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Beyond Bullying

A Message from Tom Dahlborg
Vice President for Strategy and Project Director


January 2013

In the online December issue of Pediatrics, researchers from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University recently shared outcomes from their study, “Youth Seeking Weight Loss Treatment Report Bullying by Those They Trust.”

The study design included a survey of adolescents to better understand bullying behaviors, including the location, frequency, duration and types of bullies involved.

The study found that:

  • 64 percent of those surveyed reported getting bullied at school (with the risk of bullying increasing relative to the child's body weight).
  • Most of the kids suffered bullying for at least one year (78 percent) while over a third (36 percent) had been dealing with bullying for five years.
  • The most common bullies involved were the child's peers (92 percent) and even those kids that they considered friends (70 percent).  

But one of the most disturbing findings to me is the fact that these children also report being bullied by physical education teachers and sports coaches (42%), parents (37%) and classroom teachers (27%).

I should not be so surprised. I have personally encounted an incident of an adult bullying a child I know well, but until I read this study, I assumed that event was an aberration and that bullying of this kind was nowhere near as prevalent as highlighted in this study.

About 12 years ago we lived in a picturesque community on the coast in what seemed the ideal neighborhood.

In this neighborhood lived a five-year-old boy who was overweight. He loved to run, play and have fun, and one day he was outside playing with some of the other neighborhood children when they all decided to go inside a neighbor’s home. As they walked up to the door the mother of one of the boys greeted them and let them in one by one until she saw this child and yelled, “You are too big to come in and play. Go home!”

This would be devastating to anyone, never mind a five-year-old child. The tears and the pain he felt were heartbreaking. As was the pain felt by his parents. And the impact of this bullying along with many other examples this child endured in this neighborhood lasts to this day.

Now contrast this experience with one I witnessed repeatedly at a dance class for young children in the same community at around the same time. The dance instructor truly connected with each of the children in her class. She set expectations, she encouraged, she shared compassion and empathy for those challenged to perform and honored these children for their individual gifts, regardless of their body types.

My daughter was one of the lucky children in that class. She began dancing at a very young age and developed a special relationship with this teacher, a bond and a trust which she cherishes to this day. Years later, now as a college freshman, she has decided to continue to dance as part of a healthy lifestyle. She has taken it upon herself to research schools of dance and to fund the program of her choice.

My daughter loves exercising (with dance being at the top of the list) and maintains a healthy body image, self-esteem level and perspective on life, thanks in large part to the influence of this teacher from years ago.

Quite a dichotomy between the neighbor's approach with the five-year-old boy and the dance instructor's approach to her students…and both will have lasting influence on these children.

Now that I have the opportunity to work for a quality improvement organization with a vision of ensuring each child achieves his or her optimal health, and to process this information through the lens of my own experiences (personal and professional), my heart still breaks for those children harmed by bullying…AND I see great opportunities for improvement:

  • To meet children where they are while also educating adults as to the impact we can all have on children (both positive and negative).
  • To bring this perspective to healthcare and expand current thinking around patient-centeredness (child-centeredness) and the patient-centered medical home. 
  • To evolve the medical home concept to a neighborhood perspective where patients and families, neighbors and friends, and coaches and teachers are all engaged to learn and grow and help the children of a community achieve their optimal health (by addressing bullying at all levels as well as many other barriers to children’s safety and optimal health).
  • To ensure that each child is recognized as unique, and receives appropriate interventions and support that will best position the child to achieve his or her optimal health.

NICHQ has helped lead the patient-centered medical home evolution since the 1990s and continues to do so. Currently, the US healthcare system is struggling with optimizing behavioral health integration into the medical home. We must continue our improvement efforts and to evolve and expand our thinking in this arena even more.

These are invigorating times to be working in healthcare quality improvement with a focus on children. We have a great opportunity to change communities for the better through evolved medical home concepts and I am excited to be part of this ongoing work as NICHQ continues to lead the way.

As a healthcare leader, a coach, a friend, a husband and a father, I have seen the positive impact we can have on children from both a systemic perspective and on a one-to-one basis. At NICHQ I am blessed with an opportunity to do both.


Tom

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