Phyllis Kunimura. Photo by Anne E. O'Malley

Phyllis Kunimura. Photo by Anne E. O’Malley

Imagine a universe without bullying. Phyllis Kunimura is helping to create it.

Kunimura founded and runs Kaua`i Independent Daycare Services, Inc. (K.I.D.S.), a pre-school in operation since 1989, that gets keiki ready for kindergarten.

A former public school classroom teacher and author of Beyond the Sandbox: Preschool Matters, Kunimura also runs a five-step anti-bullying program at her school and she’s taken it on the road.

“It’s always challenging for children — handling emotions and behaviors,” says Kunimura, who has seen little bullies over the years. “If there’s no intervention, it intensifies as they get older.”

What Kunimura found was that even kindergarten wasn’t early enough to begin containing the behavior.

“I needed to get it earlier and get parents in on it. That’s why I started a pre-school,” she says.

It takes interaction and education, says Kunimura.

“We have to get to parents as early as possible to help them understand what an awesome responsibility they have. They’re not just taking care of a baby — they’re making an adult.

“Early experiences you have, whether positive or negative, stay with you for a lifetime and influence who you are as a person.”

Kunimura looks not to punishment, but to giving tools, her five-step anti-bullying program, a process. to help children change their behavior. The steps seem simple enough; but the process needs practice, practice, practice.

The steps are as follows. 1. Objectively set the scene. 2. Get all the facts from all involved. 3. Identify the problem. 4. Practice doing the right thing. 5. Show empathy on the part of all involved, including an apology and sympathy.

Kunimura says this is how she’s been working with children for about 30 years, and that it was about 15 years ago that she formalized it as a simple way to explain it for her staff to use.

“It’s an automatic process that we have to do with each incident — like taking your shoes off at the door,” say Kunimura. “We keep doing it, so keiki learn to handle anger problems.”

And just what does bullying look like in pre-school?

“We have 81 children,” says Kunimura. “It might happen four to five times a day, some days not.”

Kunimura relates an incident in which three four-year-old girls on the playground got into a tiff, one of them being mean and excluding a playmate. One of them said, “Let’s figure this out like Mrs. Chow (K.I.D.S. employee) does. What happened here?” and they set about the process.

“We laugh and enjoy it when that type of resolution happens because we see it happen time and time again with our children,” say Kunimura. ”This is what our staff does with every incident.”

Recently, Kunimura did an in-service training for Kaua`i public school principals and vice principals on two topics: understanding the importance of the ages zero to five years, where 90 percent of basic social, emotional attitudes and lifestyle development — the foundation — takes place; and the bottom-up approach to anti-bullying, the five step process.

She taught a workshop at the Pacific Rim International Conference on Disability and Diversity at the Hawai`i Convention Center titled  Bottom Up Approach to Anti-bullying. The audience was a mix of agency administrators, teachers, psychologists and more.

In July, the Hawai`i Preschool Positive Engagement Project operating out of the UH Manoa Center on Disability Studies had her teach a six-hour workshop on the topic.

Closer to home, she’s involved with a pilot project about to launch at three Kaua`i schools in grades kindergarten through three that plans to eventually carry on through the fourth and fifth grades.

“Teaching anti-bullying from the bottom up is a learned skill that needs to be taught, just like reading readiness,” says Kunimura.

“I see this as a great opportunity for Kaua`i to take the leadership and spread it throughout Hawai`i to change the violence that’s happening, the anger that’s out there. We need to start with children at a really young age, zero to five years, so that we can give them a tool they can use to seek a resolution and go from me, me, me and self-indulgence to we — we as a family, we as a county, we as a state, WE matter.

“We need to take the time to make the change happen — from the bottom up.”