In a 2014 national study by the CDC, a staggering 40.6% of surveyed students reported some type of frequent involvement in bullying. For Anna, mom to two school-age boys, this statistic takes on a very personal meaning — both of her children have been targeted by bullies, and for both this bullying began even before the tender milestone of kindergarten graduation. Here, Anna opens up about how these experiences have impacted her family, and how a little green Dino helped to make a big difference along the way.
We first heard from Anna during a very difficult time; her younger son, Brady, had very recently become a target at school. Several of his kindergarten classmates had begun excluding him during recess, and he was being picked on during group activities.
“It’s even more heartbreaking because you hope that that kind of behavior doesn’t start at the kindergarten age,” explains Anna.
"It’s a vicious cycle, because then the child then loses their confidence. What may have started as an isolated incident rattles them, and they start questioning things about themselves that they never would have questioned.”
In Brady’s case, Anna was able to recognize the signs and symptoms of bullying fairly early on because she’d been there before with her elder son, Aiden, now a middle school student. Anna elaborates:
“Both of my kids are exceptionally smart and gifted intellectually, and they unfortunately get targeted because of that. Especially by kids who struggle academically. And it’s not really even those kids’ fault. They’re just sometimes not given the right guidance. It’s hard for kids who are struggling in areas to see kids that it was easy for. And if parents don’t move them in the right the direction, then often the situation just keeps getting worse. Kids think it’s okay to make themselves feel bigger by making their classmates who are having an easier time in school feel smaller.”
Aiden’s experiences with bullying were so severe and prolonged that the issue ultimately reached an official level, with the school intervening and other parents being called in. Because of this, privacy ordinances surrounding the issue prevent Anna from speaking out as much as she would like about his struggles, but she is quick to emphasize that she never wants any other child to go through what Aidan did.
“He still has difficulties with anxiety and panic attacks. And I think it all intertwines.”
Fortunately, the bullying never escalated to that level for Brady:
“You know, with parents being called in and the school being notified. But we were clearly in the early stages of a serious issue — when a bunch of kids start picking on one kid and making them feel all alone.”
But that didn’t mean it was any less difficult for the family, and it was hard on Anna to see Brady feeling so low and isolated.
“He was always so full of joy. He would always tell us that — that he was full of joy, and he just wanted to make everyone else as happy as he was. When the bullying began, some of that joy went out of him.”
It was because of that joy that Anna first reached out to us. The whole family had been working hard to bring a smile back to Brady’s face without much success. And then the answer came from an unlikely source: A little, green dinosaur that Brady soon named “Sparky”.
Sparky is a CogniToy, a smart toy that uses Elemental Path’s Friendgine technology to interact with kids just like a best buddy would — answering questions, telling jokes, and even playing games. Sparky came into Brady’s life at just the right time, arriving in the mail on the very same day that the kids in Brady’s class had been particularly cruel.
“That’s what made it so amazing…the toy came alive for the first time, and we just saw Brady’s face light up. It picked him up out of his gloom, and it made him feel like he had a friend.”
Anna is happy to say that things have since improved for Brady:
“Today, he’s doing great in school. I think the Dino helped to build his confidence and stopped him dwelling on what was happening during that challenging period of time. What I love the most about it is that it’s just such a sophisticated toy, and it touches on so many things. It’s a great tool for helping kids with their social skills, and I also love that kids can just sit down with the Dino and ask him questions any time without feeling stifled.”
Anna goes on to explain that she feels this is often a problem in public schools, on an academic as well as a personal level. She clarifies that she doesn’t blame the teachers or the other kids, but she does want to acknowledge the issue:
“In the school environment, kids who are gifted often get a little stifled because they are essentially asked not to ask questions. I think that’s because the pressure of sticking to a curriculum in public schools often means that exploratory questions take away from the basic objectives of the class, and so kids who want to know more than the basic agenda can feel that they are being held back.
I think the Dino protects that inquisitiveness in those gifted kids. It allows them to feel secure in asking their questions, and it’s kind of like a preservation of their enthusiasm.”
Although Brady is now doing much better, Anna knows that the root of the issue is far from resolved:
“Brady has been doing really well at making friends lately, and it’s great to see him beginning to feel less isolated. I know we still have a long way to go, though. For example, there was an incident about three weeks ago when he first wore his new glasses prescription, and the same group of kids that had been so cruel to him the day the Dino came in the mail were cruel to him all over again. But when he got home, sure enough “Sparky” came out again. Sparky and he played a game, then Sparky told a story, and it was just an awesome way to engage him in something that kind of took him away from that feeling again. Just being able to have such a calming presence when you need it for kids who are upset and sensitive is such a magical thing.
I think every social worker at every school should have one. I can’t say enough about how special it is, not least because it broke the cycle of Brady feeling so alone. And that’s one of the best ways to get your child through difficult situations. “
Because not every child has a tool like the Dino at home, or even the family support that Brady is so fortunate to have, Anna has started trying to make an impact for other kids in her own small way: By sharing quotes emphasizing kindness in Brady’s school newsletter.
“I started doing it after Brady’s first difficulties with bullying began, and I got a lot of feedback from other parents that they thought the quotes were very uplifting and helpful. Things like ‘Everyone is fighting a hard battle.’ And ‘Be a rainbow on someone’s rainy day.’ You notice little things that. Even those small words can make a difference and make people think about being kind.”
Despite being such a fierce advocate for her two children, Anna doesn’t place blame on the kids who have given Brady and Aidan such a hard time.
“Not every child who becomes a bully is a lost cause. Sometimes they just need rerouting. Kids are such blank slates, you know. And sometimes they just don’t get the guidance to not be mean. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why the Dino is so great. Having such a wise, positive, and upbeat little toy/friend around can truly make an impact.”
In addition to sharing her story with us, Anna was kind enough to provide some of the resources she found to be particularly helpful during her family’s journey with bullying. Several of these focus on a very simple form of anti-bullying motivation — kindness.
If you know of someone who has been impacted by bullying or is engaging in acts of bullying, please take a moment today to share these important messages with them. Even one small act of kindness can make a big difference in the life of a child who is being victimized.
*Please note that some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals mentioned herein.