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In Other Words: One Author’s Personal Journey to Address & Prevent Bullying

by Trudy Ludwig
October 11, 2012
I haven’t always been a children’s author. Previously, I was an advertising/marketing copywriter. I did this for about 15 years—even though I didn’t feel passionate about my craft. Don’t get me wrong. I knew I loved to write. I just didn’t love what I was writing.

My professional life shifted 11 years ago when my daughter, a second grader at the time, became the target of some bullying friends. It was one of those experiences that had a profound effect on both of us.

How do you explain to a 7-year-old…

… the complexity of friendships?
… why her best friends one day can become her worst enemies the next?
… how to gravitate to kids who can accept all the goodness she has to offer and give it back in kind?


I went into research mode to find out as much information as I could about relational aggression, a form of emotional bullying hidden within friendships that often goes below the radar of parents and teachers. I learned that relational aggression (i.e., gossiping, spreading rumors, intentional exclusion, the silent treatment, etc.) is evident as early as preschool and appears to peak in middle school. Researchers report that relational aggression is much more pervasive than physical aggression in our nation’s schools. Kids—both boys and girls—also find it more hurtful than physical aggression.

In my search for age-appropriate books to address the very real and rampant problem of social cruelty among peers, I came up empty-handed. Frustrated with this resource gap, I wrote MY SECRET BULLY (Riverwood Press, 2003) to help empower children to make healthier friendship choices. The outpour of positive reviews and heartfelt responses from young readers, parents, educators, and bullying prevention experts and organizations gave me the impetus to continue writing more books to help kids connect with their peers in helpful, rather than hurtful, ways.

Because the social world of today's children is very complex and difficult to navigate, I try to incorporate into my books the wisdom and insights of young readers who preview my stories, so that they resonate with the authenticity of real life experiences and views. I also collaborate with renowned experts in the field to ensure my messages of empowerment are on target with the latest bullying prevention research findings and practices. Equally important, I have the added pleasure of creatively tapping into my own inner child—letting her laugh, cry, and simply breathe. I've finally reached the point where I not only love to write, I truly love what I'm writing.

But writing stories is just one part of my job. I also spend a lot of time traveling throughout the US, presenting at conferences and in schools to provide children, educators, and parents with practical tips, tools, and resources to help them create safer, kinder school communities.

Turning Stories into Teachable Moments

Numerous studies have shown that literature—with proper adult guidance, supervision, and assistance—is an effective supplemental tool at home, in the classroom, and in the counseling practitioner’s office to build social-emotional learning (SEL) skills, teach empathy, and foster perspective in children.

In her book, TREATING CHILD AND ADOLESCENT AGGRESSION THROUGH BIBLIOTHERAPY (Springer, 2009), Dr. Zipora Shechtman states, “Through the imaginative process that reading involves, children have the opportunity to do what they often cannot do in real life—become thoroughly involved in the inner lives of others, better understand them, and eventually become more aware of themselves.” And the more competent children are in SEL skills, the more successful they will be in school and in life.

There is a wonderful Chinese proverb that I take to heart: “I listen and forget. I see and remember. I do and understand.”

When I present to children in elementary and middle schools, I don’t want the students to just listen to me as a guest speaker. I also want them to do activities with me to help them better connect with the characters in my books, with themselves and, most importantly, with each other. Some of my activities include:
  • the use of paper dolls for younger audiences to show how our words and actions can break down or build up the human spirit (click here to download a detailed description of this activity);
  • a bully web to show how bullying negatively affects the entire school community; and
  • a role-playing activity with my “Empower Tools,” as described in my sixth book, CONFESSIONS OF A FORMER BULLY (Tricycle Press, 2010). In this activity, I provide kids with a starter set of communication tools that allow them to respond to hurtful comments in nonviolent ways and to help them get away as quickly and as safely as possible, with their dignity intact.
photo: edenpictures via photopin cc
Adult-guided activities help instill critical thinking skills in children, getting them to understand and engage with the stories they read and with each other in constructive, pro-social ways. Role-playing scenarios, introspective essays, creative drawing/writing projects, and discussion questions are a few ways to accomplish this goal.

I also encourage teachers to visit authors’ or publishers’ websites for ready-made lesson plans. To see an example, take a look at the guide I recently penned to accompany R.J. Palacio’s WONDER (click here to download “Teaching WONDER with Trudy Ludwig”). Another option is to do a Google search on the Internet by entering the title of the book chosen for a class reading, followed by the words “lessons,” “activities,” or even “Teacher’s Guide.”

What I’ve Learned from School Visits & My Hopes for the Future

I’ve presented to tens of thousands of school children over the years and I continue to walk away from every author visit feeling reassured that most kids are decent and caring people. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Numerous experts including technology journalist and Internet Safety advocate Larry Magid and researchers Dr. Justin Patchin and Dr. Sameer Hinduja report that most kids think it’s uncool to be cruel—online or offline.

The reality is that kids make mistakes. Our job as caring adults is to help ensure they don’t keep repeating those mistakes and move forward in their lives in more positive, healthy ways. We need to be better role models, not only “talking the talk,” but “walking the walk” in modeling how to deal with those we encounter in life.

Last and equally important, we also need to drive the vital message home that every person—regardless of age, gender, physical appearance, sexual orientation, political or religious beliefs, race or ethnicity—has value. While we all may not agree with one anothers’ opinions, while we all may not end up being friends, we all deserve to have our presence acknowledged and to be treated in a civil and respectful manner.

References:

Committee for Children (2012). Why Social-Emotional Learning? Retrieved from: http://www.cfchildren.org/advocacy/social-emotional-learning.aspx

Hinduja, S.and Patchin, J. (2012). School climate 2.0: Preventing cyberbullying and sexting one classroom at a time. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Shechtman, Z. (2009). Treating child and adolescent aggression through bibliotherapy. New York: Springer: 26-37.

Trudy Ludwig is a member of Random House Speakers Bureau, a children’s advocate, and the bestselling author of seven books: MY SECRET BULLY, JUST KIDDING, SORRY!, TROUBLE TALK, TOO PERFECT, CONFESSIONS OF A FORMER BULLY, and BETTER THAN YOU. She is nationally recognized by educators, experts, organizations, and parents for her passion and compassion in addressing friendship, bullying, and cyberbullying issues. An active member of the International Bullying Prevention Association, Trudy collaborates with leading U.S. experts and organizations and has been profiled on national/regional television and radio and in newsprint. For more information, visit http://www.trudyludwig.com.

© 2012 Trudy Ludwig. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.
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