How We Can Prevent Bullying

How We Can Prevent Bullying

Activism January 13, 2016 / By Dr. Brian Davidson
How We Can Prevent Bullying

Is there anything that can be done to help prevent bullying in our schools? New research sheds light on a possible new approach that could transform our students and schools.

Ask any school administrator or school counselor what one of their biggest challenges are in today’s schools, and an answer that will rank at the top of their lists is the issue of bullying.  Indeed, bullying and its effects continues to be incredibly damaging for both schools and their students.  

Recent data collected by the CDC illustrate that 20% of students experience bullying at school while nearly 15% of kids experience bullying online.  Government statistics collected from highlight that on an average day, over 160,000 students across the United States avoid going to school due to the fear of being bullied.  On top of this, additional research suggests that kids experiencing bullying are much more likely to struggle with both physical and mental health issues, drop out of school, and fail to pursue and complete higher levels of education.   

The truth of the matter is bullying is rampant among today’s students.  This is in spite of the fact that these same students have received a barrage of messages telling them that bullying is not acceptable.  Thus far, many schools across the nation have adopted codes of conduct and bullying reporting systems that communicate how bullying will not be tolerated and teach students how to respond if bullying does occur.  The problem is, though, these approaches are not working – bullying is still happening at an alarming rate – and it is having a tremendously negative impact on too many students.  

This leads us to ask - is there anything else we can do to prevent bullying from happening?  In a recent study, researchers Miguel Sarzosa and Sergio Urzua uncovered some striking findings that may provide an answer.  In their research, they sought to examine the role both cognitive skills and non-cognitive skills have on bullying behavior.  When analyzing the data, they came to find that kids possessing higher levels of non-cognitive skills were much less likely to be bullied.  For instance, the study found that a one standard deviation increase in non-cognitive skills was shown to reduce the overall probability of being a victim of bullying by 50%.  Additionally, those students with higher levels of non-cognitive skills were also 25% less likely to be bullies themselves.  

Surprisingly, kids with higher levels of cognitive skills were not more resistant to bullying.  In fact, the opposite showed to be true: the kids most likely to be bullied were those that were smart but lacking in non-cognitive skills.  On top of these findings, another study found that once kids with low non-cognitive skills are bullied, their non-cognitive skills decrease even further, leading them to be more likely to be bullied again in the future.  In describing the outcomes, Dr. Sarzosa* noted how this self-reinforcing mechanism opens “an ever-widening non-cognitive skill gap between victims and non-victims that reaches one standard deviation by the age of 15.”  

When looking at our nation’s schools, educators see this happen on a daily basis.  In my own experience in working with thousands of students, I am always surprised how some kids, who despite appearing as if they would likely be victims of bullying, are in fact, so resistant to the negative comments they occasionally receive.  These amazing kids possess a high level of non-cognitive skills and are characterized by incredible mental strength.  

At the same time, there are other students who are so mentally fragile that they are debilitated when hearing those same comments.  Interestingly, school principals and counselors will attest how these same kids are often the ones who are continuously involved with reported acts of bullying, many of which involve social media platforms.  As a result, school administrators spend hours each day investigating and addressing these reports of bullying while school counselors work to deal with the emotional challenges that result.  And as is so often the case, it is these same kids reporting being bullied that then go on and bully other kids.  

As this new research has shown, kids lacking non-cognitive skills are at risk of not only being victims of bullying but also being the instigators of bullying behavior.  Therefore, if we want to fight against bullying in our schools, we must revise our approach.  The attempts we have made thus far with school policies addressing bullying are simply not enough.  

In addition to addressing bullying through policy, a more viable approach to fighting bullying may be to focus on developing the non-cognitive skills that matter most, which can then contribute to students becoming resistant to bullying behavior.  By proactively cultivating factors such as self-efficacy, a growth mindset, self-control, grit, internal locus of control, resiliency, and other key non-cognitive skills, we may be able to greatly reduce bullying in our schools and the harmful effects it has on our students.  The key is to build these skills within each student so they are equipped with a form of mental self-defense that will protect the child from being bullied as well as from being a perpetrator of bullying behavior.  

So what can we do to develop these non-cognitive skills that will help protect our kids from bullying?  First, schools can utilize curriculum specifically designed to explicitly teach and foster these key non-cognitive skills associated with numerous positive life outcomes.  As a previous article illustrated, these skills can be developed and doing so can make a positive and lasting impact on students’ lives.  Beyond the curriculum schools can utilize, students and their families can also seek personalized one-on-one coaching for their teenagers in order to provide a more targeted and individualized approach to developing this crucial set of non-cognitive skills.  

In conclusion, bullying continues to be a major problem in our nation’s schools – but it does not have to be.  New research suggest a major reason why certain kids struggle with bullying is due to a lack of non-cognitive skills.  By altering our approach and spending more time developing this very important set of skills, we may just be able to equip students with the skillset needed to protect themselves from bullying and ultimately ensure they flourish in reaching their potential.   

*Note: Special thanks to Dr. Miguel Sarzosa for his input and expertise during the creation of this article.  

© 2015, Intrinsic Institute, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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