By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
School Counselors Chris Zacha and Erin Howard lead a mother-daughter pajama night intended to discuss social issues with young girls in Calabasas.
It’s nighttime and the auditorium at Lupin Hill Elementary School in Calabasas is packed with fifth-grade girls and their mothers wearing pajamas. Some of the youngsters have brought blankets, stuffed animals and pillows.
It’s a warm and fuzzy environment, but the topics under discussion are not. The girls have come to discuss fighting, hurting each other’s feelings, age-appropriate behavior, and how to get along. Parents have come to hear tips on those things, too, along with information on how to prevent cyber bullying, keep youngsters safe from online predators, and improve communication with their ‘tweens.’
Some of the girls have signs taped to their backs with various messages. “Ignore Me” is on several signs. “Whisper Behind My Back” is printed on others. “Compliment Me” is printed on a few.
While everyone munches on pizza, school counselors Chris Zacha and Erin Howard — both LVEA members — take the microphone.
“How does it make you feel?” Howard asks those students with the “Ignore Me” signs. The girls say it makes them feel bad and sad. The same question is posed to girls with the “Whisper Behind My Back” signs and elicits a similar response.
Next, girls and their moms play the “Line Game,” and are asked to step forward if they hear something that applies to them — either now, or in the past.
“Step forward if you have ever stood by and watched a friend be teased or harassed.”
“Step forward if you have ever made someone feel excluded.”
“Step forward if you have ever been turned away from a lunch table.”
“Step forward if you have passed on a rumor that wasn’t true.”
“Step forward if you’ve made friends with someone nobody else wanted to be friends with.”
The girls are shocked to see their mothers step forward right along with them for questions that describe behavior hurtful to others. The counselors thank everyone for their honesty.
“How many of you have ever had a small fight and the next thing you know, 10 people are in the fight and you don’t know what started the fight?” asks Zacha.
Everyone’s hand goes up.
“It happens at a lot of schools and a lot of girls have hurt feelings,” says Zacha. “I want people to start working things out so this doesn’t happen.”
Zacha and Howard take the girls aside while the moms go into a room with the school psychologist and principal. In each group, school staff members address important issues.
The girls have paper hearts and are asked to repeat words that have been said by their peers that hurt their feelings. Each time one of the words is uttered — such as ugly, weird, midget and loser — the students crumple the paper, which represents a broken heart. Then they play “telephone,” where one girl whispers something to another, and the sentence is repeated around the circle in whispers. The meaning becomes convoluted with each re-telling until it no longer makes sense. The end result may be humorous, but when gross distortion happens from rumors, the girls agree it can be anything but funny.
“We don’t want to be the bystander that lets these rumors happen,” says Howard. “If I have a friend that is saying mean things to me about Miss Zacha and I just sit there, I’m part of the problem.”
Meanwhile parents are learning positive parenting tips that include how to keep their children safe from on-line predators, how to be on the alert against cyber bullying; and how to translate “texting” language such as MMA (meet me at) or SCNR (sorry could not resist).
The idea took hold after counselors attended an anti-bullying training called Mean Girls. They hope that sharing information in a cozy environment will eventually improve the school environment.
“We can’t tell parents what to do and what not to do, but we can give suggestions, such as making sure their children are supervised and not letting them go out on unsupervised dates in fourth and fifth grade, before they are emotionally ready,” says Zacha. “We’ve seen fourth- and fifth-graders have a short relationship, and it ends with a lot of drama and a lot of hurtful things being said.”
“Mother-Daughter Pajama Night is a starting place where we can give parents some tools to work with,” says Howard. “These issues are starting younger and younger, and if we don’t do something about it, middle school behavior will eventually be the norm in elementary school.”
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