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bullying

Cyberbullying and Autism Spectrum Disorders

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Yvonne M. Asher, Ph.D. 
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

I recently had the opportunity to attend a webinar by Justin Patchin, Ph.D., one of the foremost cyberbullying researchers. I have used his work myself in designing both my master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation research, so it was wonderful to hear him speak. He began with a story about his childhood and some of the rules he was taught – don’t meet up with strangers that you meet online, don’t get into anyone’s car if you don’t know them well – lessons I was also taught as a child. These are the kind of rules that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often crave – black and white, clear, no middle ground. The online world, he argued, does not allow for such stark and rigid rules. Rather, he says, it calls for “guidelines.” Working with children with ASD, when I hear “guidelines,” I think, “grey,” “fuzzy,” and “it depends.” These can be some of the toughest situations for an individual who is not neurotypical.

I think he’s right. The online world is fast, fluid, ever-changing, and highly dependent on specific circumstances. It calls for the kind of flexible thinking and evaluation of context that kids with ASD are so often challenged by. Yet, as the adults parenting, educating, and supporting these young people, these are exactly the skills that they need. The online world is not going anywhere anytime soon, and it is not likely to slow down either.

Cyberbullying is one of the difficult online phenomena to manage, as youth who are bullied online are most frequently also bullied in “real life,” usually at school. The bullies are often peers they know and must see on a regular basis. For children with social challenges, navigating bullying that is occurring across settings is an especially difficult task. And the solution is not to take away technology. Now more than ever, children need access to technology for homework, classwork, enjoyable peer activities, and hobbies. Where does that leave us?

Unfortunately, Dr. Patchin did not give any practical advice for how to support individuals with autism around cyberbullying. I think that one important starting point is to help these individuals learn to check in with themselves. Time and time again, I hear from students, “I’m not really sure what was going on, but I think they were being mean.” (In fact, I hear this from children who are decidedly not on the autism spectrum, especially when bullying is occurring by older peers.) Bullying is hurtful (intentionally so), and recognizing that hurt is an important first step. Once children and adolescents identify that something is hurtful, adults can help and support them in navigating through the situation.

Whether bullying, cyberbullying, or a misunderstanding, it is important for adults to listen carefully when children come to us with social concerns. In addition, we must have a solid understanding of the online world in which students are living, learning, and engaging. Social media shifts rapidly, with new platforms becoming wildly popular in a matter of weeks. Working with youth requires us to keep as current as we can, making certain that we understand the “ins and outs” of each platform. It is also incumbent upon us to ensure that all children and adolescents (not just those with an autism diagnosis) learn guidelines that will allow them to safely make their way through a constantly evolving world of platforms, apps, and services. Safety online is as critical as safety in person.

 

About the Author

Dr. Yvonne M. Asher enjoys working with a wide range of children and teens, including those with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, learning disabilities, attention difficulties and executive functioning challenges. She often works with children whose complex profiles are not easily captured by a single label or diagnosis. She particularly enjoys working with young children and helping parents through their “first touch” with mental health care or developmental concerns.

Dr. Asher’s approach to assessment is gentle and supportive, and recognizes the importance of building rapport and trust. When working with young children, Dr. Asher incorporates play and “games” that allow children to complete standardized assessments in a fun and engaging environment.

Dr. Asher has extensive experience working in public, charter and religious schools, both as a classroom teacher and psychologist. She holds a master’s degree in education and continues to love working with educators. As a psychologist working in public schools, she gained invaluable experience with the IEP process from start to finish. She incorporates both her educational and psychological training when formulating recommendations to school teams.

Dr. Asher attended Swarthmore College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She completed her doctoral degree at Suffolk University, where her dissertation looked at the impact of starting middle school on children’s social and emotional wellbeing. After graduating, she completed an intensive fellowship at the MGH Lurie Center for Autism, where she worked with a wide range of children, adolescents and young adults with autism and related disorders.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

To book an appointment with Dr. Yvonne Asher, please complete our Intake Form today. For more information about NESCA, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

When is it Actually Bullying?

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By Yvonne M. Asher, Ph.D. 
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

Autumn holds excitement for many students – heading back to school to see old friends, meet new teachers and learn new skills. However, for some, a new school year holds more apprehension than enthusiasm. Students worry that their teacher will be mean, their math homework will be hard or that their recess time cut short by bad weather. One fear that is described more and more often by parents and children is the fear of bullying.

What is bullying?

There is no single definition of bullying, but most researchers describe the following necessary and sufficient characteristics:

  • unwanted, intentionally aggressive behavior that is aimed at harming another person
  • carried out repeatedly
  • in a relationship where there is a power differential

The quintessential example of this is the hulking, five-foot-five elementary schooler who pushes, shoves and steals the lunch money of a short, scrawny younger child every day. Luckily, this kind of aggression is rare; however, the rarity of “classic” bullying requires us to be somewhat more mindful of what childhood behaviors are (and, are not) considered bullying.

First and foremost, behavior must be unwanted and intended to harm. This means that the rambunctious children rough-housing on the playground is generally not a bullying situation. Playful acts, or acts with the intent of friendly, physical play, are not bullying. Certainly, there are times when children may misunderstand the intent of their peers or friends and perceive an action as hurtful. In that case, a frank discussion of intended message versus experienced consequence is required, but there is no immediate concern for bullying. If a child did not intend to hurt their peer, bullying is not the issue.

When researchers use the term “aggressive behavior,” it should be clarified that aggression is not always physical. Aggression comes in three forms: physical, verbal and relational. Physical aggression is exactly what you are imagining – punching, kicking, hitting and similar behaviors. This kind of aggression occurs in very young children (think: toddlers), most often as a means of communication due to their limited verbal skills. By early childhood, kids rarely use physical aggression to communicate, as most children are able to talk and verbalize their wants, needs and feelings.

The second type of aggression is verbal aggression. This can involve things like yelling, screaming, swearing, threatening and name-calling. This kind of aggression occurs throughout childhood and adolescence, with the frequency decreasing as children mature.

The last form of aggression is the most complex. It is called relational aggression. Researcher Nicki Crick defined relational aggression as any act that uses the social relationships, social standing or social experiences of an individual to harm them. The stereotypical examples of relational aggression come from films like Mean Girls. Gossip, social exclusion, humiliation, embarrassment, rumor spreading and intentional ignoring are all examples of behaviors that fall into the category of relational aggression. This frequency of relational aggression generally increases as children develop, as relational aggression requires more sophisticated verbal and social skills to carry out. In addition, relational aggression is rarely noticed by adults and often does not carry the same disciplinary consequences as physical or verbal aggression. Children learn quickly that refusing to play with a peer or spreading a nasty rumor is unlikely to get them “in trouble,” making this type of aggression far more effective for older children and adolescents.

It is important to note that both boys and girls engage in aggressive behavior. Girls tend to start using relational aggression younger, and use it consistently throughout their lives. Boys tend to start out using physical aggression, and shift to relational aggression as they mature. However, both boys and girls engage in aggressive behavior at all developmental stages.

Back to our definition of bullying – the next element is “happens repeatedly.” Bullying is not a one-time occurrence. The behavior, or harm caused by the behavior, must happen over and over. Two children who are angry and get into a fight in the cafeteria may well be intending to harm one another. However, if the fight is a one-time occurrence, there is no immediate concern for bullying. One challenging aspect of this part of the definition is how we handle online or cyberbullying (i.e., bullying that happens through electronic media such as text or social media). Because posts to social media, texts and images online can be viewed multiple times by multiple people, a single act carried out online may meet the definition of bullying. For example, posting a message that conveys a nasty rumor about a peer to one classmate’s profile can have untold impact on the victim’s social relationships depending on how many times that post is forwarded, tagged, “liked,” discussed or otherwise shared across the social network.

The last part of the definition of bullying is that it occurs “in a relationship where there is a power differential.” Power differentials exist in many relationships – parent/child, teacher/student, employer/employee, landlord/renter, therapist/patient and so on. In children, power differentials may exist when a child is:

  • older
  • physically larger
  • more popular
  • more socially skilled

While this is not an exhaustive list, these are the most common situations where we find power differentials in children. Without a power differential present in the relationship, bullying is not an immediate concern. It is not uncommon for children to have challenges in their friendships, such as teasing, unwanted horseplay, sitting with other friends at lunch and choosing to work with a different partner on a project. However, these challenges typically do not meet the “power differential” criterion of bullying. They are better defined as normal, healthy obstacles in relationships that, when worked through productively, can help children develop more sophisticated social problem-solving skills.

What to do when it is bullying

We’ve discussed many examples of what is not bullying, so what should happen when behaviors are best characterized as bullying? First and foremost, assess your child’s safety. If physical aggression is part of the bullying, consider immediate action, such as talking to your child’s teacher or school administrator. Note that bullying is now a legal matter in many states, including Massachusetts. When talking to your child, remember that bullying comes with plenty of shame and anxiety, so make every effort to ask simple, clear, direct questions with as calm a tone as possible.

If your child’s safety is not a primary concern, ask your child if they want your help to solve the problem. If so, consider helping your child map out the social dynamics of what is happening. Who is saying what? To whom? Is it just you who is the victim, or are the bullies doing the same thing to other children? Does the teacher notice? If so, do the bullies get in trouble? Depending on the answers, help your child work toward a strategy to solve the problem. Younger children may require more adult intervention, such as a parent reaching out to the teacher. Older children and adolescents may be able to try out problem-solving strategies independently, with your support at home.

If your child does not want your help, consider letting them try to solve the problem on their own. Remind them that you love and trust them, and have confidence in their ability to figure out tough situations. Encourage your child to participate in other social activities where they experience more positive interactions, such as martial arts, Girl or Boy Scouts, team sports or clubs outside of school. Having strong, positive friendships is one of the most important resiliency factors when a child is the victim of bullying.

It may help to know that upwards of 90% of adults report having been the victim of bullying at least once in their lifetime. Interestingly, over 70% also report having bullied someone else.

 

About Pediatric Neuropsychologist Dr. Yvonne Asher:

Dr. Yvonne M. Asher enjoys working with a wide range of children and teens, including those with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, learning disabilities, attention difficulties and executive functioning challenges. She often works with children whose complex profiles are not easily captured by a single label or diagnosis. She particularly enjoys working with young children and helping parents through their “first touch” with mental health care or developmental concerns.

Dr. Asher’s approach to assessment is gentle and supportive, and recognizes the importance of building rapport and trust. When working with young children, Dr. Asher incorporates play and “games” that allow children to complete standardized assessments in a fun and engaging environment.

Dr. Asher has extensive experience working in public, charter and religious schools, both as a classroom teacher and psychologist. She holds a master’s degree in education and continues to love working with educators. As a psychologist working in public schools, she gained invaluable experience with the IEP process from start to finish. She incorporates both her educational and psychological training when formulating recommendations to school teams.

Dr. Asher attended Swarthmore College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She completed her doctoral degree at Suffolk University, where her dissertation looked at the impact of starting middle school on children’s social and emotional wellbeing. After graduating, she completed an intensive fellowship at the MGH Lurie Center for Autism, where she worked with a wide range of children, adolescents and young adults with autism and related disorders.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

To book an appointment with Dr. Yvonne Asher, please complete our Intake Form today. For more information about NESCA, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Education for Life: Social Emotional Learning

By | NESCA Notes 2018

 

By:  Nancy Roosa, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

The agonizing discussion around the tragedy of school shootings – happening on a weekly basis in this country — too often devolves into a polarized argument about whether the main problem is guns OR mental health. The argument seems moot, since BOTH access to a firearm and mental health problems have to come together – in one troubled individual – to result in one of these large-scale school massacres. Therefore, while the discussion about gun control is an important one, I’m going to leave that for another forum. In this blog, in my role as a psychologist, I’d like to focus on how we can improve the mental health of our children.

There is no clear answer as to why some students choose to go on a deadly rampage against members of their own community – the peers and adults they spend time with every day – although clearly something has gone very wrong for them in that community. Some research does link bullying and social isolation to school shootings. The U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education in a 2004 report found that “almost three-quarters of the (school shooting) attackers felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others prior to the incident. In several cases, individual attackers had experienced bullying and harassment that was long-standing and severe. In some cases, the experience of being bullied seemed to have a significant impact on the attacker and appeared to have been a factor in his decision to mount an attack at the school.”

I do not want to blame the victims, by somehow implying that the social environments at Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland and Santa Fe – and all the other sites of horrific massacres – were particularly cruel or harsh. We know that some students at every school feel ostracized and alone, and some are also coping with other serious life stresses, i.e. living in families stressed by poverty, addiction, and/or mental health challenges. But just because this is commonplace doesn’t mean we should accept it. Our society needs a stronger safety net, so that all children are safely housed, well fed and emotionally nurtured in their families, outside of school.

In addition, schools are increasingly recognizing their part in raising the next generation of emotionally mature and secure individuals, and many are attempting to include “social-emotional learning (SEL)” in the curriculum. But while everyone might agree that SEL is a good idea, few people seem to know how to teach it. A recent study by the nonprofit organization CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) found that 83% of principals believe that social-emotional learning is important and a full 95% say they are committed to developing their students’ social and emotional skills. However, only 38% of them had a plan for implementing such learning. Clearly the importance of SEL has been recognized, but doing it well – or doing it at all – still leaves many educators at a loss. Implementing an effective SEL program does require substantial resources – time, money and expertise. Teachers and staff must be trained and then spend time and energy every day implementing the plan. How can we expect schools to find those additional resources when they are already underfunded for the many tasks they are currently charged with? Adding SEL effectively will require that we provide adequate funding to our schools.

Yet, some research shows that the resources invested in SEL bring a hefty payback, not just in social emotional health, which is clearly hard to measure, but also in students’ academic achievement. In 2011, a meta-analysis published in the journal Child Development found that students who participated in a well-implemented SEL program showed an 11 percent gain in academic achievement. In 2015, a study in the Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis found an $11 benefit for every $1 spent on a rigorous SEL program.

Here in Boston, we have our own success stories involving SEL. One local school, the Mildred Avenue K-8 School in Mattapan, was, 5 years ago, one of the district’s lowest performing schools, at risk of a takeover; now it’s classified as a “level 1” school, the highest category, based on student achievement. Last fall, they were awarded the coveted School on the Move prize by the nonprofit organization Edvestors, which has, for the past 12 years, awarded this prize to a school within the Boston public school district that has made the most progress, based on quantifiable data about student achievement. This school, as well as the other two finalists at this year’s award ceremony in November, highlighted that one important factor was implementing social-emotional learning across the curriculum. They also spoke about the importance of teacher empowerment and creating a sense of an inclusive community in their schools.

Clearly SEL works. Let’s look a bit more closely at what it involves. The cornerstone of SEL learning is gaining five essential skills and competencies, according to CASEL.
1. Self-awareness: recognizing and labeling one’s feelings and accurately identifying one’s strengths and limitations.
2. Self-management: regulating emotions, delaying gratification, managing stress, motivating oneself, and setting and working toward achieving goals.
3. Social awareness: showing empathy, taking others’ perspectives, and recognizing and mobilizing diverse and available supports.
4. Relationship skills: clear communication, active listening, cooperation, nonviolent and constructive conflict resolution, knowing when and how to be a good team player and leader.
5. Responsible decision making: making ethical choices based on consideration of feelings, goals, alternatives and outcomes, and planning and enacting solutions with potential obstacles anticipated.

This is an ambitious list, and we don’t expect these skills to be mastered by 10th grade along with the ability to write a 5-paragraph essay. These are skills that one can—and should!—spend a life time learning. But just pondering this list for a few minutes makes me realize that these are the qualities I value in the people I interact with—my colleagues, friends, and family members—and they are the main qualities that determine whether one lives a productive, satisfying life … much more so than one’s MCAS score.

Will implementing SEL in our schools stop all mass shootings? Sadly, probably not. But will it allow more of the next generation of Americans to grow into socially and emotionally competent individuals? I’d suspect that answer is yes. So let’s start the conversation about this – in every home, in every neighborhood, in every school. Let’s keep our Eyes on this Prize: educating every child for life.

There are a plethora of programs claiming to promote SEL, and a few important guides to distinguish among the programs. Anyone interested in learning how to implement an SEL program could start with one of the following guides. 
· The 2015 CASEL Guide: Effective Social and Emotional Learning Programs (CASEL.org). 
· How to Implement Social and Emotional Learning at Your School, by Maurice J. Elias, Edutopia, March 24, 2016.
· Selecting the Right SEL Program, by Leah Shafer, June 20, 2017. Harvard Graduate School of Education.

 

About the Author:

Roosa

Nancy Roosa, Psy.D. has been engaged in providing neuropsychological evaluations for children since 1997. She enjoys working with a range of children, particularly those with autism spectrum disorders, as well as children with attentional issues, executive function deficits, anxiety disorders, learning disabilities, or other social, emotional or behavioral problems.

Dr. Roosa’s evaluations are highly-individualized and comprehensive, integrating data obtained from a wide range of standardized assessment tools with information gained from history, input from parents, teachers and providers, and important observations gleaned from interacting with the child. Her approach to testing is playful and supportive.

Her evaluations are particularly useful for children with complex profiles and those whose presentations do not fit neatly into any one diagnostic box.

 

To book a consultation with Dr. Roosa or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form.

 

 

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.