Are we raising a generation of couch potatoes? Parents say, “All my kid wants to do is sit on the couch and play video games or text on her phone.” Are kids lazy? Or is something else discouraging kids from participating in gym class or outdoor activities?
We already know that school bullying often occurs in the locker room, in the gym, or on the playing field, and can take the form of demeaning talk about a kid’s athletic skill (or lack), body shape, or sports clothes. When peers choose teams, everyone holds their breath, and the same kids are always the last to be picked. Even coaches can be part of the problem, making sarcastic comments or turning a blind eye to the “casual” putdowns of students.
This is just the tip of the iceberg – gym clothes have been tossed in toilets and worse, but for today, let’s focus on the less intense and more frequent “background” bullying.
A new study shows that even this less intense bullying can have far-reaching effects. Researchers at Brigham Young University looked at 100 kids, ages 9-12, over a 2 year period. They saw that kids who got “teased or bullied” in gym class or while playing sports became less active over time.
BTW, we wouldn’t call that “teasing.” We make a distinction between “teasing,” harmless, back-and-forth banter between friends and peers (equals), and “taunting” or “bullying,” intentionally hurtful criticism (out loud or silent), meant to demean or humiliate.
Bullying affected more than kids’ physical health. Kids who were routinely bullied also showed emotional damage, rating their quality of life lower than children who were not bullied. This is doubly problematic, as exercise is one of the easiest ways to boost the healthy brain chemicals that cure or lessen depression.
Interestingly, the BYU researchers found that both overweight AND healthy weight kids tended to pull away from sports after taunting. We’ve known that overweight kids are disproportionately bullied, but this is the first time we’re seeing the behavior-changing influence of bullying on healthy weight kids. Repeated bullying makes the problem worse. (See our earlier post on bullying and overweight, “The Weight Of The World On Heavyset Kids”)
We all have strengths and weaknesses, but kids (and adults) need to feel competent in several areas of life. Feeling scrutinized and criticized about their physical skills, coordination, or body shape may cause kids to shut down other, related areas of fitness and exercise. No dancing with friends, no casual hanging out at the park with a soccer ball, no going to the gym with friends, etc.
This might not sound so bad, BUT….These activities are all healthy stress relievers when the going gets tense in school and in life. Kids who don’t relieve their stress in healthy ways may seek less healthy avenues of stress and anxiety relief – unhealthy eating, drinking, drugging, cutting. Kids who are being bullied are under extra stress, in addition to the “normal” stress of middle and high school. More stress, fewer healthy avenues to work it out. Body image and self-esteem dip even lower. Bad spiral.
We also know that kids who are active and engaged in extracurricular activities are more resilient, engage in less risky online behavior, and are less likely to get cyberbullied. Good spiral.
Yes, kids will still want to play video games and text. But here’s what adults can do to make sure make all kids – regardless of ability level – feel encouraged and included in school sports:
- Adults – teachers and all adults who work with children – must be alert to verbal taunting. There’s so much verbal bullying these days, we tune it out. Re-tune our eyes and ears to recognize bullying and unkindness at the earliest stages. Catch it early. Ignored, taunting becomes the new normal.
- Adults must set the tone for kindness. No mean or cruel remarks. It’s not “just a little teasing.” It’s hurtful, mean-spirited, and may have lasting effects. “We all have different skill levels, but we treat everyone with kindness here, especially when they’re a beginner or their skills need improving.” When you make a mistake, apologize.
- Always use team-choosing systems like “counting off.” Letting kids choose their own teams encourages some kids to always get chosen and some kids to NEVER get chosen till the very end. (Note: This applies to school study groups and project teams too.) Over the course of the term, mix the teams up. Create opportunities for every student to play with everyone else.
- Adults can offer individual feedback to students, to suggest their next step to improvement. Instead of feeling like a total failure at soccer, kids feel encouraged and motivated when they can see their next step. “Practice controlling your inside-of-the-foot-pass. Mark off a target area on the field and do 50 passes. After 25, make the target smaller. Do this daily for a week and you’ll really ramp up your precision.”
- Enlist the help of talented or more experienced kids to coach kids who are new or less skilled. Builds collaboration and teamwork, and gets the more skilled kids invested in the progress of their junior teammates. It gives everyone a chance to get to know one another on an individual level, which also decreases bullying.
- Create a culture of upstanders, on and off the field. Adults shouldn’t be the only “kindness enforcers.” Clearly communicate that it’s the value of this school and this team to stand up and protect one another. Bullying diminishes everyone – the bully, the target, and the bystanders. Everyone makes mistakes, but we catch them early, long before they go too far.
What other ideas have worked for your teams?
L Blumen, Bullying Epidemic: Not Just Child’s Play, Camberley Press, 2011
M Hume & G Sullivan Mort, The Impact of High Speed Broadband Development on Youth Consumption of Internet Interactive Services and Consumer Well-Being, International Journal of Organisational Behaviour, 17(3):62-81, 2012
C Jensen, C Cushing, & A Elledge, Associations Between Teasing, Quality of Life, and Physical Activity Among Preadolescent Children, Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 39(1):65-73, Jan/Feb 2014