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Navigating the Waters of Bullying: Strategies for Youth Empowerment and Leadership Development

This month, our blog post is written by Mackenzy Willis, Thrive's Manager of Greater Toronto Area and National Programs. In it, Mackenzy explores her experiences working with young people on both sides of bullying.


Mackenzy has facilitated programs with Thrive Youth for over 13 years and in this post, she explores Thrive's approach to converting aggression into leadership, building confidence in young people experiencing bullying, and the enduring impact of these interventions.




The Importance of Early Intervention and Social Skills in Preventing Bullying

Our programs are designed to engage children who struggle with traditional learning environments, and as a result, we often encounter children who have experienced bullying. We also worked with kids who were bullies. We use a couple of different approaches to deal with that. Primarily, our focus is on spinning it through a leadership lens.

Our core theory relies on DARE—inner Discipline, Action, Responsibility, and Reflection through Excellence. We know that if we all return to those concepts and set a high bar for kids, they will excel.


Case Study: Transforming Negative Behaviours into Leadership Opportunities

A few years ago, we had a student in our LCE out-of-school program that consistently made hostile remarks to the other children in their cohort. I talked to her privately, highlighting her outgoing nature, eagerness to participate, and strong leadership skills. I also noted that her dismissive comments stifled the group's creativity and teamwork. I asked her to use her skills to communicate and help enhance the team's success rather than point out weaknesses. She quickly understood, and her behaviour fundamentally changed.


It's crucial, especially with children, to discern whether negative behaviour is a pattern or a one-off incident because quick judgments can be harmful. Factors like hunger, illness, or lack of sleep can affect a child's demeanour. So, recognizing behaviour patterns before addressing issues like bullying is essential in ensuring we don't wrongly accuse or label. Once this has been identified, it's just as important to explain the impact of their actions because they may not understand the long-term consequences of their behaviour."



Building Self-Worth and Confidence Through Positive Reinforcement

Pattern recognition isn't just an important part of identifying bullying behaviour, it's also a necessary part of determining if a child is experiencing bullying, especially in programs like ours, where we interact with them outside of their regular environments. Some key indicators include their mannerisms, such as avoiding eye contact, seldom raising their hand, or not offering suggestions, how they speak about themselves, and even negative interactions with others. 


During our initial workshops, we focus on introspection, which can reveal a lot about our participants' self-perception. When children doubt their worth or capabilities, we as adults can gently probe for more information to understand the root cause without making them feel interrogated by creating a space where they feel safe to express themselves and ensuring they know they're not being judged. This approach allows us to identify potential bullying issues indirectly and address them with sensitivity.


Fostering Leadership and Confidence in Response to Bullying

One way we bolster our participants' confidence is to choose a single area in which they could make a difference, allow them time to practice those skills, build confidence, and then encourage them to become leaders in the area. For example, we had a student in grade six who was severely bullied at school and had low self-esteem. He walked in on the first day of the program quietly, not willing to speak to the other participants. As the program started, I put him in charge of leading the lines. His job was to call out for everyone to join the line and to hold the door open for any stragglers. We focused on building his volume and clarity, starting him with small leadership tasks.


On the day of the program showcase, I tasked him with finding peers to keep the doors open for performers as they moved through the space. This approach allowed him to emerge as a leader multiple times, fostering a supportive environment where every child gets to lead. With new-found confidence, he presented his visual art project at the showcase. 


We can't stop bullying, but we can support the bullied student by spending extra time with them and boosting their self-esteem. Compliments and encouragement can significantly impact these children, thus helping them to open up and gain confidence.


The student eventually led the grade six portion of our show, transforming from a gentle giant who was bullied into a confident leader with the loudest voice. Building confidence and self-esteem at a young age over time can lead to genuinely magical outcomes.



Long-Term Impact: Cultivating Compassionate Leaders for Society

It's truly magical to see the long-term growth our participants demonstrate. I remember one of our participants who was dealing with an undiagnosed learning disability that held him back at school. He was teased for being behind and resorted to aggression to deal with his feelings. When he joined our program, we focused on his strengths, showing him he was more than his writing abilities. As the tallest, he naturally took on visible leadership roles, such as head counts during outings, illustrating his capabilities beyond academic challenges. This approach helped him realize his value, leading him to assert his worth to his peers confidently.


He discovered his passion for music, drama, and voice acting, became an advocate for peers bullied in high school and university, and continues contributing to youth development.


Reflections and Strategic Insights on Bullying Prevention

Ultimately, bullying is a complex issue that can't be "solved" with a single change in a young person's lived environment. Thrive programs should be used as part of a broader network of interventions including those from educators, parents, and the broader community and truly addressing bullying requires commitment, empathy, and strategic action from all parties. At Thrive, our framework for this lies in:


  • Diligently observing in-program behaviours.

  • Cultivating a safe and brave environment where young people feel empowered to speak.

  • Building positive interactions within the group to create new social connections.

  • Intervening and addressing negative situations as soon as possible in a non-judgmental manner.

  • Empowering program participants to take leadership roles.

  • Engaging openly with young people to ensure they feel valued, heard, and supported.


With this approach, we have mitigated the harm of bullying for both parties involved and helped support the overall growth of the young people in our program.


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