they're spending more time away from you, probably, and with other people. But as educators and people who work with children, we think about typical development all the time and try to build supports and programs and experiences that are aligned developmentally—you hear these words developmentally appropriate practice often, especially with respect to early childhood, and it's really about that. So there are some things that are very typical, that we expect. And so people who are three and four years old, who are often first coming to school at a place like Rowland Hall, they find peers very interesting and also sometimes frustrating and baffling and amazing. They're just beginning to be able to share materials and ideas, so that doesn't always go very well because they're still pretty self-interested and really quite impulsive and impatient. By the time kids find their way into kindergarten, they're able to think more deeply, a little bit, about friendship because they have developed some empathy—they're less self-interested than they were before—and also some embarrassment. So they start thinking about what it is to be a friend: What do friends do? Who are my friends? Those kinds of questions are important to kindergartners, along with, you know, being a knower. Kindergartners love to be experts in things like dinosaurs or rocks or gymnastics. And so those two qualities can sometimes bump up against one another and cause some social conflicts that are really productive, actually.

Jij (12:47):
So once kids learn how to be friends in kindergarten, then in first grade they just want to practice being friends with anyone who's near them. So in first grade we often see: friendship is just based on proximity—like, "Who's at my table? Who's in my class? Those are my friends. Those are my best friends." And, you know, that's wonderful. And the challenges we often see come about from, you know, impulsive behaviors or sometimes aggressive behaviors. First graders aren't the best at using words to express their feelings every moment. And we see that often—like, one specific time: lining up is a time when first graders can encounter challenges, either, you know, typically physical challenges of pushing because they want to be first in line or last in line.

Actually, I've always wondered, Emma, we should talk about this: why do we line up? Like, we should just circle up, then there's no front and end, right?

Emma (13:50):
Yes. That's a thing, actually, going around like a bunch of grapes.

Jij (13:54):
Uh-huh, yeah. And then, you know, first graders often can be bossy, right? And that's kind of that need of significance. They want to exert their control over the play or what's going on in their group in the classroom. And so that can, you know, that can be hard. And we get to second grade. You know, second graders are, that's kind of the Baskin-Robbins year—Baskin-Robbins, that's a national ice cream brand, right? Like everyone knows what Baskin-Robbins is? All the flavors?

Conor (14:24):
Yeah, 31 flavors.

Jij (14:26):
Yeah. So, you know, kids are looking for, like, different flavors of friendship, and that's developmentally appropriate. And in second grade, we can sometimes see fairness and competitiveness come up as challenges. Second graders have a strong sense of what's right. And so when they're trying out all these different friendships and they're encountering different ways of understanding what is right, that can lead to some, you know, some rough edges and pressure points and conflicts.

You know, the transition to third grade is really interesting because that's when we see a shift, you know, again, academically, third grade we think of, that's the shift from learning to read to reading to learn. Similarly, socially, we start to see that as the shift from "I'm friends with everyone" to "Who are my friends?" Right? And looking for close friends and close friend groups. Third graders can really experience that shift as a challenge when it comes to including and excluding because they haven't done that before developmentally. And if you're being excluded, that can really feel like being left out. So this is where the idea of bullying can start to enter into conversations with third graders, when they feel like they're being left out on purpose, when it may or may not be on purpose. Those other, the other group of kids may not be as aware or as empathetic as they need to be to notice that someone is being left out. So that's, you know, that's where our coaching as grown-ups can be really helpful.

Then we get to fourth grade and fifth grade. So fourth grade—I taught fourth grade, so I have a bias toward loving fourth graders—they want to be who they are in fourth grade. They have their strong sense of self, they're seeking their best friends, and they're starting to compare their abilities and skills with those of their peers and with the people around them, right? So that gets into even more complicated including and excluding. Right? Because, you know, it's not just like close friends, but now who's my best friend? So that can be really challenging, with friendship triangles, hierarchies starting to develop socially, and lots of comparing of who's in, who's out, who's good at this, who's not good at that. So those are the challenges we typically see in fourth grade.

And then fifth grade is pre-adolescence, so that's: I want to be my own person and I need to separate from my family. And that's wonderful for kids to go through that experience, and really hard, sometimes, when they are not successful in seeking that independence. But, you know, it's a beautiful time for fifth graders because close friends begin to emerge, and those friends typically begin to be those lasting friendships. And so, you know, in fifth grade, we start to see cliques and groups form, you know, kids trying to be cool or funny to impress their friends or to elevate them in the sort of hierarchy of friendships that's developing. And then we start to see this thing called relational aggression. You know, it has been described in the past as, like, mean girl behavior, but we know that it's not just girls who demonstrate this behavior. And that, you know, going back to what's underneath it, that's typically from the belonging need. They want to be in the group and being in the group sometimes, in their mind, means they have to push someone else out using words, actions; you know, it can be really subtle. So that's what we see of kids as they progress, and knowing that we may see these things means we know what to look out for and know how to intervene when needed.

Conor (18:27):
This all, it's making me think back to those ages now in my life and kind of thinking, like, okay, when someone did something like that, they weren't really bullying me, right? Or I wasn't really, you know, capable of that at that age. And I think it's really interesting to look back and see that because, you know, I definitely feel like I had some times where I felt bullied or I felt ganged up on. And I think that, you know, thinking about it in this context of like, okay, what kids are capable of developmentally kind of changes the perception of that. Like, okay, like maybe I wasn't really being bullied. It was just people learning how to be friends and figuring these things out and navigating it. Because I think one of the things is, you know, when we see these bullying tendencies or kids acting out or behaving in certain ways, you know, there can be questions about like, you know, what is the school doing about that? And so I know that that can be a question that comes up for parents and for other kids, too, when these things kind of start happening.

Emma (19:31):
Yeah, I appreciate that question because I know for families it can be really hard if you're hearing about painful experiences, social experiences that are physical or emotional, or both, of course, like, you're going to have a mama or papa bear—you know, it just happens. It's just what is the right thing to happen. And so as a school community, we try to see both sides of it and really be committed to that growth mindset and to the opportunity to coach kids. So, you know, generally speaking, especially in the earlier grades, the most supportive approach for kids who are struggling around social issues, whether they are enacting mean behaviors or experiencing them, you know, is not going to be to, like, just kick kids out, because that doesn't give them any tools to fix the problem and it removes them from the situation in which they could possibly fix the problem, right? If you just go to a totally different situation, you can never repair the mistake you've made. And so then maybe as the kid who did the mean stuff, you're going to carry it for your whole life because you never got to fix it, right? So that's not good for anybody involved.

Conor (20:36):
So that seems really good. And it seems like the school is being proactive and dealing with these things, but you know, if someone's kid comes home and talks to their parents about some kid being mean to them repeatedly day after day, is that cause for them to be worried? And would they be overreacting?

Jij (21:00):
No. To Emma's point, right, like if you as a parent are having a concern about your child's experience at school, then make sure the school is aware. And if you're worrying about your kid's experience at school, are you overreacting? No. You're being a parent, right? Like that's actually, biologically, you're being a mammal. So mammals are warm-blooded, they have hair or fur, and they care for their young. Right? And so when, in that moment, if you're worried about your kid, you're caring for your young, right? This is typical mammalian behavior.

So when a child comes home and reports the negative social experience or harm that's been done, then yeah, our mammalian parental instinct kicks in. We want to protect and care for our child. And that's a good thing. It means we actually do care about and love our kids. Now, fortunately, we're not in a situation where it's about survival. We're not in the woods or on the grasslands, just trying to make it through every day, so we can decide in those moments when, if our child comes home to talk about this negative experience or this mean thing that's happening, we can decide what to do with our instinct to care for our kid, right? We can decide if that's a moment to protect.

So I can share what not to do: don't elevate your worry or focus in that moment on the negative, right? And that's a moment to be curious and to monitor for your own overreacting. Because, you know, sometimes that overreacting and expressing that worry or concern in front of your child can be actually counterproductive to your child's development. And it might not be what they need in that moment. So, sort of back to the science, human brains are trained to remember negative experiences more than they are positive ones. Negative experiences require more negative emotions and involve more thinking. And it's actually been proven, like MRI studies show that there's more activity in the orbital frontal cortex (I can't believe I just said that word successfully) and the amygdala (I did that one, too, that's two in a row), you know, the two emotion-processing regions of your brain, there's like more stuff going on, more activity after a negative experience. So we think about and process, mentally and emotionally, negative stuff more because back in the day, that's how we learned to survive. So when your kid comes home and talks about this negative experience, then it's our job to figure out, like, okay, does our kid need to process that or do they need protection?

Emma (23:39):
Yeah. So it's our job as grown-ups to discern—this is such an important skill in life, and maybe especially in life with little children—to discern what they need because there is this emotional response happening for us and for the child. Luckily, we benefit from many more years of maturation, lots and lots more experience, and the capacity to calm ourselves down, hopefully, but more successfully than little children can. And so we need to take a minute and find out what is happening and then help figure out: what can the child do about it? Again, guiding toward that sense of significance and control and autonomy for a child is going to be really effective and powerful in terms of coaching them to build skills that'll be useful.

And in particular, I want to share that sometimes this mammalian instinct that Jij was just talking about can sometimes work against us when we start seeking negative experiences. So we're worried, very naturally, about what's happening for our child, say at recess, and we want to find out if anything bad happened at recess. And so the child gets in the car at the end of the day and you say, "Did anything bad happen at recess?" And it seems like a good question, right? Coming from concern and wanting to check in. But, in fact, we have a label for this in education; it's called interviewing for pain. And it's giving a child a message that there is something to be feared or something negative that is happening, that you care about it and want to hear about it, like that that's something that is important to you as their parent or caregiver, and so then you can be training them, inadvertently, to go around with whatever the opposite of rose-colored glasses might be, whatever color that is. And it also gives them the sense that maybe they don't have control over those negative things in their life because you're sort of calling them up for them every day. And so I think it's important that we take a moment to separate, as much as we can, our own feelings and worries from the coaching that we're giving our kids around social troubles.

Conor (25:48):
Well, that sounds really good. You guys really know your stuff.

Emma (25:50):
Or we sound like it.

Conor (25:52):
Hey, either way.

Emma (25:54):
Okay, so here's the part everybody looks forward to in a princiPALS podcast, which is homework. Okay, what do we do? What can we practice? How do we help kids?

So the first piece is probably familiar to fans of the podcast, which is sort of related to the survey-the-scene advice that we've given in other episodes, and it's: if you get a report of bullying, like if your child uses that word or is repeatedly talking about a friend being mean, the first thing you do is ask questions to develop specific understanding of what's been happening. And we would ask that you assume that you don't have the full picture, and also probably that your child, especially your younger child, doesn't have the full picture. But even, you know, even as an adult, I have social interactions where I have understood a thing one way, and it turned out the other person in that situation understood it a different way, and the only way I figured that out was by checking in with them, right? So that's a skill I've learned as a grown person because people around me coached me into it because they knew I didn't have the full information, right? So we've got to assume you don't have it, and your child probably doesn't, so you can loop in the next person who's probably got more information, which is your child's teacher. And that's a good first place to start with a question.

Jij (27:08):
Second bit of homework is: make sure that your child knows what it means to be a good friend. And that's just good parenting, right? Talk about what friendship looks like, model what good friendship looks like, highlight for them times when you are noticing that they're being a good friend. And oftentimes kids at school these days are having social-emotional learning as part of their school experience, so you can reference strategies or ideas from school.

Emma (27:39):
Another thing you can do, and this is sort of related to the first point, but I just want to call it out as extra special homework, is: partner with your kids and the school as, like, a kind of a three-legged stool in support of your child, of course, but all the kids. Right? All the children in the community are children that we care about. And one way that we ask families to do this is by giving everybody the gift of a growth mindset. And knowing that, if a child is being mean, it doesn't mean they are a mean human, right? They have mean behaviors, they're being mean in this moment, but, you know, the hope is that they're going to stop being mean and they're not going to be mean all the time in their life because we're going to help them with that.

Jij (28:24):
And the last thing is just: establish and maintain open communication with your child. Right? And this is, especially in the early childhood/elementary years, establishing that great communication with your child, and the right kind of communication, right? Like, not the interviewing-for-pain type of communication, but the, you know, asking your child about the full range of their experiences at school. This is important because, well, when they leave the elementary years and get into more complicated and dynamic years—middle school, high school—that foundation of clear communication with your child is going to be really important.

Conor (29:06):
So this is another great example of, you know, just the princiPALS coming forward with some great information to help parents and children. But we should say that we might be a princiPAL down going forward because Jij de Jesus is going to be leaving Rowland Hall for another opportunity. Jij, do you want to tell our loyal listeners?

Jij (29:31):
Of course I do. I'll be going to a wonderful school in Santa Monica called PS1 Pluralistic School, and I will dearly miss the Rowland Hall community and also the opportunity to share insights with families, parents at home via this podcast. So, I don't know, maybe I can figure out a way to hang on here.

Emma (29:58):
Well, now that we've learned to do a virtual princiPALS podcast, I think it'll be easy to have you on as a guest speaker, Jij, because we will surely miss your insight and your unparalleled humor.

Conor (30:11):
No, I would say there's always room in the virtual princiPALS' office for Jij, and we know that that school is very fortunate to have you, Jij, and we will miss you. But again, there's nothing that says you can't be a guest because Emma and I will still be here. And you know what? We may make some more friends. And isn't that what this episode is about? To making friends and getting to know new people? And you know what? We may have some new fun princiPALS that—

Emma (30:39):
New pals palin' around.

Conor (30:42):
We want to pal around. So, you know, we look forward to what comes next with The PrinciPALS Podcast. But know the princiPALS will return in one way or another.

Emma (30:52):
Happy summer, everybody.

Conor (30:55):
And with that, that is the end of this episode. There are going to be resources on the website at rowlandhall.org/podcast, so check out those resources there. And until next time, I'm Conor Bentley.

Jij (31:10):
I'm Jij de Jesus.

Emma (31:11):
I'm Emma Wellman.

Conor (31:13):
And they're the princiPALS.


About Jij de Jesus
Jij de Jesus is the Lower School principal at Rowland Hall, an independent private school in Salt Lake City, Utah. Prior to Rowland Hall, Jij worked at Town School for Boys in San Francisco, where he held a number of leadership positions, most notably as director of the Exploration of New Ideas program, and was a fourth-grade teacher. He began his career in experiential education by leading wilderness trips. Jij holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from Northwestern University and a master’s of education in private school leadership from the University of Hawaii.

About Emma Wellman
Emma Wellman is the Beginning School principal at Rowland Hall. Emma joined Rowland Hall in July 2018 after working as a teacher and administrator at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Emma has also been an adjunct instructor at the City Colleges of Chicago and the owner of a childcare business, Banana Mashers. She holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of Michigan and a master’s in child development from the Erikson Institute.

About Conor Bentley ’01
Conor Bentley is a graduate of Rowland Hall’s class of 2001. He holds a master’s degree in education, works in higher education, and has produced several podcasts, including the public-radio parody
Consider Our Knowledge.

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