Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard just about everyone—from the media and lawmakers to educators and families—talk about bullying recently. The problem has also caught the attention of researchers, who have learned a lot about how often it occurs and the characteristics of those involved. And although lots of anti-bullying programs are cropping up in response to the problem, only a handful can stand up to rigorous scientific evaluation. So what do many of these effective programs have in common? Teaching social-emotional skills to kids.
Bullying and its consequences
What it is
Bullying is intentional negative behavior that is repeated and involves an imbalance of social or physical power. A simpler way to say it (and the definitions we teach kids) is “Bullying is unfair and one-sided. It happens when someone keeps hurting, frightening, threatening, or leaving someone out on purpose.”
What it does
Kids who bully are at higher risk for a wide range of problems, including abusing alcohol and other drugs, getting into fights, and doing poorly academically. They even risk having problems into adulthood, such as criminal convictions and substance use.
Kids who are bullied report having more physical health complaints and engage in higher levels of problem behavior, such as smoking and drinking. They, too, can face problems into adulthood, including depression, anxiety, sadness, and loneliness.
Bystanders also suffer increased risk of using tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs, have increased mental health problems, and are more likely to miss or skip school.
Why and how should schools take action?
Bullying can greatly affect the school environment and hinder kids’ academic success. It can lower academic achievement, influence school attendance, and even contribute to higher dropout rates.
So most schools have established policies and procedures that outline actions to take against bullying. But even the best policies won’t change student behavior. Social-emotional learning (SEL) promotes individual kids’ healthy development and contributes to a positive school environment.
A bullying prevention program can help a school address student behavior, but schools need to be careful about which one they choose. Some programs don’t have research evidence showing they are effective in dealing with bullying—and some can even cause more harm than good. Since bullying is social in nature, it’s important to have a bullying prevention program focuses on changing bullying norms and increasing kids’ social-emotional competence.
In fact, research-based curricula that teach SEL not only help create physically and emotionally safe school environments, they can even increase students’ scores on standardized achievement tests.
How does SEL prevent bullying?
One of the most widely used SEL programs is the Second Step program, which has three main units that focus on core SEL skills. These skills are particularly important for bullying prevention: empathy, emotion management, and social problem-solving. The program also addresses topics like friendship building and assertiveness, which are also key skills in bullying prevention. Let’s take a look at each of these and how they can help address and prevent bullying.
What it is
Empathy is feeling or understanding what someone else is feeling, and part of empathy is perspective-taking. They’re both really important in preventing bullying. Greater awareness of others’ feelings not only allows kids to treat each other with respect and kindness, it also makes them more likely to intervene when necessary.
How it helps
Kids who bully: Kids with good perspective-taking skills are less likely to be physically, verbally, and indirectly aggressive to peers because they are better able to manage social situations and make the right decisions about their behavior.
Bystanders: Empathic concern toward peers makes bystanders more likely to intervene to stop bullying, and those with perspective-taking skills are more likely to offer emotional support to others.
What it is
Emotion management is exactly what it sounds like: the ability to monitor and manage strong feelings and calm down when you’re upset. It helps kids build positive relationships and be less prone to bullying.
How it helps
Kids who bully: Research shows kids are more likely to bully others if they lack emotion management skills. But if they can manage their emotions, they’re more likely to get along with their peers and make good choices.
Kids who are bullied: Kids’ chances of being bullied increase if they are hyperactive, exhibit emotional outbursts, or are emotionally unstable. They can also unintentionally make the bullying worse if they respond in a highly emotional way, like yelling, screaming, or crying. So good emotion management not only helps keep kids from being bullied, it also helps them respond when it does happen.
What it is
Being able to solve problems is a great skill to have, whether you’re a parent, a scientist, a short-order cook, or anything else. And it’s especially handy if you’re a kid. Recognizing a problem, brainstorming possible solutions, and understanding their possible consequences can help kids in the classroom and on the playground.
How it helps
Kids who bully often misread social cues and situations, which can lead them to be more hostile and aggressive in social situations. They also have more aggressive ideas about how to handle conflicts. So good problem-solving skills can help them deal with social situations in a non-aggressive way.
Kids who are bullied often lack effective social problem-solving skills, too. They may, for example, act passive in social situations, which can set them up to be a target of bullying. But good problem-solving skills can help them de-escalate the conflict.
Bystanders with good problem-solving skills can assess a social situation and decide whether to intervene in a bullying situation on their own or get an adult to help.
Friendship building and assertiveness training
What they are
Bullying is very much a social problem, so social status and relationships are very important elements of any bullying problem or solution. So practicing what may seem like very basic skills (such as joining a group or starting a conversation) can come in handy for any child. And when they learn to differentiate between passive, aggressive, and assertive behavior, they can respond appropriately to bullying.
How they help
Kids who bully often have high social status and use it to wield their power on their victims. But friendship skills can help them treat peers respectfully and avoid excluding them.
Kids who are bullied tend to have fewer friends. But learning how to make and keep friends is a good way to avoid being bullied. Students who have at least one friend are less likely to be victimized by peers, and those who are bullied often have fewer emotional and behavioral problems as a result.
Bystanders often report fear of losing social status as one reason they do not intervene on behalf of targets of bullying, so knowing how to make and keep friends can help mitigate that fear. And assertiveness can help bystanders use specific strategies to stop bullying themselves or ask adults for help.
The key to prevention: Teach SEL
SEL skills can help everyone involved in bullying: those who bully, those who are bullied, and the bystanders who witness it. And it’s fairly easy to incorporate SEL lessons into the school curriculum. A school with a good SEL program can be a safe and positive place for children to learn and thrive.
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