Here’s what we know…
Although there seems to be improvements related to the prevalence of bullying in the most recent years (Waasdorp et al 2018), peer mistreatment is still a very serious concern for far too many students.
So what can we do? We know that bullying prevention is not just about doing ‘one thing’—and in fact, there is no silver bullet. But, we also know that how we approach bullying prevention does matter. What we focus on does determine our course of action, and ultimately, our effectiveness.
The importance of the lens – Think about what lenses do for us. For some of us, they correct our stigmatism, for others they add color and/or depth. In short, lenses allow us to see things we wouldn’t have necessarily seen before. For example, do we really believe that all children have the potential for positive change--even Jodi? Joseph? What about ______? The answer to this question depends on our lens. This blog is not meant to be exhaustive. Rather, it is meant to challenge our perspective on bullying prevention in our own ‘neck of the woods’--and if needed, help us to consider adopting a different set of lenses.
#1 Ecological lens - We know that peer mistreatment does not happen in isolation. Instead, it is part of a larger culture, affected by many relational systems. Subsequently, our prevention and intervention efforts must also be addressed through many, overlapping relational systems across many different contexts including our schools, families, and communities (see Espelage, 2014). An ecological lens directs us to take a comprehensive approach to bullying prevention.
#2 Strengths Perspective lens - Historically, bullying prevention has focused primarily on mitigating destructive behaviors related to the peer mistreatment. While it is important to reduce at-risk behavior (i.e., peer mistreatment), it is equally important to focus on promoting and sustaining positive, protective factors among our youth. To promote positive developmental outcomes, we must understand students’ strengths as well as their liabilities and challenges. Our job is to create learning environments, steeped with opportunities for students to develop the social, emotional and cognitive skills needed to actively support one another, and constructively cope with challenging experiences. One strengths-based approach that is particularly relevant to bullying prevention work is applying the lens of Positive Youth Development (e.g., Hilliard, Batanova & Bowers, 2015). The positive youth development (PYD) approach focuses on developing students’ strengths by developing their character (respect, sense of right and wrong), caring (empathy), connection, confidence, and competence (conflict resolution skills, coping strategies). Additionally, the PYD approach advocates that youth need meaningful opportunities to contribute (Lerner, Lerner, Bowers, & Geldhof, 2015). This lens directs us to focus on students’ strengths as well as provide opportunities for them to meet their basic needs in a proactive, constructive manner (e.g., acceptance, belonging, sense of control).
A strengths-based approach is also consistent with implementing effective social emotional learning (SEL) programs. For example, we know that empathy development is a key component in effective bullying prevention. Unlike so many other attributes that are tied to socio-economic status, gender, or race etc., empathy is an equal, opportunity lender--anyone can give it; and anyone can receive it, but it needs to be taught, cultivated and maintained. Empathy has the potential to level the playing field for everyone. Effective SEL programs can contribute to safer and more connected schools.
It is important to build cognitive skills. Why cognitive skills? Because cognitive skills are plastic or malleable. In other words, we get to choose how we think about what happens to us. Consistent with this thinking, myriad research findings show that it is the attitudes that lead to bullying perpetration. In our own national study (Youth Voice Project; Davis & Nixon, 2013) surveying thousands of students about their own responses to peer victimization, my colleague, Stan Davis and I found that only students’ use of cognitive restructuring (e.g., ‘reminded myself it was not my fault…’) was related to lower levels of associated emotional distress. These results are consistent with recent research highlighting the importance of targeting students’ psychological processes in developing effective or ‘wise’ interventions (Walton, 2014).
How do you sustain positive developmental outcomes over time? Effective, multi-tier mentoring is a strengths-based approach to develop and sustain PYD outcomes over time. This democratic, research-based approach values youth voice at its core.
#3 Trauma–Informed lens - Why is a trauma informed lens needed? A quick glance at the current mental health trends for our nation’s kids sheds light on the gravity of the situation. According to the CDC (2017), suicide and depression are now recognized as significant public health concerns, with the highest increases in suicide reported among adolescent females (10-14 years). Add into the mix, anxiety and the experience of loss, and we have the makings of a ‘perfect storm.’ For example, in one of our own PA school districts, 47.4% of their 6th grade students reported the death of a close friend or family member in the past 12 months. Children are experiencing loss at alarming rates. Pile peer mistreatment on top of compromised students’ mental health concerns and we have potential for devastating outcomes.
In addressing peer mistreatment, it is important to be aware of the trauma students are facing. It is only through understanding our students’ backstory, that we can begin to understand their current situation and optimize their developmental outcomes, including how to effectively address peer mistreatment at school. Consistent with a strengths perspective, adopting a trauma-informed lens focuses us on ‘what has happened to the child,’ instead of ‘what is wrong with the child.’ This perspective can be very useful when working with all children involved in peer mistreatment—including perpetrators, targets, as well as others who witness or are privy to the mistreatment. Kindness, sensitivity and respect need to be the norm describing our school culture, not the exception. What about our teachers? Are teachers receiving support from administrators, staff, other teachers? Is a culture of trust being built? Like PYD, a trauma-informed approach etches a laser focus on developing and maintaining constructive relationships in the school climate—among students, teachers, staff, administrators, and parents. Healthy relationships are the foundation for restoration and healing. Our own research as well as others’, has shown the significant power of peer support in helping to mitigate the negative effects associated with peer mistreatment.
What can we do about bullying?
I have been involved in the modern bullying prevention movement since it began in the 1990s. We have seen some progress in this work, yet for the most part, this effort has not been successful. Too many young people are still being mistreated. We are writing this blog to outline six principles, based on our own as well as others’ research, which can guide our interventions in the future.
Instead of focusing on complex subjective definitions of bullying, we believe that it is more effective to define specific potentially hurtful actions and work to reduce those. For example, we cannot be sure that a particular action is intended to harm, or that an imbalance of power does in fact exist between two students. However, we can be sure that name-calling or other negative actions focused on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, body shape, and other characteristics are likely to do harm. We can be sure that posting negative comments about someone else is likely to do harm. Similarly, we can be sure that spreading rumors about someone is likely to do harm, just like hitting or threatening someone is likely to do harm. When we focus on specific actions, rather than whether a particular action is bullying or not, we are more likely to be effective in reducing the frequency of those actions.
Instead of labeling youth as “bullies” or “victims,” we recommend describing the behaviors in question. In our book we used the terms “youth who mistreat” and “youth who are mistreated” to make clear that there is nothing inherent in a person that makes them “a bully” or “a victim.” Recent research by David Yeager and others shows us that when youth know that people can change, they are less likely to report being hurt by mean behavior, and less likely to seek revenge. Additionally, in terms of attribution, research findings show that it is never in the students’ best interest to believe that someone hurt them on purpose.
Instead of attempting to change the behavior of youth who have been mistreated, we need to focus on supporting and including those youth. In our research we found that mistreated youth reported that adults often told them that if they acted differently, the mistreatment would stop. Mistreated youth reported that this adult action often led to things getting worse for them. It is time that we accept that mistreated youth do not cause what is done to them. On the other hand, youth reported that adult listening, encouragement, and giving hope were the most powerful adult actions in terms of generating positive youth outcomes. Many youth wrote in our survey that it helped them to hear adults say that they did not deserve what was done to them and it was not their fault.
Instead of asking youth who witness bullying to confront those who mistreat others, we recommend asking them to include and support those who are mistreated and excluded. Youth in our study told us that things were most likely to get better for them if their peers included them, encouraged them, and gave them hope. This was true even when the support was given privately and away from school. Importantly, these quiet acts of support are behaviors that do not put students directly in harm’s way.
Instead of targeting only ‘at-risk’ youth, teach and reinforce positive coping strategies for all students. Research suggest that youth struggle to identify and use positive coping strategies when experiencing stressors in their lives. Adolescence is a time period filled with stressors for our young people--peer mistreatment is one of those salient stressors. It is important for educators and caring adults to continue to focus on teaching all youth positive ways to respond to mistreatment.
Use student-centered social norming campaigns to establish and maintain positive, safe, inclusive school cultures where all students are given opportunities to contribute to their community in meaningful ways.
We can be more effective in reducing both the frequency of peer mistreatment as well as reducing the harm that peer mistreatment carries. For more information about these strategies, see our book, Youth Voice Project.
Prevention of Aggression Resource Center
Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center
Cyberbullying Research Center