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Positive resolution strategies reduce bullying

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SmartBlog on Education will shine a light on back-to-school teaching and learning trends during July. In this blog post, educational psychology professor Dorothy L. Espelag outlines three ways to take bullying-prevention initiatives to the next level.

“Kids will be kids.” “It’s just a right of passage.” These are two common phrases frequently used to justify and minimize childhood bullying. However, instead of giving kids a “thick skin,” recent research sheds light on the dangerous mental and physical health problems associated with bullying. As a result, such research has sparked action in countless school communities, that are now in search of ready-to-implement solutions that will help cultivate more positive, safe classroom environments.

Evaluating the damage

One startling piece of research examined data from more than 4,000 participants in the U.K. Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children study and 1,273 participants from the U.S. Great Smoky Mountain study. After evaluating subjects at ages 13 and 18, the findings revealed that of the 680 13-year-olds who said they were bullied frequently — more than once a week — almost 15% were depressed at 18-years-old. Furthermore, of the 1450 teenagers bullied one to three times over six months time — more than 7% were depressed at age 18. In total, up to 30% of depression in the sample of 18-year-olds may be attributed to being bullied as a teenager.

Additionally, there are long-lasting physical effects from this behavior. Recent research also found that those who have been bullied as children are more likely to be overweight or obese as adults, putting them at a higher risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses. Specifically, more than a quarter of women who were occasionally or frequently bullied as children were obese at age 45, compared to 19% of those who had never been bullied.

The victims of bullies are not the only ones at risk, either. Witnesses to bullying and harassment are more likely to have elevated levels of substance abuse.

The long-term effects of childhood bullying has caused many parents and schools to identify strategies and solutions to address harmful bullying behaviors and reduce the negative effects over time.

Equipping your community to create positive change

Having dedicated my career to bullying prevention research, one strong belief of mine, and what my research has revealed, is that any positive change requires a community-wide effort. Put simply, it takes an entire school community — parents, students, teachers, administrators and other faculty — to build a positive school environment that supports bullying prevention.

It’s more than an awareness day, an anti-bullying policy or an anonymous tip line. While these are all positive steps, they are not complete. There has to be a more comprehensive, integrated approach to really achieve long term change.

To change behavior and see long-term improvements in school climate, bullying needs to be addressed in three ways:

  1. Reporting incidents: It is vital for victims, bystanders and even bullies to know that they have a voice. Historically, the reporting of incidents has been done anecdotally, however, providing students, “digital natives,” with the ability to report incidents from anywhere at anytime can increase reporting likeliness as well as increase the quality of the report.
  2. Reviewing the incidents: It is most effective for the bullying reports to be reviewed by selected, trained administrators. Because of the serious effects bullying can have, it is important for each incident to be reviewed, validated and documented. A formal review and documentation process can provide pivotal insight into school climate and hot topics that require further attention.
  3. Resolving incidents: To facilitate positive change, school communities should be equipped with research based restorative resolution strategies and techniques that facilitate teachable moments to deter future negative behavior.

Bullying has become a nationally recognized problem, and it is time for communities to buy-in to treating it as such. With all 50 states having passed anti-bullying laws, the next steps are to equip all with comprehensive, effective resources to combat bullying. From the school bus drivers and janitors, to the parents, teachers, and students — all must be included in anti-bullying programs and given the necessary resources to react appropriately to incidents, before, during, and after they happen.

Dorothy L. Espelag, is a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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