Back in September I attended a presentation titled “The Social Inclusion Approach” by renowned teacher, counsellor and author Kim Payne. Invited by the Whistler Waldorf School, Payne covered a lot of ground: the levels of stress that modern children are under and the cumulative effect that has on behaviour, as well as the issue of exclusion of children at schools and in communities — a form of bullying that is often worse than traditional bullying and more difficult to solve.
There was no shortage of good advice offered to parents and teachers, or examples of research by leading child psychologists around the world.
Payne started the evening with an anecdote about a student he knew for years and coached in basketball. The student’s grades were slipping and he was becoming a discipline problem. After talking to the 16-year-old, Payne had an epiphany”
“Are you pushing back at the world,” Payne asked him, “in a way which you think is equal to the way the world is pushing on you?”
The issue was that the youth in question was overloaded and stressed out by obligations and expectations. The solution was to pull back from almost everything and to simplify his life. “He needed things to calm down,” Payne said.
According to Payne, stress activates a primitive part of the brain that triggers the “freeze or flock” or “fight or fly” response. It’s a regression, he said, to an earlier stage of play when younger kids feel the need to control the game and the world around them.
Payne’s larger assessment was that the level of stress affecting this one subject is to some degree affecting every child.
“The world is flooding them,” he said. “It’s too much, too soon, too sexy, too everything, and they can’t handle it,” adding that a lot of negative behaviour we see today is just kids trying to survive the stress.
One study showed that kids today were going through puberty significantly younger than children 50 years ago, almost two years on average, which Payne said is the result of stress and survival instincts kicking in as much as the result of hormones in food.
Another study showed that cumulative stress levels in the west created a level of post-traumatic stress disorder among kids that’s similar to what you see in children that have been living in war zones.
Payne’s recommendation for parents is to let children be bored, rather than seeking to fill every minute with activities and screens. He compared a child or teen’s ability to absorb all of this stress to a cup that empties itself over time — but that also fills up easily and can trigger a lot of negative behaviour, including bullying, teasing and exclusion, if it starts to overflow.
Payne was particularly negative when it comes to screens — televisions, computers, tablets, phones, games — and the way they come between children and real human interaction, while also overfilling the cup. He recommends getting rid of screens as much as possible, or severely limiting access. Currently he says kids spend between five and seven-and-a-half hours in front of screens every day.
Even bullying is a survival instinct of sorts, says Payne. Just as animals will cull the weaker members of their groups when survival becomes an issue, bullies will target weaker classmates for the same reason. But by taking away the stress and keeping the cup as empty as possible, Payne says something incredible happens — would-be bullies instead use their ability to see weakness in others to protect them.
“As a society we must understand the power of less,” said Payne. “Letting the cup drain before filling it with more is so simple, it’s so easy to do. Let the cup drain.”
While schools and families can’t eliminate conflict — conflict is natural for kids and how children eventually define themselves — being able to manage stress can turn bystanders to school bullying into “upstanders” that intervene, or will take steps to include any children who are being excluded.
Making upstanders isn’t easy, but Payne recommends a blame-free approach to raising children. Instead of blaming or lecturing kids for actions — filling their cups even more in the process — he recommends a system of taking responsibility. Instead of yelling or punishing, a teacher or parent should be working with the offending child to fix the situation without expressly blaming them for it.
As well, Payne said involving children as volunteers in the community also has a positive impact. Kids who learn empathy and don’t feel overwhelmed themselves might see a kid being bullied or excluded, and invite them to be part of their game or to sit with them at lunch. In that sense, Payne called upstanders the “heroes” in their schools.
“The upstander has done something special in that (excluded) kids’ life,” said Payne. “It’s a big deal. The kid (who was excluded) goes to sleep a little better that night because of that heroism.”
For more on Kim Payne and his work, visit www.simplicityparenting.com.