Bullying and social exclusion are epidemics in our school systems. Research studies have unveiled the powerful, often life-long effects these behaviors can have on people. Increased incidents of anxiety, depression, lower academic performance with a higher likelihood of dropping out, and suicide, can all be linked to bullying. It can even affect one’s physical health.
Social exclusion can be even more powerful. Social psychologists understand peer acceptance as a primal human need, its importance ranks just below the need for food and shelter.
Meanwhile, a recent study by the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan concluded that social rejection is one of the few emotional experiences that activate the same neural pathways as physical pain in the brain. The effects of bullying and social rejection are real, profound, and often long-lasting—sometimes well into adulthood.
As a school social worker, I regularly witness these interactions and their devastating consequences, yet also understand how difficult it is to contain such behaviors—even when school staff try their best to intervene. Almost all of us have had personal experiences with bullying.
I was lucky to have the opportunity to be a facilitator in a program called Challenge Day. Challenge Day’s vision is a world where each child feels safe, loved, and celebrated. It’s unique approach empowers children to create the type of school community they really want.
According to Linda Frank, director of development and marketing for Challenge Day, 900 schools participated in Challenge Day in the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands, and the number is growing each year. Challenge Day was started by Rich Dutra St. John and Yvonne St. John Dutra in 1987. Since then, they have served over one million participants.
Fun and Games
I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived inside the gymnasium packed with students and parent volunteers. The Challenge Day leaders started the day by getting the children all riled up and out of their comfort zone. We sang and danced, got uncomfortably close to each other, stared into each other’s eyes, and told each other what they would know if they “really knew me.”
I wasn’t exactly sure where these activities were heading, but right before lunch, the two leaders each took a turn relating a highly emotional story of their deepest psychological wound. Full of honesty and emotion, the leaders set the stage for what was coming.
We’ve All Experienced Pain
Shortly after lunch we started the “walk the line” activity. This is where all of the participants, adults and kids, stand apart from each other in two groups while the leaders call out different criteria. If the participant meets the criteria, they walk to the center and stand on the line.
The leaders start out by announcing rather innocuous items. “Whoever is wearing green, walk the line.” Soon they begin to call out more and more sensitive ideas: “Whoever has been teased for being overweight, walk the line.”
Each time something is called out, you can see everyone who has that in common; when it’s your turn to walk, you end up in a group of people with whom you share that experience. “Whoever has a family member who is an alcoholic, walk the line.” “Whoever has lost a loved one …”
This is when the tears started flowing. I’d estimate that 80 percent of the room was in tears, including the adults. It was really profound to see how many people had shared the same hurts, or experienced even worse.
Typically, people feel alone when hurt emotionally or grief-stricken, but here, everyone could see that they weren't alone. Everyone felt the need to reach out and comfort each other. Indeed, copious hugs followed all of the tears.
A Transformational Experience
At the end of the day, participants had the chance to come up to the microphone and share their feelings about the day. Many of them were filled with regret for the teasing and bullying they had done to other children in the room. One after another, kids stood up and admitted some terrible things they had done and said. They looked the person in the eye and promised they’d never hurt them again. I’d never seen anything like it.
The profound transformational power affected the adults as well as the children. The school principal, who had earlier been marching around keeping the children in line with stern looks, stepped up to the microphone. He broke down as he described a heart-wrenching story to the whole room: He explained about how he’d tried to reach out and restore his relationship with his father who was sick and dying. Apparently the kids had forgiven him for his harsh demeanor as they rushed in to swarm him with hugs and words of support.
At the end of the day, I am sure that many of the participants had their compassion awakened like I had. Everyone has already been through so much pain, just like I have, and I don’t want to hurt anyone ever again!
To find out more about Challenge Day visit: http://www.challengeday.org/
Michael Courter is a clinical social worker, family therapist, and entrepreneur in Northern California.