Posted by Nate Dunlevy

As we continue to examine the effects and causes of reading deficiency, we can add bullying to the list of potential barriers to success for kids. Interestingly, bullying doesn’t always take the form we expect it to. Certainly, nine-year-olds get shoved around on the playground, but what about a professional athlete in his prime? Can a 6’5,” 312-pound football player get bullied?

Turns out, anyone can be bullied or can become a bully, in turn.

Textbook Bullying

Last month’s headlines involving two Miami Dolphins players have forced us to take a long, hard look at what constitutes bullying. Our image of an older kid beating up on a younger child to steal his lunch money clashes with reports of the kind of pressure and harassment that Jonathan Martin allegedly endured at the hands of his teammate, Richie Incognito.

We may never know the full story behind what took place in the Dolphins’ locker room, but tales of verbal abuse, including racial slurs, threats of violence, and profane attacks about Martin’s family paint a repulsive picture of abusive treatment and textbook bullying behavior.

It’s easy to make Incognito out to be a villain or even a monster for the reprehensible things he’s alleged to have done. But many don’t know that Incognito himself has his own history of being bullied. When he was younger, he was often attacked by other children for his weight.  His father encouraged him to resort to physical violence to resolve the issue. Years later, the now-grown son may well lose his career for following such advice to its logical conclusion.

Breaking the Cycle

The story of Incognito and Martin is sad—even tragic in a way—but it should serve to reinforce to us just how serious it is when children are tormented by classmates. The consequences can be immediate, but they can also linger for years, perpetuating cycles of violence and abuse.

Bullying is rarely ever a root cause in and of itself. All too often, bullies are suffering themselves. Abuse and neglect at home create stress, which can cause children to lash out at one another.

Not every instance of teasing or roughhousing should be red-flagged as bullying any more than every locker room disagreement between grown men on a football team should. Sometimes even good kids have bad days, become irritated, and are mean to other children. Even so, as educators and parents, we’d be naïve at best to always assume that “kids will just work out their own problems.”

If you notice a sudden drop in a child’s performance at school, reticence to attend class, an unexplained lack of confidence, and diminished eye contact, it may be time to ask some probing questions. Slipping grades and incomplete homework can be canaries in the mineshaft, indicating behavioral changes that point to a larger problem like bullying.

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