What causes a child to bully other children? It seems natural to wonder about it. Some speculate it is low self-esteem. Other research tells us that many bullies have plenty of self-esteem. I’ve heard people say that bullies bully because “they can”. I don’t think that tells us a lot. I’m thinking of one child I met back in 1999. This situation may not apply to all bullies, but I think it is worth examining.
I became aware of Dean through my conversations with his teacher, Mrs. H. I was working as a teacher in a local elementary school. I ran a resource room for Emotionally Impaired (EI) students. My resource room was located across the hall from her classroom. Mrs. H. would stop me often, stating that a student in her first grade class was close to forcing her to give up teaching. She described her frustration to me vividly. “I can’t teach with this boy in my class,” she would say. “That boy is going to drive me nuts.” She stated that she spent much of her time correcting his behavior.
Dean would often interrupt her lessons with questions. He often moved about the room without permission. He talked with peers incessantly. He would, according to Mrs. H., push other students when standing in line. Recess and lunch time were occasions to “goof off” and behave aggressively. Other students were avoiding Dean and joining in Mrs. H.’s disapproval for him and his behavior. I half expected to see a monster.
I met Dean in the hall one day. Mrs. H. pointed him out to me as Dean was filing in from his bus ride. He was bundled in a green hooded winter coat. He was smaller than I expected. I stopped him and introduced myself. “Guess what?” he beamed. “My guinea pigs had babies.” He seemed very warm and enthusiastic, unlike the child that she described. I agreed to have him come to my room when he failed to follow the classroom expectations. I eventually ended up spending most of my days with him.
Mrs. H. reported that Dean was doing fine academically but I had my suspicions. While he was fairly good at “sight” words, he labored over blending the sounds in unfamiliar words. That is another story. I knew that Dean did not like being seated during instruction. When I worked with him, I tried my best to let him move around. We incorporated movement as part of our lessons. He seemed to enjoy learning this way. I quickly became fond of Dean and his enthusiasm. His interruptions seemed too passionate and full of curiosity for me to take offense. I think he became aware that I enjoyed his company. He quickly made progress.
While Dean’s reading skills continued to improve, his behavior at lunchtime, recess, and bus rides home were still a problem. I was baffled. He would step on loose shoe laces or jostle other students. I got some insight into this while walking through the hallways with Dean. His fellow students would often look to me and tell me that Dean was “bad” or that Dean had misbehaved that morning. Dean would become indignant, saying, “nuh-uh” in protest. I simply responded that “I see Dean doing very well right now.”
Dean was spending more and more time with me. He would have several successful hours in class only to misbehave in a serious and potentially harmful way to other students. For instance, he would push a child down the slide at recess if he wanted to use the slide himself. As an only child, I suspected that Dean did not have practice sharing with others. He certainly showed no empathy in these situations. Despite many serious discussions, Dean would often miss the mark with his behavior. At an IEPC meeting the team decided that Dean would spend his entire day in my resource room. I felt very disappointed that he would not be with his peers.
One day, after carefully preparing–so I thought–Dean for recess, he returned to my room with a note stating that he pushed a boy in a mud puddle. In my confusion and disappointment I asked “why?” and “when will it stop?” I gave Dean a box of crayons and several pieces of unlined white paper. I asked him to draw a picture of himself feeling what he felt at the moment, his house, and his family. What he drew that day opened a door for us. He drew a picture of himself in the center of the paper. There was no ground beneath him. He drew no arms. I wrote his words in the margins next to the picture. He said he felt “bad” and “sad.” He, without my guidance, offered another picture of himself. He was all black with red eyes. Armored spikes covered his body. He looked like a warrior. He had a weapon at his side. “What is he like?” I asked. “Scary.” “How do the other children feel about him?” “They think he is cool,” Dean responded.
Dean drew two pictures of his family. He included his only parent, his mother. On his shoulder sat his guinea pigs. They were all smiling. He also drew a picture of his couch, living room, and fish tank. “We love the fish tank” he said. His last picture was a chaotic and violent scene. He scribbled in black around a figure of his mother being thrown into a wall. An ominous figure, named Terry, was beating Dean’s mother. Terry had red eyes. Dean drew two pictures of himself in that scene. One showed him laying in bed. The other had him pointing a gun at Terry. He was holding a “Hungry Hippos” gun, pointing it at Terry. On the ground was debris. “These are the eagles Terry broke.” “They hurt my feet when I stepped on them.”
I confirmed that this event, in fact, happened three years earlier. Dean’s mother tearfully admitted that she had no idea that this had been bothering the child. Terry no longer lived in the home. Dean denied that Terry hit others, i.e., Dean, but I received information that suggested otherwise. Regardless, violence had helped Dean understand his world differently than others. I consulted the school psychologist, principal, and the entire special education staff. We held a meeting and Dean immediately engaged in counseling.
I told the staff all of what I knew. The violence, however, was only one important aspect of Dean’s experience. The entire milieu helped to shape his understanding of the world and his place in it. Dean did not know his father. His mother worked a full-time job. Dean had uncles who encourage him to fight when injustice comes his way. Dean’s teacher was stressed. Few adults had taken time to build a personal relationship with him at school. They did not know that Dean wanted to be a veterinarian so he could help repair all the broken eagles in the world. They had too often seen his behavior and not his heart.
I eventually left that school. Before I left, I tested Dean’s reading. He had advanced. At the time, he was spending most of his day with his peers in his own classroom. The staff had decided to forego the Emotionally Impaired label. Mrs. H. insisted that he stay in her classroom.
At the school’s entrance is a trophy case with pictures of all the staff members. I, having joined the staff later in the year, did not have my picture in the case. Dean would often notice the oversight and point it out to me. I would point to a poster of our national symbol and joke, “That’s me, Dean.” Delighted, he would say, “You’re not an eagle!” On my last day with the children, they threw me a party. Dean presented me with a book with messages from all the children. On the cover, Dean drew a bird flying over trees and toward a yellow and orange sunset. In his own hand is the message, “Fly with the eagles.”