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Getting the Balance Right to Help Avoid Incidences of Bullying

Beverley Paine

One of the things we need to keep in mind when planning activities is to anticipate the outcomes, taking into effect all of the factors at play, particularly social and environmental.

For example, on very windy days children display increased levels of nervous energy and may be more boisterous. Some may be anxious: this anxiety might show up as increased timidity or sensitivity, or it could translate into aggressive behaviour. I've chatted to teachers about this effect of the weather on students and the need to change the tone and nature of activities. We've all witnessed the creeping boredom that sets in when the weather has been dull and rainy for days on end, or the total lack of motivation when it comes to a sustained heat wave.

It is easy to acknowledge how heat, cold or wind can change how children react to social stimuli or learning: less obvious are things like noise. A drumming workshop is definitely going to get energy levels high and boisterous. Noise-sensitive children, on the other hand, could end up feeling wiped without knowing why.

Scents and smells can also affect the way children behave and react: for example, a stale, stuffy environment will eventually make most people irritable and less tolerant. Smells that are unpleasant or overbearing can have the same effect, such as exhaust fumes if playing in a playground near a busy road. Most of us don't notice these subtle effects but for some children/people they can be triggers. Aggressive behaviour can result from not being able to get away from triggers that are causing discomfort. I only became aware of this trend in myself as an adult. As a child my agitated behaviour was misread by my parents and I was scolded or punished.

It is up to the parents and adults to create and maintain environments in which children feel safe and secure. It's not easy, nowhere near as easy as we're led to believe. We can't just put a bunch of children together and expect them to play nicely in any old circumstances. Supervision involves not only watching the children and intervening when something starts to happen, but pro-actively intervening before the activity, by anticipating need.

One of my most enduring lessons as a young mother was working out that if I took my toddler to a party and she stayed up late, in an environment with lots of different noises, smells and faces to experience (and learn), she'd be exhausted for a day a two, which for a toddler means crankiness and tantrums... Funny thing was, I felt much the same way but used to blame my child's behaviour, not the over-stimulation of my senses the night before.

Children also need time to assimilate their social experiences. After an exciting physical and loud experience, help to calm the children with half an hour of a quiet, structured and supervised activity such as a group game. Include the parents. This brings everyone together and helps build as sense of belonging within the group, and no one is left feeling excluded. Balance busy social days or sleepovers with plenty of quiet days at home with just mum and dad and siblings.

Rough and tumble play with mixed age groups without close supervision by parents can be a recipe for injury. Older children (and even playful adults) often miss the cues that signal when the play has escalated pass the safe point for younger, smaller or less experienced children. Children who are used to each other play differently together - they know how far they can go before upsetting each other. Humans tend to be overconfident about their ability and perceptions. It is up to us older, wiser and more experienced humans to help our children learn these lessons!

Introducing new children, or new elements such as a novel setting, can also inadvertently trigger conflict. Children are more likely to run into trouble or encounter problems because they are unaware of the need to be more careful. I'm all for close supervision - even if that means 'hovering' - when there are mixed age groups or new elements. We tend to overestimate our children's abilities to handle new situations, which includes what happens when someone gets hurt or upset. We assume they will know what to do, or that they will handle it the way they do at home. But there are different social dynamics at play and everyone behaves differently when there are other people (not just family) around. Our children are learning social skills and they need protection, mentoring and guidance. Hence the need for ongoing and close supervision.

I have to admit I found it hard to be properly attentive to my children while enjoying conversations with friends: homeschool activities and group gatherings were probably more important for my social life than they were for my children! I think we're lucky as homeschooling parents because we get to spend so much more time with our children and that helps us to tune into their needs. We seem to instinctively know when our children need our attention. I think it is okay for parents to intervene in respectful and non-intrusive ways to keep play safe or to head off potential problems. Our first duty is to ensure our own children's needs are met, but we are also responsible for the safety and wellbeing of all the children present. Watching out and making sure that children's play isn't escalating in such as way that it is hurting or upsetting anyone is an important part of belonging to a homeschool group. Often it is sufficient to gently remind the children that you are being attentive to their behaviour and expect them to respect each others' needs when playing. Don't leave it to the group leader to intervene and talk to the other parents. Make it a habit to remind everyone that it is important for the parents to keep an eye on all the children and stop any inappropriate behaviour before it escalates. I firmly believe the world would be a much nicer place if there were more attentive adults 'hovering' around children in school playgrounds!

However, it is also important not to smother children. Allow them explore different games and ways of playing. 'Hovering' attentively is different from smothering or restricting children, or not allowing them to experience games you would not normally encourage them to play. Talk to your children about why you don't like those sorts of games. Children respond well to sensible and logical reasons - though you'll need to catch them before they get tired and grumpy. This often means making sure that play sessions last no longer than the children's energy does, no matter how tempting it is to stay and chat or play for another hour or two!

If you are new to the group, make sure you introduce yourself and stay fairly close to your children for the first few sessions. If you hover near the games being played, watching attentively and taking an interest, your children will feel more secure about joining in the fun. Introduce your children and ask the other children to help them feel welcome and look out for them as they don't know all the rules yet. Home-educated children have shown themselves to be able to handle this responsibility very well if it's expected of them.

Other articles in this series on Bullying and Home Education by Beverley Paine

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Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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