New Easter Seals program could help socially challenged youth thwart bullies

2011-01-11T00:00:00Z 2014-08-25T08:03:07Z New Easter Seals program could help socially challenged youth thwart bulliesBy CINDY UKEN Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette

Bullying is a common part of childhood. It affects nearly half the students in high school and middle school, and Billings is no exception.

There is no single reason that one child bullies another. One explanation may be that either the bully or the victim doesn't have the social skills necessary to interact with others in a positive manner. Bullies may lack self-esteem and pick on others to make themselves feel better. Some victims lack self-confidence and refuse to stand up for themselves.

Easter Seals-Goodwill Northern Rocky Mountain Inc. in Billings is launching a program that could help young people develop the social skills that could curb bullying. The eight-week program, Kids Connect, begins in February. The program, once tailored for children with autism, is now designed for any youth who struggles socially.

"Some get picked on because they don't have friends," said Paula Kitzenberg, director of pediatric therapy services for Easter Seals-Goodwill Northern Rocky Mountain. "Some don't know how to make friends."

Estimates by the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center say that 30 percent of students are bullied regularly or are bullies themselves. Six percent of children say that they have been both the bullying victim and the bully at one time or another.

Bullying is considered any action where someone hurts or scares someone else on purpose. Bullying may include punching, shoving and other acts that hurt people physically; spreading rumors about people; keeping certain people out of a "group"; teasing in a mean way; and influencing people to gang up on others. Bullying also can happen online.

The Kids Connect program uses activities and cooperative learning to help children:

* Gain confidence and self-esteem.

* Improve communication skills.

* Learn and improve hygiene and related skills.

* Practice etiquette and social skills.

* Learn to work with others.

* Enhance coping skills.

* Identify and express feelings.

* Learn to manage conflict.

"As a parent, it would break my heart if my child wanted to make friends but didn't know how," Kitzenberg said.

Each group session will be based on activities that require cooperative play and provide opportunities to explore personal interests and skills. Group leaders will include speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists and community members with backgrounds in psychology, social work, art and music therapy, yoga, dance, childhood development, theater and more.

Half of the group sessions will be held at various locations in the community, providing the opportunity to practice social skills in real-life settings.

McKell Meyers is a believer. She has seen the difference a similar program has made for her 13-year-old daughter, McKenna, who has a complicated seizure disorder and, as a consequence, autistic-like features. McKenna, who is home-schooled, participated in a group last year.

"It gave her a lot of confidence," McKell said about the program's effect on her daughter, whom she describes as socially delayed. "It was good for her because she is typically drawn to younger children. It was good for her to see how other girls her age act."

McKenna has long struggled with how to make friends and be a friend, McKell said. "Those things don't come naturally for McKenna."

Like any teenage girl, McKenna is concerned about her looks, her hair and her nails. The hygiene portion of the program was a lifesaver. McKenna has stopped biting her fingernails but still sucks her thumb.

McKenna's passion is talking about animals. If anyone changes the topic, she walks away. She avoids making eye contact during conversation, and she likes to tell people she "has issues."

"I think that's such a good way to say it," McKell said.

Issues or not, McKenna has made dramatic strides.

"It's been good for McKenna and the entire family," McKell said. "We're all benefiting from coming here."

McKenna's a believer too. "I like learning," she said. "Val (Zimmer, speech therapist) helps me talk better because no one could understand me before. I feel like a brand new kid. When I have a problem they help me understand."

She has learned responsibility through the use of live plants. She has learned how to cook by making cookies. That same cooking lesson taught her that accidents happen. Somehow, somebody put too much sugar in the recipe. The accidental overdose also taught her a lesson in manners.

"They tasted terrible, but I didn't want to be rude so I said they were fine," McKenna said.

One of the most valuable lessons she saved for the end of a lively, unpredictable interview.

"I've learned how to be a good friend," she said as though she had discovered gold. "When you get a hurt, a good friend says, ‘Do you want help?' "

Gold indeed.

Contact Cindy Uken at cuken@billingsgazette.com or 657-1287.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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