UNDATED -- October is National Bullying Prevention Month, an opportunity for educators, parents and students of all ages to raise awareness about the destructive and often long-term effects bullying can cause in children and teens.

Today, anti-bullying education begins in even the earliest elementary school grades. According to three principals in the ROCORI School District, that education has made a significant difference.

“We start the year by talking about bullying behaviors and setting ground rules and involving the kids in the discussion,” said Eric Skanson, Principal of Cold Spring Elementary. “And not from a negative standpoint – we frame it in a positive way. We have great staff members and teachers, and when they work with the kids, they do a great job of teaching them how to treat people – with kindness and respect – and setting up those rules and norms.”

“We teach learning, and we teach math, but we don’t always think about behavior as something that we teach,” added Sam Court, Principal of John Clark Elementary in Richmond. “But we do, and some kids are still learning how to interact or have appropriate conversations with each other.”

Common elementary school-age bullying behaviors include teasing, unwanted roughhousing or taking the belongings of another. However, true bullying isn’t just a one-off encounter or isolated event between students, Skanson says – it’s a sustained pattern of behavior.

“Bullying, by definition, involves a power deferential and occurs over time,” Skanson explained. “Age difference really has nothing to do with (bullying.) It could be based on popularity. It could be size. It could be influence. It could be the number of students – for instance three students on one. The victim feels threatened or scared, and it’s affecting their school day. Maybe there’s avoidance from the victim toward the bully. Those are some of the things we look for.”

While teasing and roughhousing are daily occurrences in an elementary school, Court says cases of actual bullying aren’t especially common.

“Is there teasing that happens? Yes,” Court said. “Are there learning opportunities where kids make bad choices? Yes. It does seem like it is getting better, but to that one kid it’s happening to, it’s everything. This is always going to be a priority for us, because we know that even a few students being picked on or feeling like they don’t belong is enough.”

Keri Johnson, Principal of Richmond Elementary, says they place a high priority on teaching youngsters how to spot and address bullying themselves if possible.

“It's part of the learning experience,” Johnson explained. “We empower the child and teach them what to say to have that conversation about what’s going on and how to deal with it – things like ‘I don’t like that,’ or ‘please stop.’ We give them those tools in their tool bag to address it themselves.

"But we’ve built trusting relationships within the school building, so if they can’t stop it themselves, they’re quick to come and ask for help," she added.

“If somebody is getting bullied, there’s usually an audience,” said Skanson. “There’s some sort of thrill about making fun. So, we try to empower the students standing as bystanders to intervene and say ‘stop it, that’s not okay,’ or to get an adult involved. If we can draw attention to it, it does go away.”

“Usually, nine times out of 10, having that conversation with the two or three students involved makes it all go away,” Johnson added. “In rare situations, we do pull in parents and have those conversations if it continues or if it’s a little more severe. But, it’s a rarity.”

Johnson says the anti-bullying curriculum that has been developed in recent years has also had a strong impact on the prevalence of bullying at Richmond Elementary. On Oct. 21, students observed “Unity Day.” The event, also sponsored by PACER Center, asks students to wear orange as they participate in lessons on kindness and proper behavior. Kids are also coached on how to spot bullying and offer help to their classmates.

“We wear orange and remind them of all those things we need to keep doing,” she said. “It’s all about the language they hear every day, like “modeling kindness.” We remind them of those words and of how it’s important to have a kind and safe environment for everybody.”

“When you start young with anything, they seem to pick up on it much quicker and keep following it,” Johnson added. “Their self confidence will grow stronger as they move forward. Having curriculum, along with their teachers and families on board, will teach and instill those core beliefs.”

To learn more about National Bullying Prevention Month and Unity Day, visit the PACER Center website.