+ Bullying Studies Tackle Playground Gossip

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An article by Sarah D. Spark in Education Week, reports that emerging research suggests ‘relational bullying’ may hold the key to changing an aggressive culture in schools.

Of the three major types of bullying — physical, verbal and relational — relational aggression has been the least studied. 

It may be that it involves less visible, immediately dangerous behavior.  And it may also be because it involves nuanced relationships among all concerned: the bullies, the victims and the bystanders.

According to Stephen S. Leff, director of the Children’s hospital of Philadelphia, and editor of a special issue on bullying in School Psychology Review, the shooters at Columbine and other school shootings were often victims of relational aggression. 

Leff feels there is a growing recognition that emotional scars are real and we need to create interventions to address those scars and prevent them from happening.

In one four-year study of American middle and high school students, researchers found that students considered by their peers to be the most popular were not the same as those most liked.

In addition, it was found that students perceived to be popular were the most likely to engage in gossip and social manipulation over time.

The Dark Side of Popularity

“It’s the dark side of popularity,” says Antonius H.N. Cillessen, professor of developmental psychology at Radboud University in the Netherlands.

For the practice of education it’s pretty important, because the popular bully gets a lot of peer reinforcement.  As adults we can say this is bad, you shouldn’t do this, but among peers, bullies have power.

In addition, he states that it is a difficult challenge for intervention research: it means you can’t work only on the individual bully or victim.  It means researchers need to address all possible roles a person can play.

A randomized study of 610 3rd- through 6th-grade students in Seattle, led by Karin S. Frey at the University of Washington, found relational aggression on the playground was “semi-public.”  Episodes could go on for quite a while, even when adults were present.  From an article in School Psychology Review,

A student or students would speak negatively about a third-party that was not among the listeners.  Group members would laugh, gesture, or look ‘meaningfully’ in the direction of an isolated, unhappy-looking student.

Says Frey, it’s both parallel and a step on the path to physical and verbal abuse.  For example, rumors often allege a boy has flirted with or had sex with another boy’s girlfriend, leading to fights.

Hill Walker is a professor of special education and co-director of the Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior at the University of Oregon. 

Walker feels that the need to understand and address relational aggression is becoming more urgent, especially as students interact more often online, away from even minimal adult supervision.

Ways to Intervene

An anti-bullying program called Steps to Respect teaches bystanders how to avoid feeding the bully’s energy by watching, laughing, and spreading rumors, says Ms. Frey.  Students learn to comfort and support the victim without encouraging him or her to retaliate, which escalates problems.

If you’re the victim and you’re surrounded by people watching, you don’t know what people are thinking.  They may be enjoying the spectacle, or they may be feeling really uncomfortable.  But if they don’t say anything, it feels like they are all against you.

After the Steps to Respect program was instituted in the Seattle area, researchers found “malicious gossip” dropped 72 percent. 

The program trains teachers to identify relational aggression and encourage bystanders to stand up for children who are ostracized.

Another program, being developed by Mr. Leff, is called PRAISE (Preventing Relational Aggression in Schools Every Day). 

PRAISE includes training for teachers on ways to recognize more subtle bullying, as well as how to explain to students the difference between normal social interaction and harassment. 

sole source: Sarah D. Spark’s article in Education Week, February 1, 2011.  To read the entire article, visit http://www.edweek.org .  When you subscribe to Education Week, you will receive a monthly newsletter for educators full of  useful information, as well as  great benefits.

tutoring in Columbus OH:  Adrienne Edwards  614-579-6021  or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com


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