My Thoughts on Bullying

Results from a new study may change the way we think about bullying. Researchers from Simon Fraser University found that adolescent bullies had higher self-esteem, fewer depressive symptoms, and higher social status than their non-bully peers. Based on these findings, the researchers proposed that bullying might be adaptive (rather than maladaptive) and that there may be genetic links to bullying behavior.

Bullying has become quite the hot topic over the past decade and millions of dollars have been invested in trying to understand and prevent it. However, research on bullying has yielded mixed findings and programs aimed at reducing bullying have been largely ineffective. So, what should we do about bullying?

First, I think it is important to remember that bullying is an umbrella term that encompasses any kind of abuse that is targeted and repeated. It can include physically hurting another individual, being verbally abusive, excluding an individual, or spreading rumors about someone behind their back. Different forms of bullying require different approaches and strategies. There are also likely to be many causes for bullying. Stating that bullying is due to one’s genetics is a big generalization.

Second, I agree with the authors on the study that some degree of bullying behavior may be “hard-wired” or developmentally normative. As children develop into adolescents, it is normal for them to seek out ways to be independent, have power, and be in control. This is also a time when children begin to experiment socially and test out the limits of their power in social situations. However, saying that some amount of bullying is normative for children and adolescents is not the same as saying that its okay and that we should just accept it in all of its forms. Instead, understanding the underlying need that bullying may be fulfilling can help us figure out better strategies for reducing it as well as preventing negative long-term outcomes associated with it.

What can parents, teachers, educators, and camp counselors do?

Although each bullying incident is different and may require different approaches, here are three general strategies that can be useful when trying to prevent bullying, stop bullying before it comes extreme, or prevent negative long-term outcomes associated with peer victimization.

  1. Support the victims

Studies on bullying have shown that high quality friendships can help protect victims from negative long-term outcomes. This can be difficult if an entire classroom or cabin is picking on or excluding one child. Perhaps this child could be given opportunities to interact and bond with children in a different setting or with children of a different age? Figure out something that this child is interested in and see if you can use that to help them form a connection with a peer who has similar interests.

  1. Create opportunities for bullies to be leaders

This is not just true for bullies, but for all children and adolescents who are popular have social power. Support them in using their power and influence in a positive way. Put them in charge of a group activity or class project. If there is something they are good at (other than bullying), have them teach it to others.

  1. Promote social-emotional learning and development!

This includes teaching and modeling prosocial behavior, empathy, perspective-taking, self-awareness, self-regulation, and responsible decision-making. This also means providing opportunities for children and adolescents to think about themselves, their behavior, and the effect that is has on others. Social-emotional learning may not prevent all bullying from occurring but the hope is that it can give children a foundation of skills so that they are more likely to stop and think before they act, put themselves in someone else’s shoes, and develop and maintain positive relationships.

Can children’s behavior in kindergarten predict how they will turn out?

The results from a study published this summer in the American Journal Public Health seem to suggest so. In the early 1990’s, 50 kindergarten teachers, across four states, were asked to rate their students’ social competencies including the degree that each child “cooperates with peers without prompting”, “is helpful to others”, and “is good at understanding feelings”. After following-up with these same children 19 years later, the researchers found that the teacher ratings of students’ social skills were related to some astonishing long-term outcomes. For example, children who were rated as having high levels of social competence were more likely to graduate from high school on time, achieve college degrees, and have stable employment. On the flip side, children who scored low on the social skills assessment were more likely to have been arrested in early adulthood for a severe offence. Importantly, social competence in kindergarten predicted these outcomes over and above the influence of demographic factors, such as child race, socioeconomic status, and the level of violence in their neighborhood.

How can one’s social competencies so early in life predict such extreme outcomes in early adulthood? Some developmental researchers explain these associations between early childhood and adulthood in terms of a developmental cascade. For example, a child who is good-natured, easy-going, and able to get along with their peers will most likely be able to develop strong, positive, relationships with peers as they continue to develop. In addition, having a positive relationship with one’s teacher can allow a child to thrive in school by feeling motivated and engaged. On the other hand, when children are not able to get along with other kids and behave in ways that are difficult for a teacher to manage they are more likely to become isolated from others and be punished for their negative behavior. This can result in difficulty forming positive relationships as well as less motivation and engagement in school.

Does this mean that children with poor social competencies in kindergarten are destined to become high school dropouts and criminals? The short answer is no. Although children with poor social skills may be at a higher risk for some of these negative outcomes, there are many opportunities between kindergarten and adulthood to interrupt these negative developmental pathways. Understanding that development occurs like a cascade also helps us see the opportunities that we have to promote positive development. From my own experiences working with children, I know how difficult it is to empathize and have positive interactions with children who have poor social skills. These are often the children who do not listen, are disruptive, and have difficulty getting along with their peers. However, it is becoming more and more clear that these are the children who are at the highest risk for a host of negative outcomes and therefore need the most attention, help, and patience. Evidence has also been showing us that children’s social-emotional skills are malleable and can grow with lots of positive role-modeling, practice, and support from teachers, parents, other adults, and peers. This highlights, once again, the importance of embedding social-emotional learning into our education system.