Kent County

School counselors: Overuse of word 'bullying' problematic

GRANDVILLE, Mich. (WOOD) — Two weeks after a controversial school flyer about bullying angered parents at a Calhoun County school, counselors in another West Michigan district weighed in on the debate. 

Turns out, a lot of schools are trying to help students differentiate between bullying and plain old rude or mean behavior. 

“If everything’s bullying, I just fear (students) won’t learn how to help themselves, how to manage conflict,” explained Lori Koza, a mental health coordinator at Grandville Public Schools. 

Koza collaborated with another school counselor at Grandville on a message published in the district’s October newsletter. 

The front-page column is titled, “Managing Conflict” and subtitled “Bullying vs. Being Mean: What’s the Difference?” 

“We put it out there because we do see kids who – their feelings are hurt by something – but they don’t know how to speak up for themselves or advocate for themselves or have those conversations,” said Anyssa Grendel, the counselor who authored the message with Koza. 

“Kids are going to have arguments and disagreements in schools and we want to empower students to be able to address them and stand up for themselves,” added Grendel. 

Both counselors worry, too, that calling everything bullying desensitizes students to the real thing. 

“The actual word ‘bullying,’ I think in society now, is an umbrella term for anything hurtful or unkind,” said Koza. “Unfortunately, it takes away from real, true, hurtful, harmful bullying.” 

Koza and Grendel fear overuse of the word “bullying” will make it harder for students to recognize signs that someone’s in real trouble and needs immediate help. 

“Bullying is intentional. It’s chronic. It’s ongoing. It’s meant to cause mental, physical and emotional pain,” explained Grendel. 

It also involves an imbalance of power and, if left unaddressed, can be devastating. 

“It damages self-worth and self-esteem,” said Koza. “It can damage a student’s ability to come to school and learn. It creates unsafe environments for students.” 

The message in the newsletter made it clear that students and parents should report bullying right away. 

“If a child is scared and being bullied,” the message reads, “conflict resolution should not be attempted. We ask that students and parents always contact a principal to report bullying and mean behavior.” 

However, when it comes to minor conflicts, for instance a rude comment, Koza and Grendel hope parents will encourage students to empathize with the other student and talk to them about their feelings. 

“We want to teach kids to be empathetic and understand maybe not take everything so personally, but recognize when someone’s being unkind, there’s usually something going on underneath,” explained Grendel. 

‘We want kids to be able to say, ‘wow, that was really rude or unkind of you, is there something going on that I can help you with? What’s going on with you?” 

Grendel and Koza said parents are sometimes quick to try to rescue their children when they could be empowering them to work through the conflict. 

“They’re going to have that as adults,” said Grendel. “We’re going to have people as adults be rude to us, mean to us and unkind. We want to teach (children) those (resolution) skills now.” 

The counselors said technology like social media, video games and digital devices make it even harder for kids to develop the social skills that allow them to communicate effectively in person. 

“Cyberbullying is rampant these days because it’s really easy to say something, hit send and not see a human reaction,” explained Koza. “Unfortunately, I think often it’s rewarded with likes or ‘haha, that was funny’ and so our mean behavior (online) gets rewarded.” 

The column in the Grandville Bulldogs newsletter listed the definitions of rude, mean and bullying. 

It also listed specific tips for how to handle the less serious conflicts: 

  • Rude: Inadvertently saying or doing something that hurts someone else 
  • Mean: Purposefully saying or doing something to hurt someone 
  • Bullying: Intentionally aggressive words or actions toward the same person, repeated over time, that involves an imbalance of power 
  • Tips for Being Assertive and Resolving Minor Conflicts 
  • Identify and state what you are feeling 
  • Make clear, concise requests 
  • Be a good listener and collaborator 
  • Take turns talking 
  • Compromise 
  • Avoid the need to “win,” be right or blame others 
  • Walk away if a disagreement escalates 

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