By: Charisse Nixon, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology Penn State Erie, The Behrend College; Director of CORES
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 capability for positive change–even Jodi? Joseph? What about ______? The answer to this question depends on our lens. This article 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 pair of lenses.
#1 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 for students, steeped with opportunities 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.
#2 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 6thgrade 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 mitigate the negative effects associated with peer mistreatment. In sum, a trauma-informed lens has the potential to positively affect bullying prevention and intervention efforts, including how we go about ‘putting the pieces together for healthy schools.’