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Bully Blocking

When we were young, many kids who wore glasses were victims of bullying. These days, most kids with glasses are perceived as being pretty cool – and intelligent with it. But that said, there are some who struggle to come to terms with their new eyewear, and their anxiety puts them at risk of being bullied.

As an eye care professional you can protect your younger patients, by encouraging them to wear young, funky frames that help them fit in – and by giving them strategies to deal with bullies in the playground.

Earlier this year a father in Ipswich, Queensland, came across his own children bullying a younger boy wearing glasses. As someone who had been bullied for wearing glasses as a child, he was immediately incensed.

The man, who did not want to be identified, took his 17-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter to the police. He dropped the 13-year-old victim back home. Later, as punishment, he sold his children’s prize possessions – his son’s car and his daughter’s horse.

Boys can be especially reluctant to wear glasses in the classroom so we often start them off wearing them at home

This incident came hot on the heels of the infamous Casey Heynes bullying episode. Casey, a Year 10 boy at a school in the western Sydney suburb of St Marys, had reportedly been the victim of repeated bullying over several years. When taunted one too many times by a younger boy at school, he launched himself at the bully, picked him up and slammed him into the ground. Video footage of the incident uploaded to the internet went viral. Eventually YouTube banned the footage from its site.

What is bullying?

Most of us have had some experience with bullying – perhaps as the victim or the perpetrator; maybe as the friend or family member left to pick up the pieces. There once was a time when most bullying was physical. These days, there’s much more to it.

Bullying now is frequently cited as “the repeated oppression, psychological or physical, of a less powerful person by a more powerful person or group of persons.”1 Researchers and educators include indirect or relational aggression in the definition – such as deliberate exclusion or spreading hurtful rumours.

Departments of education and schools around Australia and New Zealand have taken a zero tolerance attitude towards bullying, yet it still persists. While no research has been undertaken recently in Australia, a large-scale national survey of more than 38,000 schoolchildren, aged between seven and 17 years, identified that approximately one in six children are bullied by their peers each week while at school.1

And it’s having a detrimental effect. Every year almost 6,000 young children who are concerned with bullying call the Australian counselling service, Kids Help Line. The reasons most of these young callers give for victimisation included ethnicity; resistance to pressure to behave in a certain way; high achievement; being new; sexual orientation; social economic background and looking different.1

Boys experience victimisation more often then girls, and are more likely to be victimised if they are physically weaker than other boys. On the other hand, girls are more likely to be victimised because of their appearance and a lack of social friendships.2

With this in mind, it stands to reason then that kids who wear glasses – and therefore look different – are more likely to suffer from schoolyard bullying… or does it?

Are Glasses an Issue?

Social skills group studies conducted in schools by the Quirky Kid Clinic confirm that glasses are not at the top of the list of issues that concern children. In fact, kids who wear glasses are perceived as studious. “Schools are becoming more competitive – intelligence is valued and glasses are linked to intelligence,” said Kimberley O’Brien, the Clinic’s Principal Psychologist.

At Sydney’s Newtown North Primary School glasses are popular and, according to principal Sally Hogan, in some cases seen as a fashion accessory.

Russel Lazarus, an optometrist and practice owner at the EyecarePlus in Edgecliff, believes the biggest shift in kids’ attitudes towards glasses came about 10 years ago when Harry Potter movies first hit the big screen. “Since then we’ve had kids coming in wanting glasses,” said Mr. Lazarus, who has worked with children’s vision for 15 years.

Steven Daly, an optometrist at Penshurst in Sydney has experienced the same phenomenon. “These days I have more tears from kids that don’t need glasses and want them than those who are vision impaired.

“Recently an eight-year-old boy came in to have his eyes tested. He was perfectly happy until I told him he didn’t need glasses – then he had a massive tantrum. I think he wanted glasses because someone else at school had them.”

An Underlying Issue

But while kids who are confident can pretty much wear any style of eyewear they want and still be perceived by their friends as cool, those who are less self assured or socially competent tend to be more at risk of being bullied.

Patricia Cox, a primary school teacher in Auckland, New Zealand, says that while children who wear glasses may be bullied, it’s not usually because of the glasses: “The reasons are often more to do with a lack of social skills; an inability to fit in with their cohort,” she said.

Children in the playground at her primary school confirmed her assumption. “I asked a number of children wearing glasses, both in the classroom and in the playground. They all said that they had never suffered any bullying at school. They mentioned one boy who may have been teased, not because he wore glasses, but because he lacked social skills.”

Ms. Hogan has had the same experience. “At our school we have children with many different intellectual, physical and social abilities and disabilities. In my entire time as a principal I have had no reports of children being bullied because they wear glasses. Bullying is always a symptom or sign that something else is going on and requires further investigation.”

Caution Advised

For these more vulnerable children, and even for those brimming with confidence, caution is essential when dispensing new frames. That’s because when it comes to self image it’s an individual thing – and some kids will be more sensitive to their frame style than others.

Ms O.Brien says that the child’s stage in development will have a strong influence on their level of self awareness and the style of glasses they choose. The first significant stage she cites for girls occurs in early primary when they enter the princess or fairy phase and want to look beautiful. Later, when they hit high school, personal identity becomes a serious issue – every teenage girl wants to look either sophisticated or cool.

Along the way they’ll go through numerous other phases and be influenced by whatever their favourite musicians, actors or models are wearing. The over-riding factor for most though will be the need to fit in with the crowd. Fit them with frames that are too bright, too extreme, too dull or old fashioned, and they won’t feel part of the crowd. Worse still they could lose confidence, feel vulnerable, and suffer in their learning… all of which could eventually lead to being bullied.

One boy Ms. Cox spoke to in Auckland, who had recently acquired “very cool” BMX glasses, was reluctant to wear them in the classroom. “This can be a normal reaction in the initial stages of being prescribed glasses, but when I spoke to him, he said he wasn’t wearing them because the glasses were so different that he felt uncomfortable!”

That said, some kids just love to stand out. Ms. O’Brien from Quirky Kid Clinic described one patient who chose “very funky green glasses” that leapt out rather then toned in. “Gemma tried to look individual and she was quite popular because of that,” she said.

A patient Mr. Lazarus cared for chose Transition lenses to protect his eyes from the glare and flexible frames that bend inside out. “Now the cool kids in the school are the ones wearing photochromic lenses,” he said.

The bottom line? “Children need to feel comfortable with the glasses they wear,” said Ms. O’Brien. “If possible, give them the freedom to choose their own frames.”

How to Help

As an eyecare professional, preparing your youngest patients psychologically for wearing glasses is about as important as determining the right lenses. That means reinforcing the importance of wearing glasses, ensuring they feel good about their new look and working with the patient’s teacher to ensure the student is reminded to put them on in the early days of adjustment.

“I write a report to the child’s teacher and explain why my patient needs glasses,” said Mr. Lazarus. “This ensures the teachers are ready to support them.

“They remind the child to put them on in the classroom, take them off in the playground; and they encourage other children to be supportive as well.

“Boys can be especially reluctant to wear glasses in the classroom so we often start them off wearing them at home. Once they become used to the difference the glasses make, and they feel more comfortable, they’re more likely to take them into class,” he added.

Ms. Hogan says that helping children to feel comfortable in their glasses is vital to the learning process. “Some children refuse to wear glasses – or conveniently forget them. Others really struggle to accept wearing glasses and do their best to conceal them from the teacher. Yet clearly, glasses can make the difference. We had one little boy who made rapid progress in reading once he agreed to wear his glasses on a regular basis.”

At Newtown North Primary, the teachers make a proactive effort to address any issues children have over wearing glasses. “One teacher enlisted the support of the class. Every time the child put their glasses on, he earned a class point,” said Ms. Hogan. “The class needed 500 points to have a party so he soon became a very popular and well supported class member. Another teacher has a checklist near the door to remind the children when they unpack their bag… establishing routines is important so that wearing glasses is not negotiated on a daily basis.”

But Chih Chi Lee, a Sydney based behavioural optometrist at Thompson, Larter, Lee and Associates, says there is only so much that schools can do. “Parents need to teach their children not to worry about what other people think of them because when they are teased, their confidence is affected, then they don’t want to wear their glasses, so they sacrifice the functional help they were getting for social acceptance.”

“As eyecare professionals we also have a role – we’re the third person and as such, children will often listen more closely to what we say. So whenever I have a young patient who feels uncomfortable about wearing their glasses or doesn’t have the confidence to wear them because they’re being teased, I’ll have a discussion. I’ll reinforce the value of the glasses for their learning and point out – in a light-hearted way – that it’s better to be teased because you’re wearing glasses and you’re bright than it is to be teased because you’re not learning!”

1. http://www.dest.gov.au/NR/rdonlyres/D9BD73D0-FFE3-4D57-B29E-8A44058BA541/1639/ResearchSummary.rtf
2. Common Visual Defects and Peer Victimisation in Children. Jeremy Horwood, Andrea Waylen, David Herrick, Cathy Williams, Dieter Wolke, and the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children Study team. Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science, April 2005, Vol 46, No. 4.