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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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We would never let a teacher or coach physically strike or sexually molest our child. Why then do we allow teachers and coaches to bully our children? There are three major reasons why this occurs:

  1. Sexual and physical abuse can be documented on the body and are in the criminal code. The law takes them seriously, therefore so do parents. In contrast, emotional abuse is not in the criminal code, so it can still be confused with "motivation" -- especially in the education system.

  2. Bullying can be hard to detect because, when done by teachers and coaches, it's often mistaken for passion and a demand for excellence. Parents believe in authoritative teachers and coaches who say they know what's best for children.

  3. Psychiatric and psychological studies mostly depend on interviews, emotions, and lived experience. They cannot provide hard evidence that serious harm is occurring.

How and Why It Happens

Adding to years of psychological and psychiatric research, current studies by neuroscientists confirm that emotional abuse harms in serious ways. MRI imaging shows the physical harm done by bullying, not to the body, but to the brain. Bruises heal and broken bones mend, but neuroscientific research shows that emotional abuse can leave permanent scars on the brain.

Most, if not all, of this neuroscientific research examines peer bullying: child-to-child on the playground or adult-to-adult in the workplace. However, bullying hinges on power imbalance, and the greatest imbalance is adult-to-child, especially teacher-to-student or coach-to-student-athlete. Adults in caregiver positions control the child’s present and future. We always instruct our children to tell the teacher if bullying occurs. However, we should also instruct them that sometimes (although not often) teachers and coaches are bullies, and children must report to their parents what's being said and done.

But it's not that simple. When students do report on teacher or coach bullying, parents are instantly in a double bind, because the teacher and coach may still have power over their child. Reporting the harm might make the child more of a target. This is why teachers and coaches need greater oversight if we want children and parents to be confident speaking up about bullying.

When parents and educators understand just how permanent and damaging bullying is to the brain, it won't seem extreme to argue that teachers and coaches should be held legally accountable for emotional abuse. As with physical and sexual abuse, this would be a powerful deterrent. It would also create the possibility that bullies in caregiver positions would have the choice and support to seek help prior to working with children.

5 Bullying Myths

However, this won't happen while we continue believing that bullying plays a useful role in education. In this context, with a focus on teenagers, let's look at the myths still being disseminated about bullying within the school system:

1. Teens are almost adults and need to develop thick skins.

While this is true physically, it's just the opposite in terms of brain development. Teenagers' brains are at a developmental stage that makes them as fragile as a 0- to 3-year-old child. If you wouldn't allow a teacher or coach to yell or swear in the face of your baby or toddler, you shouldn't let them do this to your teenager. Both toddlers and teens are at significant risk of developing PTSD due to their stage of brain development.

2. Bullying is actually tough love meant to make kids stronger.

In fact, bullying causes a stress response that releases cortisol to the brain. That hormone has been directly linked to depression, a mental illness reaching epidemic proportions in our teen populations. Bullying can leave an indelible imprint because it affects hormones, reduces connectivity in the brain, and sabotages new neurons' growth. None of this makes any child stronger, smarter, more artistic, or more athletic. It just harms his or her brain permanently.

3. Emotional abuse isn't as serious as physical or sexual abuse.

Bullying leaves neurological scars on the brain that can be seen on MRI scanners. What has surprised researchers is how closely these changes to the brain resemble those borne by children who are physically and sexually abused in early childhood. So parents who approve of teachers or coaches yelling, swearing, insulting, ignoring, and ostracizing students, all in the name of winning and achieving, should be aware it's comparable to condoning sexual or physical abuse. For instance, MRIs show that the brain's pain response to exclusion and taunting is identical to its reaction when the body is physically hit or burned.

4. Bullying is just part of growing up.

Neuroscientists are clear that a positive, supportive environment will allow teens to flourish, but a toxic environment will cause them to suffer in powerful and enduring ways. Bullying does not stop when students leave school. The brain changes are long-term, and the emotional scars may last a lifetime. Therefore, neuroscientists say it is urgent that we confront the "scourge of bullying." As bullying is learned behavior, we must ask ourselves tough questions about where children learn that bullying is a way to get ahead, achieve, and excel. Is it being taught by teachers and coaches, and condoned in educational settings?

5. Students and athletes reach their potential under bullying regimes.

Brain cells grown in childhood are still used in adolescence and form new connections, while those that go unused wither away. Hence, the adolescent period can make or break a child's intelligence. This is exactly why cortisol is so devastating when released into the brain by bullying: it damages brain structures affecting learning, memory, concentration, and decision making. Therefore, a teacher or coach’s bullying regime will never lead children to fulfill their potential. Instead, it will stunt them in serious and lasting ways.

Beyond the Myths

Parents, teachers, school administrators, and lawmakers should join together to ensure that our most vulnerable population is fully protected from all kinds of abuse -- including emotional abuse or bullying by adults. It makes no sense to protect our children from two kinds of abuse only to allow a third, equally damaging kind. In a world full of passionate teachers and coaches who want the best for their students, I'm hopeful that informed discussions, grounded in psychological and neuroscientific research, will result in finally laying to rest the myths that surround bullying approaches in education.

References

Anthes, Emily, "Inside the bullied brain: The alarming neuroscience of taunting," The Boston Globe, 2010.

Gruenewald, T. et al., "Acute threat to the social self: Shame, social self-esteem, and cortisol activity," Psychomatic Medicine 66, 2004: 915-924.

Jensen, Frances E. with Amy Ellis Nutt, The teenage brain: A neuroscientist's survival guide to raising adolescents and young adults, Toronto: Harper Collins, 2015.

McMahon, Tamsin, "Inside your teenager's scary brain," Maclean's Magazine, January 2015: 48-53.

Raffensperger, Lisa, "Why words are as painful as sticks and stones: Rejection and heartbreak can have effects every bit as physical as cuts and bruises, and understanding why could change your life," New Scientist, November 2012.

Schinnerer, John, Ph.D, "'Help, my coach is a bully!': The consequences of verbally abusive coaching."

Steinberg, Laurence, Age of opportunity: Lessons from the new science of adolescence, Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2014.

See research of Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt, adjunct professor in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behavior at McMaster University and a core member of the Offord Centre for Child Studies.

Walsh, David with Erin Walsh, Why do they act that way?: A survival guide to the adolescent brain for you and your teen, 2nd edition, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014 (254).

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John-Andrew Murphy's picture

There's also a misogynistic bent to coach-speak. Anything female is seen as weak and therefore to be avoided. "Don't be a pussy", "grow some balls", "you run like a girl", etc..

My book is a work of fiction, and I'm probably more influenced by The Brothers Karamazov than anything else. The story isn't entirely autobiographical, either; it's more of a composite of various experiences and people.

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Dr. Jennifer Fraser's picture
Dr. Jennifer Fraser
Author and Educator

Your fiction sounds great...keen to read it when done. It is so interesting the misogyny in sport. I am about to speak at the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport conference in Santa Fe...and there are fantastic scholars presenting on masculinity, but I haven't tracked anything yet on misogyny...will see and if not propose something next year. I'm delivering a paper on athletes speaking up, breaking the code of silence.

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John-Andrew Murphy's picture

Misogyny in sports is more rampant than bullying. Any perceived weakness is equated with femininity. There's no surprise that many athletes are abusive towards women when they're taught from a very early age that girls and women are less than human and weak. Bullies, at least in my experience, attack those they see as less than human and weak. I know I was targeted in part because I was the shortest male in the class, an avid reader, a musician, and I was in the band rather than on the football team. (That I played ice hockey and was a competitive cyclist didn't seem to help much.)

But it started at home, with my father and siblings, including a sister who went on to become a clinical psychologist now helping young people overcome abusive households.

I'm wondering if you've studied the differences between large and small families, and chaotic vs. enmeshed families. I was the youngest of ten, and that didn't help. Religion played a large role, as well.

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Dr. Jennifer Fraser's picture
Dr. Jennifer Fraser
Author and Educator

Hi John-Andrew, as per usual, your honesty and insights are striking. These kinds of research projects you suggest, I doubt have been examined. As a parent, I would say, my experience has been children respond to parental attention, care, engagement. That must be challenging when there are 10 children. I can't even imagine. I can't imagine being youngest in that environment. And I am hopeful that your sister has learned and transformed from a kid who may have been a bully into an adult who realizes the harm it does and wants to stop it.

I don't know if religion has been studied in connection with emotional abuse, but it certainly shows up again and again in discussions around childhood suffering.

Your insights into misogyny are particularly striking. It seems to me there is a powerful link between homophobia, misogyny and the sexual violence that is ruining the lives of young college level athletes. The stories coming out of US and Canadian universities are sad, but not all that shocking considering the lack of training or oversight on coaches...how can they know they're doing serious harm when society so often enables and rewards them? By the time they get into the college system...they're already programmed. Then society comes down on them hard when they act out...it's a shameful hypocrisy.

John-Andrew Murphy's picture

Thank you. Since your PhD is in comp lit, you'll probably appreciate it when I say that my insights come mostly from Dostoevsky and The Brothers Karamazov. He laid bare the dynamics of a chaotic family, with the misogynistic, bully father, an intellectual bully oldest son, the tormented soul, and the youngest who wanted to be seen as their redeemer.

Some years ago, while working in the film industry, I met a doctoral candidate at UCLA (I think; it might have been UC Irvine), in cultural anthropology who was working on a film about how the most religious cultures tend to be the most violent and oppressive. She was born in Iran by emigrated to the US when she was very young. Her parents, both intellectuals and atheists, raised her the same. She had hundred s of hours of footage from hidden cameras of women being stoned in Saudi Arabia, young people in Ireland openly talking about how their fathers would beat them, as well as problems within the fundamentalist, Amish, and Orthodox Jewish communities in the US. I don't think the film was ever completed or distributed, but the raw footage was jarring, to say the least.

That's what got me thinking and exploring my own experiences in a more serious way. My father, in the final few years before his death, was obsessed with how much schizophrenia there is in Ireland, where his grandparents were from. But, according to the film I just mentioned, in interviews with several psychiatrists and psychologists, there is strong evidence to suggest that religiosity, combined with bullying, contributes heavily to schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. (Ed Gein, the American serial killer who became the basis for Norman Bates, was raised by a bible-thumping mother who taught him and his brother than women were evil and ought to be destroyed, for example. Gein went on to kill his brother -- suspected, anyway -- rob graves, and kill. His tale is the stuff of nightmares.)

Anyway, I don't wish to write a novel here.

That film, plus Dostoevsky, plus what I've experienced, has given me a substantial number of puzzle pieces. The puzzle is coming together, I guess, and the picture isn't a pretty one.

I see that you wrote a book about basketball coaches as bullies. Here's the weird thing: my father was a basketball coach, and he was very good at it. He was a wonderful baseball coach, as well. His teams always performed well, and his players loved him. He was a quiet coach who created a comfortable and nurturing atmosphere for his athletes. But he was the exact opposite at home, and when we'd hear his students raving about him, we'd think, "Who on Earth are you talking about?"

I'll have to read your books; they look fascinating. How did you become interested in this field?

Dr. Jennifer Fraser's picture
Dr. Jennifer Fraser
Author and Educator

Hi John-Andrew,

First of all, that doesn't surprise me about your father. He fits perfectly the charismatic bully profile...also referred to as a Jekyll and Hyde in the literature. Think of the Division I coaches that have been fired from their prestigious positions. They must have been very talented to earn these positions in the first place, must have had excellent track records, must have been able to turn on a public persona when required, but that all changes behind the closed doors of practices, or in your case, when the door to your home shut.

And there does appear to be a relationship between the charismatic bully being religious or a pillar of the community or some other compensatory persona that assists in covering up what they really are doing.

My first two books are literary which is my training. The books are both about things that greatly interested me. The first one is about initiation how we can change from simply being a reader of culture to becoming a writer of culture. So not someone who simply reads the script handed out by life, but instead strives to be the playwright or director of one's life.

The other book is about how we tell children to suppress their grief which is very destructive and hurtful.

The Basketball book happened because my son was one of the victims and I was asked to take student testimonies as a teacher and so I felt responsible to let the students' voices be heard. The research I did for the basketball book so disturbed me that I am working very hard to share it with as many coaches, teachers, parents, administrators, lawyers as possible. I have been at a conference for the last two days on the Sociology of Sport in Santa Fe and there is a consensus that sport culture needs to change as it's harmful to far too many kids. Not the sport itself, the coaching and the parenting.

The film footage sounds painful to watch, but very important. I like how it crosses a number of religions rather than demonizing one. Your Dostoyevski writing plans sound intriguing. At what stage are you in your writing process?

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John-Andrew Murphy's picture

I"m in the preliminary stages: research, character development, and writing out sketches. This isn't an easy project, to be honest. The Sibelius Violin Concerto plays a significant role, and I only know it from listening to it and having to play the trumpet part in an orchestral performance. So that has to be tackled and understood from a violinist's perspective before I can fully develop my main character.

As far as coaches are concerned, I think they get away with what they do because people get the mistaken belief that bullying and hard coaching are the same thing. There's also a sense that the athletes are being whiners and crybabies if they even hint that a coach is bullying them.

Music is another place where bullying is part of the culture. I dropped out of conservatory because of the abuse. The film Whiplash is unrealistic for many reasons, and just about everyone I know has condemned it. But there's some truth to the harshness of studying music, and the hurtful things that are said to discourage young musicians.

In fact, the arts are havens for bullies just as bad as those in sports. People on the outside aren't aware of the harsh realities on in the inside. The stories of musicians planting razor blades between the piano keys at Juilliard were real. Thumb tacks in pointe shoes really do happen. And conductors and instrumental instructors threatening violence against students, and destroying young people's confidence happens every single day in every single conservatory or college of music the world over.

And don't get me started on the professional kitchen. Did you know that young French cooks have recently won major victories in the French courts to bring action against bullying chefs?

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Dr. Jennifer Fraser's picture
Dr. Jennifer Fraser
Author and Educator

Well your novel sounds fascinating and the listing of bullying culture so demoralizing...it's like fighting the Hydra, cut one head off and two spring up from the stump...

But if the French cooks can win a legal victory, so can the arts students and student athletes!

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API Clinic's picture
API Clinic
Clinical Psychotherapist & Hypnotherapist

Great article, as soemone whom works daily with both adults and children with their challenges alot of which are intisgated for similar senarios above where the teacher or coach and even parent are the bully, is it not time to re educate and change the old ways of teaching and educating. Having myself at nearly 50 yrs old, fully understanding the olds ways and whom once probably was from the same mindset, it wasnt until took my own journey of change and self analysis to realise the through effects of this way of trying to "educate or help learn" that i myself changed and studied and reasearched finding that there is better ways of communicating and teaching both acdemically and sports wise. It is so great to see that finally we can make a change together by putting out our research and findings and being a part of a global change to ensure that we may prevent others suffering for the same type of old school teachings. Thank you for sharing the post and all the comments it brings hope :-)

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Dr. Jennifer Fraser's picture
Dr. Jennifer Fraser
Author and Educator

Thanks for the response! It is exactly the experts like yourself I wanted to weigh in and the most exciting part of your message for me is that you went on a journey and changed; you turned to the research rather than simply repeated the treatment you received. That means all coaches, parents and teachers can change. I think the work psychologists have done for the last forty years indicates a long-overdue need for all involved in children's lives to become knowledgeable about child development. Add in what the neuroscientific studies are showing and we have an urgent need to change. Our youth populations are riddled with mental health issues which is tragic and a great deal of it avoidable I believe. You're so right that all of us working together and supporting educators and parents through change from a bullying paradigm to one that protects and cares for children is the key!

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