LYNNE AZARCHI is the Executive Director of the Kidsbridge Tolerance Center in New Jersey. It is the only youth-oriented tolerance center in the US. The center focuses on providing an immersive learning experience for children from kindergarten to eighth grade around the strategies of bullying prevention, diversity appreciation and respect. In this interview with EMMA IVATURI, Lynne talks about Kidsbridge, key principles that every classroom carries, and the importance of empathy in a learning environment.
Q: What are the origins of Kidsbridge?
LA: Kidsbridge was started twenty years ago by a young man whose mother was a teacher. He started the organization in her honor, realizing that more than ever before there was a need to teach children and educators diversity appreciation and bullying prevention. We started with the concept of a multicultural museum to teach children about respect and kindness, and ten years ago the museum opened. It is now called the Kidsbridge Tolerance Center. Since then, we have built upon the original concept with activities that address kindness, respect, sensitivity to people with disabilities, victim empowerment for bullying, and being an UPstander.
As the years have passed, we have adapted in order to keep up with the fact that society and kids are changing so quickly. As a result of our research and assessments, our activities have improved a lot. For example, we had a Kid Heroes room, but then learned from our research that not every kid feels that they can be a hero, so that activity evolved into being about personal strengths and working with others as a team. Other activities have evolved from teachers’ comments or parents saying something.
By listening to people, and supporting our activities with research, the Kidsbridge activities are now research-informed and evidence-based. We can show statistically significant improvements in empathy, empowerment, and moral reasoning as a result of our programs. We do assessments and make sure each activity is effective.
By listening to people,
and supporting our activities with research,
the Kidsbridge activities are
now research-informed and evidence-based.
Q: What is an UPStander, and how do you encourage every child to be one?
LA: We start with personal strengths. Kids self-identify with the things they’re good at, so we help them discover how those individual strengths can be used in some way to be an UPStander. Not everyone can be a leader, but they can help others as a follower or a supporter. We have an activity where we provide strategies and tactics on how to approach a bullying or name-calling situation.
We’re hoping that when kids come to the Center feeling, “I can’t do this, this is too scary, I’m not prepared,” they will practice skills and tactics. Then they will start to think about the challenges in advance, so that when an UPStander opportunity arises, they are ready. Then they can work together with their peers and adults.
With teachers, we arm them with the latest research and activities, so that they can create caring classrooms. Anybody can be an UPStander.
Q: What are some of the principles you use when working with children?
LA: Many schools have assembly programs and classroom programs to address bullying, but the research indicates that these programs don’t work. I call it “finger wagging.” So, what happens in an assembly, if you say, “Okay, bullies, stop bullying!
Targets, go tell an adult. UPstanders, intervene”? I think that kids already know the right things to do, but they’re not practiced in them, and they’re afraid to do them because of peer pressure. So this is why our pedagogy is very effective.
The pedagogy of Kidsbridge is small face-to-face group discussions and activities – no electronics, interpersonal – because that’s how kids learn. So they learn from our activities, our scripts, our wonderful facilitators, and they also learn from each other.
We work with The College of New Jersey’s Psychology Department. The college students administrate pre- and post-surveys, and the data are analyzed in the psych lab, so that we know whether our activities are working or not. We hone our activities as a result, and they are now evidence-based. We see a statistically significant improvement in attitudes like empathy, empowerment, moral reasoning, stereotype awareness and religious diversity.
Last semester, we did a Heartfulness and Mindfulness activity with the kids, and we are very proud to include this activity. Why? Because research says that children are increasingly under stress and that’s very upsetting.
Having statistically analyzed the effects of the program, we can proudly report that the Heartfulness and Mindfulness activity significantly reduced stress. The results show that the survey participants demonstrated significant improvements in three aspects: Observe, Accept without Judgment, and Act with Awareness. The results imply that this new program is beneficial for both middle and elementary school students.
Q: What are some of the benefits teachers have reported in their classrooms?
LA: Children report that they feel more comfortable standing up, that they know what to do next time, and that it’s not as hard as they thought it would b e .
Here are some quotes from teachers:
“The students were engaged, on task, and the group was organized. The facilitators maintained control and continued to enforce objectives. The assignments opened up their eyes to diversity and bullying prevention.”
“The activities were great for this age group. They learned how to speak to others, and who may be different. They also came up with ideas on how to help others. I love Kidsbridge! Please come back.”
“The students really enjoyed the heart and mind role-play. The breathing technique was wonderful. Nice calming activities.”
“The objective was achieved. The facilitators tapped into their background knowledge and experience with mindfulness and meditation. The students responded well and were fully engaged.”
I found the teachers loved these mindful activities.
We see a statistically significant improvement in attitudes
like empathy, empowerment, moral reasoning,
stereotype awareness and religious diversity.
Q: What are some essential tools for children to develop so they can face the challenges in this day and age?
LA: Let’s consider the types of problems we see today. Increasingly, Muslim children are bullied and harassed. Of course, they get support from home, but we’re hoping to teach them and their teachers how to respond when they’re teased and bullied, using some of the strategies.
We have taken strategies from The Youth Voice Project by Charisse Nixon and Stan Davis, who researched what works for kids: Make a joke, walk the victim away, make a distraction, go to an adult. So we really focus on strategies that are useful for Muslim children, gay children or children of color, as bullying and cyber bullying are especially increasing for these children.
It’s also important to energize the teachers, so they feel confident with a teacher’s guide and follow-up activities to take back to their classrooms so as to create a caring community.
And with the increase in bullying and cyberbullying, (and the pressure of increased testing), Heartfulness and Mindfulness are even more important than ever today. The kids are more often online, anonymous, and some of them feel fearless in being mean online. Kidsbridge recognizes how important Heartfulness is in providing our children with tools to calm down, breathe and focus on what is important, so they don’t feel overwhelmed or hurt themselves.
Illustrations by ARATI SHEDDE