+ Bullying: The Power of Peers

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Philip C. Rodkin wrote a version of a government report on bullying for the September 2011 Issue of ASCD’s publication Educational Leadership.

Rodkin first explains the use of the words peer and bully, which at first glance, don’t appear to belong together.  

A “peer” means someone of the same standing, a social equal. A “bully” is seizing power  in a social situation.

It’s this sense of inequality, abuse, and unfairness — and of a peer culture valuing all the wrong things — that makes bullying incompatible with the democratic spirit; all youth should be free to learn in peace and safety, making the most of their talents and goals.

Children and youth (and some adults) use bullying to acquire resources and to demonstrate to an audience that they are the ones who dominate.  This is where peers come into the picture.  Bullies can’t succeed unless witnesses play along.  If they ignore the bullying, or intervene to stop the action, the bully is deprived of his objective.

Presumably bullying at school occurs under the watchful eye of responsible adults, so how peers and adults act in response to bullying is crucial.  And it is even better if these others can anticipate the bullying in advance of the event.

Research has informed parents and  educators about the structural situations in which bullying occurs.  But more is needed to determine how to use this information effectively in making our schools a safe place for kids. 

Bullies Live in Two Social Worlds

Tom Farmer and colleagues wrote a recent article on the “two social worlds” of bullying: on one hand marginalization, and on the other, connection.

Socially marginalized bullies, they say, may be fighting against a social system that keeps them on the periphery.  Socially connected bullies use aggression to control others and garner power.

Bullies who are marginalized and unpopular are often shunted into peer groups with other bullies.  These marginalized bullies (more often boys than girls) often have a host of problems, and the bullying behavior is only one manifestation.  Bullying in their case may stem from an inability to control their impulsive actions, or it may be due to a desire to gain an elusive status. 

On the other hand, “connected” bullies belong to highly networked and integrated social worlds; they don’t lack for peer social support. 

These socially connected bullies are evenly divided between boys and girls.  They have a variety of friends.  Some but not all of those friends are bullies themselves.  These bullies strengths may  include social skills, athleticism, or physical attractiveness. 

Socially connected bullies tend to be proactive and goal-directed in their aggression.  They often have years of experience with peers, sometimes since as early as their day-care groups.

They incorporate prosocial strategies into their behavioral repertoire (e.g. reconciling with targets after conflict, or becoming less aggressive after they’ve established dominance).

Bullies who are socially connected are under-recognized as seriously aggressive.  They are frequently popularized in the media.  Of them, one group of researchers uses the words”popular, socially skilled, and competent.”

Bullying peaks in early adolescence, but the two social worlds of bullying exists through all the early grades, sometimes as early as kindergarten. 

Rodkin says

As light can be both wave and particle, aggression can be maladaptive or adaptive depending on why the aggression occurs; the time frame (that is, adaptive in the short run, but maladaptive in the long run); the consequences of the aggressive act; and one’s perspective.

Educators and parents need to ask of any bullying situation why the bullying works — from the perspective of the bully.  It is necessary to establish what goals are being served by the bullying behavior: they will differ for each child in each different situation.   

The Bully-Victim Relationship 

Criminologists always establish first the relationship between any victim and the perpetrator.   In any bully/victim situation the question is rarely asked.  We know very little about what is built in to any bullying event.

The focus has traditionally been on identifying “bully,” “victim,” and “bully-victim” categories. Time is spent determining such things as “prevalence rates,” and “behavioral characteristics” of bullying incidents.

Bullies and victims therefore are put into separate boxes, and their separateness is spotlighted.  The implication is that there is no known relationship between a bully and a victim — that the targeting is random.

But the reality is more complex.  Bullies and victims often have a previously existing relationship that lead up to the incidents. 

If these facts had been made clear, knowledgeable adults might have been alerted to the trouble spots.

Reciprocated dislike or animosity is one clear predictor of trouble.  Potential bullies  — particularly socially connected bullies — turn their angry thoughts into aggressive behavior.  The direct that behavior then toward low-status peers whom they already dislike (and who almost certainly dislike them as well).

Time frames can be  predictable.  Socially connected children choose same-sex bullying as part of their struggle for dominance, particularly in the beginning of the school year, or between transitions from one school to another (when the social hierarchy is in flux) and it is easy to target unpopular children.

In a disturbing number of cases, aggressive boys harass girls.  Sixty percent of 5th to 7th grade girls in one study reported being bullied by boys.  Unpopular, rejected, aggressive boys are most likely to harass girls. 

In another study, 38 percent of girls who experience sexual harassment “say they first experienced it in elementary school.”

Socially connected bullies tend to demonstrate within-sex bullying and dominance behavior against unpopular targets.

“Bullying is a Social Event”

Studies show that even one good friend can help assuage the harmful consequences of harassment. 

Adults should be aware that in addition to implementing violence reduction therapies and social skills trainings, social ties of marginalized bullies should be spotlighted.  Broaden these networks, where feasible, to include a greater variety of peers.  

Rodkin says he refers to socially connected bullies as “hidden in plain sight.”  Because these types of bullies affiliate with a wide variety of peers, there is an unhealthy potential for widespread acceptance of bullying. 

Debra Pepler and colleagues call this the “theater of bullying,”  which encompasses not only the bully-victim dyad, but also children who encourage, reinforce  and silently witness the abuse. 

Pepler says “Bullying is a social event in the classroom and on the playground.” In almost 90 percent of observed cases there was an audience of peers.

This silent, mocking audience grows exponentially, in frightening anonymity, with cyber-bullying.  Thus the problem of bullying is also a problem of the unresponsive bystander, whether that bystander is a classmate who finds harassment funny, a peer who sits on the sidelines afraid to get involved, or an educator who sees bullying as just another part of growing up.

One report finds that socially connected bullies target children who will likely not be defended. 

Peers who do intervene in bullying can make a real difference.  While studies show that a defender may be  successful in more than 50 percent of such attempts,  bystanders appear to stand up to the aggressor in only 20 percent of incidents.

In addition

[o]ne good friend can make a crucial difference to children who are harassed.  Victims who are friends with a non-victimized peer are less likely to internalize problems as a result…for example, being sad, depressed or anxious.

Even 1st graders who have a friend but who are otherwise socially isolated seem to be protected from the adjustment problems that other isolated children may suffer.

Surprisingly, one study found that intervention which involves peers (using students as peer mediators, engaging bystanders to disapprove and offer support to the victim) were found to be associated with increases in victimization.

In fact of 20 program elements included in 44 school-based programs, work with peers was the only program element associated with significantly more bullying and victimization.  (There were significant and positive effects for parent training and school meetings in reducing bullying.)

For peer mediation to be effective, students who are chosen to be mediators should probably be popular and prosocial.

The most innovative, intensive, grassroots uses of peer relationships to reduce bullying (one is the You Have the Power! program in Montgomery County, Maryland) have not been scientifically evaluated.  This work must be undertaken.

Teachers should ask what kind of bully they face when dealing with a victimization problem.  Is the bully a member of a group?  Is he or she a group leader?  How are the bullies and victims situated in the “peer ecology”?

Educators who exclusively target peripheral, antisocial cliques as the engine of school violence problems may leave intact other  groups that are more responsible for mainstream peer support of bullying.

Educators should periodically talk with students and ask about their social relationships and whether bullying is present.

Charles Payne makes the point in his book “So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools,” that even the best, most rigorous and most validated intervention may not be successful: weak social infrastructure and dysfunctional organizational environments must also be taken into account.

The task ahead is to help educators recognize, understand and help guide children’s relationships.  We must determine ways that bullies and the children they harass can be folded into the whole social fabric of the school.

With guidance from caring, engaged adults, youth can organize themselves as a force that makes bullying less effective as a means of social connection or as an outlet for alienation.

sole source: Philip C. Rodkin’s article in ASCD’s September 2011 issue of Educational Leadership.  Visit http://www.ascd.org

The full report from which this article was taken was commissioned to be presented to the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention, which met on March 10, 2011. 

The conference brought together President Obama, the first lady, members of the cabinet, as well as youth, parents, researchers, school officials and other groups.  The goal was to craft a national strategy for reducing and ending bullying in schools.

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

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