Every few years, there is a local incident of bullying that is so horrible, so beyond our understanding that the local incident escalates to a national incident with continued coverage.
The latest of these occurrences is the tragic story of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old high school student who moved to South Hadley, Massachusetts from Ireland and committed suicide in January. At the end of March, criminal charges were filed against nine students -- six of the teenagers were charged with felonies and three were charged as juveniles, all for bullying.
Much of the news coverage of this incident and others like this one has focused on our attempts to figure out what went wrong and to assign blame. We go over and over the known facts and dig deeper for new facts to try to understand. Is it families with children who bully who are at fault? Is it the school personnel -- teachers and administrators -- who seemingly stand by and don't take action when the signs that something is wrong abound? Is it the community -- from the law enforcement system to the community culture that are to blame?
I, too, have been asking myself the question of what goes wrong and what can go right. These are especially urgent questions for me because I have spent decades conducting and studying the research on children's development.
My first thought was of a study recently conducted by Kiley Hamlin, Karen Wynn, and Paul Bloom of Yale University revealing that babies are much more likely to be drawn to helpful rather than hurtful figures. By showing six-month-old babies a puppet-like show where there is a helpful and a hurtful character, they have found, impressively, that the babies always reach for the helpful character after they have seen the show (as you can see in the video we have made of their study).
If very young children are drawn to others who are helpful, then what happens to them as they grow up? Why do some children and their friends become bullies?
Of course, the answer rests partly in families and we can't just wait until children are teens (though it is never too late).
A new study, just out in Child Development, by Colleen O'Neal of New York University Child Study Center and her colleagues, took on what might be considered a worst case scenario for children who could grow up to become bullies or worse. They went through the court records in New York City for kids under the age of 16 and selected families where there were preschool-aged siblings. They then followed these four-year-old children and families over two years while the parents participated in a program designed to improve their parenting and their young children's social competence.
Among the things they found is that parents who, in this case, learn to be warmer and more caring and to discipline their children in ways that are more consistent, less harsh, less critical, and more positive have children who become less aggressive. In fact, this study showed that the parenting program actually changed how children react to stress on a physical level -- that is, it changed their cortisol reaction when faced with a potentially stressful situation.
In addition, the answer rests partly in schools and we can't just stop bullying, we have to also teach perspective taking skills.
Here a study by Larry Aber and his colleagues at New York University is instructive. Aber found that 20 years of efforts to teach children problem solving skills as a way of reducing conflict in children were only partly successful. They began to probe what goes on in children's minds when they are provoked. They discovered a missing link, a link they call "an appraisal process." The children most likely to be aggressive haven't learned the skill of perspective taking, of understanding what in going on in other people's heart and mind.
Aber and his colleague have evaluated a curriculum in the New York City public schools, called Reading, Writing, Respect, and Resolution. This program doesn't separate teaching children to handle conflict from other kinds of academic teaching. Each unit is based on a children's book selected for its literary quality. Through discussions, writing exercises, and role-play, children explore the meaning of the book, learn how to appraise the perspectives of others in complex situations, and then are taught how to resolve these conflicts.
The answer also rests on the community and we need more than just a good law enforcement system.
Studies by Felton Earls of Harvard University have found the community culture makes a difference. In communities where adults feel and take a responsibility for other people's children -- not just their own -- community aggression is less likely.
Finally the answer lies in the young people themselves and we need more than anti-bullying laws and programs.
Several years ago, following the Columbine incident, my colleagues and I from the Families and Work Institute (FWI) conducted a nationally representative study of young people in the fifth through the twelfth grades on youth and violence. As always, when we "ask the children," our findings are surprisingly, insightful, and practical.
First, the young people said that bullying doesn't start with actual bullying incidents. It has its roots in the teasing and gossiping that goes on everyday. You might respond to that finding by saying "kids will be kids." They have always behaved that way and they always will. But many kids told us that they want help in stopping the teasing and the put-downs because they lead to bullying and even more aggressive behavior.
Second, many young people told us (in response to an open-ended question that gave them "one wish to stop the violence that young people experience") that they want to be proactive in reducing bullying and other aggression. One young person wrote: "If we are PART OF THE PROBLEM, then we need to be PART OF THE SOLUTION."
In addition to the bullying prevention legislation that many states are passing and programs that schools are instituting, I think that every school in America should create a committee of young people charged with developing a code of acceptable positive behavior for their school and consequences for breaking that code. I think they should also develop their own creative multi-media campaigns to end bullying in their schools. And perhaps this could be part of a national contest to showcase some of the most innovative and effective campaigns.
The research makes us clear that as close or as far away as South Hadley may be from where we actually live, we are all part of the problem of bullying and we all can become part of the solution.