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Jason Lugo

Chantal Morin received the dreaded phone call from her son's kindergarten teacher last fall: He'd been bullying another boy, pushing and saying mean things until the victim of his taunts didn't want to go to school.

Her mind spun. She was shocked that the situation had progressed so far, and she was fearful that, at the age of 5, her son was now destined to spend his school career sitting in the principal's office, friendless and delinquent. That would not happen, she vowed.

In a meeting with the teacher, her son confessed to the behaviour. At home, he lost his video games, television time and candy. The teacher had sent notes home, but the clever boy had tossed them. So his mom now receives a daily journal, reporting infractions and praising positive behaviour. On good days, he receives a quarter. On bad days, he goes to bed without his snack.

"I was very adamant about nipping it in the bud," Ms. Morin says. "He needs to know we mean business."

A leading Canadian researcher on bullying says the Morins are on the right track, responding firmly to their son's behaviour, communicating with the school and keeping a close eye on how he progresses. The evidence suggests that reacting strongly to bullying when kids are still kids is essential to stopping the behaviour before it progresses from "I don't want to play with you," to public humiliation in high school.

Such a response can possibly avoid situations like that in St. Thomas, Ont., where a 13-year-old girl was charged with criminal harassment this month after allegations of bullying at her elementary school. And it can prevent the pain suffered by the victims, who, too often, struggle with depression and anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts. But educators and experts says that's not always a parent's first reaction when the call comes. More often, it is denial, or, especially in the early years, dismissal.

"Most kids have engaged in some kind of bullying behaviour in elementary school," says Wendy Craig, a Queen's University psychologist who studies the issue. According to one study involving the early grades, only 36 per cent of girls and 17 per cent of boys said they'd had no involvement in bullying over the course of the school year.

"The message for teachers and parents is to identify them early," Dr. Craig says. "If you get a call twice in the school year, you need to be vigilant."

And yet, says Cindi Seddon, a principal in Coquitlam, B.C., most parents don't react like the Marins. Ms. Seddon says she's had to hang up the phone on abusive parents or leave the room when meetings turned hostile - often with their child watching mom or dad's own bullying behaviour. "Parents are incredibly upset," she says, when they learn their child is being accused of bullying. They don't always agree with the school's interpretation of events.

Tracy Vaillancourt, a psychologist at the University of Ottawa who studies aggression in children, says she understands why parents have trouble believing the allegations. "We hold a very stereotyped belief about who bullies are - that [it's the]big kid who steals a person's lunch money, who doesn't have a lot of friends."

A small percentage of bullies, usually most consistently vicious ones, may fall into that category - the outcast child who struggles in school, comes from a troubled home, and whose behaviour, more often than not, will require serious intervention. But 50 per cent of children who bully look just the opposite: They are pretty, smart, popular - and nasty.

"They are the kids who are nice to their parents, and have good social skills with their teachers and peers," Dr. Vaillancourt says. "But they are also really mean." Their bullying is done with sophistication, such as excluding people from their social circle and spreading rumours, often sneaking under the gaze of adults around them.

Hollywood rules apply, even in Grade 1: "You can get away with murder when you're hot," Dr. Vaillancourt says.

The good news, however, is that these are the bullies most easily stopped, since they respond to discipline. But, she says, "parents need to attend to it right away, and take it seriously."

In schools and at home, Dr. Vaillancourt says, "we need to talk to children about the dark side of power" and teach them how to use it properly. It's a hard lesson, though, because while the most serious, consistent bullies are more likely to join gangs, struggle in school and have difficult adult relationships, the popular, scheming bullies are often future leaders and successful professionals. As Dr. Vaillancourt observes, society seems to say: "We want our children to be champions, and if they need to step on a few people along the way, so be it."

Chantal Morin was having none of that attitude. When they moved to a new school a few months ago, her son showed signs of bullying again. A note came home explaining that he'd told another boy, "I want to kill you."

She explained to him: "If you were 18, and you said that to somebody, you could go to jail." He wanted to know what that meant. "As soon as I said, you had to pee in front of everybody, he said, 'I don't want to go there.' "

After many conversations and a strict new set of rules, the bully in her son appears to have backed down, though she's watching carefully for a reappearance. She wishes, however, that the school had called her at the first sign of trouble, before another child's day was ruined. And since much of her son's behaviour seems centred on misguided attempts to make friends, they are coaching him on social skills. The daily communication book from his teacher shows his progress.

"At the beginning of the book, we got 'he did this today. He did that today.' And now we are getting a whole lot of 'he had a great day.' "

And that means a future, she hopes, when the principal only calls because he made the honour roll.