KETCHIKAN — On the playground at Houghtaling Elementary School, at least four sixth-grade students walk the playground during the kindergarten through third-grade recess, sometimes in pairs and sometimes not, playing with the younger kids and making sure everyone is engaging in a safe and happy way.
Every once in a while, the students are called on by the younger kids to help them solve a problem. In these instances, the older kids listen patiently and go through a script of questions and resolutions to help solve the problem at hand. If the issue persists, they have been trained to get an adult.
Houghtaling school counselor Debbie Langford has implemented the use of peer monitors during the past two weeks to help resolve conflict on the playground and said the program is gaining traction and they are seeing positive results.
She said each of the 24 peer monitors received conflict-resolution training and is armed with a set of prompts to help them through the conversation to resolve conflict between the younger kids.
The older students are scheduled to take two shifts a month monitoring the playground. This means missing a few minutes of class when they serve their shift, but monitors were selected with approval from parents, teachers and the principal, with the understanding that if they did not do well in class they would not be allowed to continue the program.
“I see it as a leadership opportunity,” Langford said. “They had to get permission and sometimes the kids on the cusp of (showing bully behavior) end up being good peer monitors.”
Langford said one of the places playground conflict frequently happens is on the basketball court. She said the kids are so young that they don’t necessarily fully understand the rules and that can cause problems.
“Last week the kids were playing a game of no-dribble basketball,” Langford said with a laugh. “We realized they didn’t know the rules very well, and some kids were frustrated. So we sent the boys to help them learn and it’s going better now.”
Another place conflict happens is waiting in line for the swings.
Peer monitors Nadire Zhuta and Kiara Hodges on Tuesday helped the younger kids get in a line to take turns at the swings, while Christian Pihl and Sterling Nagy moderated basketball games.
The peer monitor program is just one step in the process of anti-bullying practices at Houghtaling. Langford said she will give nine lessons throughout the school year to help students learn conflict resolution, and social skills such as emotion control, empathy and problem solving.
Langford said that during October, which is National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, she talked to the classes about becoming part of the caring majority and being a responsible bystander.
“Bullying usually happens where there aren’t adults,” she said. “You have to empower students to stand up, and it could be as easy as seeing something that isn’t right and going to get a grown-up. But it’s also about speaking up and saying, ‘Hey, that’s mean. Don’t do that,’ when it’s happening.”
School district policy states that “students or staff members who have witnessed or have reliable information that a student has been subjected to harassment, intimidation or bullying should report the incident immediately to the principal or his/her designee, who shall promptly initiate an investigation.”
The State of Alaska requires districts to report only incidents of harassment, intimidation or bullying that led to suspension or expulsion.
Langford said she is working to set up a procedure at Houghtaling that would require, not just encourage, staff and faculty to report and document acts of bullying. She has implemented a form and process, and already has seen positive results since the beginning of the year.
“It’s always hard,” she said. “Who wants to hear their child is bullied? Sometimes it’s conflict gone terribly bad, and sometimes it is just conflict. The grown-ups have to figure it out and help them either way.”
Langford said she is focusing on changing her vocabulary from calling someone a “bully” to saying that person is bullying, or demonstrating bullying behaviors. She said it is equally important not to label children who have been bullied as “victims,” but instead saying that they have been a target.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, labeling a child as a “bully” reinforces that the behavior is fixed and cannot improve over time. HHS also suggests that using labels can limit how children see themselves and others.
“When children are labeled as ‘bullies,’ it may signal to their peers that they are bad kids who should be avoided and it may give adults permission to show scorn,” HHS said on their website. “Similarly, when children are labeled as ‘victims,’ this may send a message that they are weak or deserving of pity — when what they may actually need is help to stop the bullying.”
On the playground on Tuesday, the peer monitors said they haven’t had very much opportunity yet to help resolve conflict. But during a 30-minute recess, each pair worked to solve two conflicts.
“It’s working,” Langford said, with a smile. “They’re figuring it out, and it’s helping in a big way.”