It’s big, very big. And it’s orange, very orange, and it’s not Charlie Brown and the Great Pumpkin, the Charles Schulz Halloween classic featuring that Peanuts’ character, Linus.
This is the big orange that took place last week at Empower Leadership Sports & Adventure Center in Middletown when more than 400 students from local schools, all wearing bright orange T-shirts, came together to mark National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month.
The orange T-shirts, all emblazoned with the slogan “I Will Be An Agent Of Change,” proclaimed the vision of the Campaign for Bully-Free Communities sponsored by the Community Foundation of Middlesex County (CFMC) and its Council of Business Partners. University of Connecticut basketball standout Donny Marshall, who played six seasons in the National Basketball Association, was the featured speaker at the program. Marshall is now an NBA television analyst.
Essex Elementary School won the Bully-Free Community Spotlight Award for school programs that teach and reinforce kindness, consideration, and respect for others. In past years, recipients have included Chester Elementary School, Westbrook High School, and the Ivoryton Playhouse, which won in 2016 for putting on an original show, Polkadots: The Cool Kid Musical. This past May, the Ivoryton Playhouse staged another show with an anti-bullying theme, Her Song. Schoolchildren from Clinton, Chester, Essex, Deep River, Middletown, and Portland were bussed to the show with funds provided by the CFMC anti-bullying program.
Essex was cited for programs that make kindness and consideration into ongoing classroom activities, built into student’s daily routines.
“These things ring true because they are embedded in everyday actions,” said Principal Jennifer Tousignant.
One program, Mindful Mondays, gives students a theme emphasizing thoughtfulness to carry through the week. The theme for a recent week: Positive attracts positive; kindness attracts kindness.
Every month the entire elementary school reads a book underlining the kinds of positive thinking and character-building situations that Marjorie Russell, Essex Elementary School counselor and social development coordinator, wants children to think about. This month the book is In My Heart: A Book of Feelings.
For one initiative, stickers were put on the floor in different places around the school and when students’ feet touched them, they were supposed to think kind thoughts. One elementary schooler even reprimanded principal Tousignant when the student saw the principal step very quickly on one of the stickers. The youngster wanted to know if the principal had paused sufficiently to think a kind thought.
Russell noted that the objective was to create a school climate and culture in which all students felt safe, and to teach children how to recognize and express their own feelings, so they could learn how to solve problems of emotion as well as mathematics. When problem behavior did occur, both Russell and Tousignant said, the emphasis was on “restorative behavior,” having students recognize what went wrong and develop strategies to deal with the situations differently.
Russell credited Superintendent of Schools Ruth Levy and the entire Regional 4 administrative staff for making a mindful and considerate school atmosphere an important factor in all the district’s schools.
According to Dave Maloney, assistant executive director of the Connecticut Association of Schools, the results of programs that combat anti-bullying behavior with thoughtfulness and consideration go far beyond character development. Schools that make caring, consideration, and supportive behavior a part of all classroom activities show marked improvements in everything from reading and math scores to attendance.
The emphasis on consideration at Essex Elementary extends beyond students. It is important, Tousignant said, for teachers to be treated with the same consideration and mindfulness extended to students. She recently gave all teachers a back-to-school gift of their own, the book One Minute Mindfulness. Teachers who feel appreciated, she emphasized, do much better work in their own classrooms.
With funds provided through CFMC and the Council of Business Leaders, the anti-bullying program has also addressed an area not under classroom control that can often be the scene of bullying behavior: the school bus. Drivers have received anti-bullying training. There have also been programs for parents and grandparents to understand how the mindfulness programs the schools operate and how they can reinforce lessons at home.
The View from 6th Grade
Eight student leaders from Essex Elementary, all in 6th grade, attended the recent anti-bullying rally: Ella Brenneman, Tyler Ruel, Kelsey O’Donnell, Joshua Faucher, Kassidy Layton, Lauren Wallace, Chloe Porcaro, and Willem Fitton.
“It was all about not bullying and being strong. It’s not so hard to do once you get the idea,” Fitton said of the anti-bullying rally all had attended.
“It’s like being kind to other people and having something nice to say,” Porcaro added.
Ruel chimed in: “When you bully people, you don’t try to be nice. I would try to picture myself in their shoes.”
Layton reflected that “everybody has good in them, and everyone has a different personality.”
And how would the youngsters who have participated in the anti-bullying programs deal with a situation in which a student is being teased for wearing an outlandish outfit to school?
“It’s not about what people wear,” Wallace said.
O’Donnell agreed. “People wear what is comfortable for them. It’s about who you are.”
Brenneman echoed her sentiments. “What a person wears doesn’t matter. It’s about their personality.”
Faucher put in the last word.
“It’s all about trying to be just a little bit kinder,” he said.