Kids Told to Shun Classmates to Show How Bullying Feels

Can an experiment in purposeful shunning help end bullying? Photo: Getty ImagesSome kids at a Colorado Springs, Colorado, elementary school are ignoring their classmates this week—on orders of their very own principal. It’s all part of a new antibullying campaign meant to build empathy, though it’s stirring up a bit of controversy among parents, too.

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“We are putting the students in a situation where they can experience what it's like to be left out,” the principal of public charter school James Madison Charter Academy, Anne Shearer-Shineman, tells KKTV. “They will have more insight into things that they might be doing to others that they don’t realize that they're doing.”

To that end, kids in fourth through sixth grade have been taking turns wearing special stickers on their collars to indicate that they are to be shunned by classmates. According to the rules of the exercise, students are not allowed to tease or be mean to those wearing the stickers. Still, at least one mom was angry that her already-bullied son was being subjected to more pain. “They've got a good heart behind it, it's just being approached in a very misguided way,” the parent, Johanna Myers, tells KKTV. (Myers did not immediately return a call seeking comment from Yahoo Shine.)

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Bullying experts give the exercise mixed reviews. “The experience of being ignored or shunned is an incredibly powerful one,” Jaana Juvonen, a professor of developmental psychology at UCLA who has focused recent research on bullying, tells Yahoo Shine. She adds that the principal’s intent is “so taken” but likens her approach to the famous “blue-eyed/brown-eyed” social experiment of 1968, in which Iowa third-grade teacher Jane Elliott divided her class into groups based on eye color to teach them lessons about discrimination. And in that respect, it raises concerns.

“While most agree that the intent behind the experiment was good, the ethics and impact are debated,” Juvonen says. “The Colorado idea sounds similar, except [in this case] it’s individually based, so there’s no comfort in the shared plight. Also, when just a couple of children experience this for an entire school day it can be traumatic, especially for those who are more sensitive in general or for those who are already bullied.”

Additionally, she notes, feeling excluded might, ironically, lead to some kids to become angry or resentful, possibly fueling the fire for bullies and further hurting those who get bullied. “Then the very good intent backfires in many ways,” she says, adding that overall, the experiment sounds “too extreme.”

Antibullying trainer and retired New York school principal Jim Dillon agrees that the exercise is coming from a caring place, and also understands why some parents are being critical. “I have a lot of empathy for principals, and it’s very difficult to make any decision that everyone is going to be OK with,” Dillon, author of “No Place for Bullying: Leadership for Schools That Care for Every Student,” tells Yahoo Shine. “Whenever you try something new, you’re going to get people who are critical, because they’re not used to it. So you almost have to overcommunicate it, and let people know that they can opt out if they choose.”

Because bullying is “insidious,” with research showing that maybe 5 percent of it actually gets observed by adults, he says, building empathy for those students who could be targets of bullying is a good approach to take. “Role plays are useful tools for helping kids understand what’s going on in a bullying situation,” he notes, “and follow-up discussions are important, too, so that the feelings involved can be articulated and understood.” Dillon adds that in general, teachers should be aware of which students are already getting bullied and should get a pass on wearing the sticker.

Finally, he says, it’s important that students be given ways to deal with bullying when they see it, and that they’ve been given opportunities to create trusting relationships with teachers. “I think kids are wired for empathy, but if not given skills and knowledge about how to act on it, then it can fade over time. Which is sad.” 

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