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One of our readers asked for help with the following problem:

“My daughter is in 4th grade and recently there have been some mean notes that have been left on students’ desks with attacking and even sexual language. All the kids say they don’t know who’s doing it. The notes appear when children are not at their desks and then ‘found’ upon their return – a short time – getting a drink of water or handing something in. The teacher has addressed it with the class and how it’s not appropriate, how it’s bullying, and how it’s not tolerated. He even sent a note to the parents to help make us aware. However the notes keep happening.”

Of course, this behavior is unacceptable! Sometimes kids (and adults) do hurtful things – and it is the job of the adults in charge to make sure it stops! Unfortunately, lectures to a whole class about any misbehavior often don’t work – the kids who aren’t doing anything wrong might feel guilty; the kids who know something might feel afraid of retaliation; and any kids who have passed these notes might worry about getting into trouble and not get help in stopping.

teacher with class

Working together to make sure that school is a safe place for everyone.

The teacher, in teamwork with the principal and parents, needs to make a strong commitment to making this behavior stop – lovingly, firmly, consistently, and persistently. The united message needs to be, “Our classroom must be a place where everyone is treated with safety and respect – and is responsible for acting safely and respectfully towards others. It is up to all of us to make this happen! If you know who is saying or writing mean things, or even if you did this yourself, please tell me. We don’t want to get anyone into trouble – we just want to find out why it has been happening and to find safer ways of handling our feelings when we feel annoyed with someone else.”

Involving the students by having a facilitated discussion by someone like the school counselor could help them to come up with good ideas themselves. The students might all agree to not read any notes and to give them right away to the teacher. Perhaps there could be an anonymous suggestion box about how to stop this behind-the-back activity. Maybe the teacher and the class can turn this problem into an opportunity to learn how research, field-test, and find workable solutions. By letting kids know that most things do not work right away or all the time, their classroom can learn about “trial and error” and that figuring out what does and doesn’t work is part of the ‘experiment’.

One strategy to help counter unkind remarks or notes is to set up a structure for giving meaningful and sincere compliments from each student to each student because learning how to appreciate each other makes problems less likely to happen and easier to work out. Winfield High School in West Virginia’s WeStopHate Club made compliment grams a regular practice that has helped to create a much more positive social climate. A high school senior named Wilson To set up a Facebook page to spread compliments – and five girls at Belmont High School in New Hampshire started putting posters on lockers to take a stand against cyberbullying. Jerimiah Anthony in Iowa City created a Twitter feed to compliment his West High School classmates.

Perhaps students and the teacher can deliver in person, in front of the classroom, a positive affirmation card or personalized written compliment to anyone who has received a mean note. If the teacher has an idea of who the author/s could be (by analyzing the handwriting of the notes), perhaps he can make some sort of special card delivery that he delivers himself to the students he suspects are doing it. It could even be two cards: a public one and a private one.

The public card could say some thing good about that student’s positive leadership skills and give a specific example of when she or he did that. The teacher could read it aloud in front of the classroom and deliver the written card to the student in front of everyone.

The private note could be deposited on the suspected student’s desk very discreetly. It could say something along the lines of “Wisdom tip: When you realize you have made a mistake or that you have done something wrong or realize that you have hurt someone else and you don’t know how to fix it or change it, it’s important to know that you can ALWAYS come tell me. I will do everything in my power to help you to change that problem into a solution.”

According to the mother whose request inspired this article, the issue has now been resolved. She wrote:

“The person writing the notes was trying to garner the attention of the class and take time out of classroom activities, thereby indirectly being the center of attention. By not calling attention to it and having the kids throw any unknown papers left on their desks into the garbage without reading them, it took the power away. We still don’t know directly who was responsible but we have an idea. While never caught, they stopped when they realized no power was given to their messages. I think all the steps you outlined did take place and helped in the end. The class as a whole came to realize that everyone is valuable.”

For more information about Kidpower’s resources for teaching these People Safety Skills and concepts, please visit our online Library (free community membership) and our RelationSafe™ Bookstore.

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Published: February 26, 2015   |   Last Updated: September 20, 2017

Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: cartoon-illustrated Kidpower Safety Comics and Kidpower Teaching Books curriculum; Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe; the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults; Earliest Teachable Moment: Personal Safety for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers; The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, and the Amazon Best Seller Doing Right by Our Kids: Protecting Child Safety at All Levels.