2017-10-22 / Insight

Columbiaville Elementary provided specialist to thwart student bullying

810-452-2601 • npugliese@mihomepaper.com

COLUMBIAVILLE — It’s common knowledge that schools teach children math, science, history and every other subject that can be considered “academic.” But increasingly, while students may be prepared intellectually for academic study, educators in modern schools are finding many students underequipped to process a different kind of intelligence — namely, emotional.

Modern schools aim not only to produce well-rounded adults intellectually, but also seek to equip their students with the emotional tools to handle life’s tumults in a healthy way. And for students at LakeVille Community Schools’ Columbiaville Elementary, it’s never too early to learn how to handle adverse emotions.

Thanks to a four-year school safety research grant run in conjunction with Michigan State University School of Criminal Justice, the University of Michigan School of Public Health and the Genesee Intermediate School District (GISD), Columbiaville Elementary has been allocated a school climate specialist — a role that just so happens to be occupied by Columbiaville resident Dan Balderman, who began as the school’s climate specialist this week.

Balderman’s goal will be to create a climate of safety through one-onone interactions and group work with students. Balderman has worked as a professional counselor, primarily with high school aged students, for 15 years. “A lot of the work I’ll be doing is helping students see the long play of their behavior,” said Balderman. “What are ways you can process these emotions?”

Though geographically located in Lapeer County, Columbiaville Elementary was selected as one of 10 schools in the GISD for the School Climate Research Grant. Another 10 schools were chosen to act as control group schools, who were awarded a flat sum instead of a school climate specialist.

According to Columbiaville Elementary Principal Mike Banyas, the school was given the choice to be a climate research school or a control group school, and they leaped at the chance to include Balderman’s position. “I don’t like just throwing money at a problem,” said Banyas. “I really lobbied hard to make sure we were part of this. The GISD was probably sick of me.”

According to Banyas, Balderman’s role will be vital in providing Columbiaville Elementary students with the emotional skills needed to be good students, including curbing behaviors that may lead to bullying. “Generationally, kids seem to have less and less coping skills, which leads to lashing out or bullying,” he said. “And now, it’s different types of bullying. You’re always going to get your verbal (bullying) but now there’s a lot of cyberbullying that comes through my office.”

Because of the nature of cyberbullying, Banyas said it’s a difficult realm to police, and the only sure solution is for kids to simply stay off social media entirely. “It’s tricky because it doesn’t originate in school,” Banyas said, referring to the school’s policy restricting cell phone use during class.

“We just want to help the kids get to understand each other a little bit more,” said Balderman. “A lot of times, I think a student is bullying because they don’t have the tools to handle anger. If we give them the tools, we may be able to limit bullying before it starts.” According to Balderman, rarely do kids turn to bullying simply to be cruel. “With some of the right screening, we can predict some of the factors that will lead to bullying,” he said. “Kids don’t choose bullying just because they want to be mean.”

Balderman’s role will be integrated into practices and strategies that already exist at the school, and both he and Banyas will receive continued training at no cost to the district on behavioral screening methods that are designed to identify indicators that may lead to bullying in the future. As part of the experiment, Banyas and Balderman will be required to examine whether improved school climate results in improved mental health, and therefore reduced violence, both verbal and physical. Ultimately, the hope is that the results of Balderman’s role at the school will contribute to the overall national educational conversation on school climate, safety and mental health.

Banyas said the goal is for Balderman to play a role in identifying the perpetuation that occurs with bullying and provide students with the emotional skills needed to better process negative feelings.

“That’s kind of what bullies do, it happens to them and they pass it along to someone else,” said Banyas.

“The incredibly exciting thing is that if we can help students at this level, you’re helping the students at large,” said Balderman. “There are adults that don’t have these skills. It sounds big, but I really believe that learning this now will change lives.” According to Balderman, his work with high school students revealed that had the students received emotional training at a younger age, some bad habits may never have developed. “In high school, there are a lot of things that students are now trying to undo,” he said. “As a fourth-grader, they might not have processed anger properly.”

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