Perspective matters…and YOU get to decide which perspective you will choose
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.