New Anti-Bullying Research Project Targets Students' Social Skills

September 24, 2007 - News Release

On top of reading, writing and arithmetic, a number of local elementary students will be learning how to have healthy peer relationships in an effort to reduce the number of violent incidents in schools.

It's part of a groundbreaking bullying intervention program led by University of Guelph psychology professor Karl Hennig in collaboration with the Wellington Catholic District School Board, local police and community mental health agencies. The Safe Schools project will involve more than 1,500 local students from grades 6 to 8 and is one of four research hubs receiving provincial funding.

Instead of simply punishing schoolyard bullies, the project will focus on identifying children struggling with peer relationships problems, providing them with assessments and support and showing teachers and parents ways of improving children's social-emotional development, said Hennig.

"According to the World Health Organization, Canada places as low as 26th among 35 countries when it comes to our children's social-emotional development," he said. "We have successfully addressed the three Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic, but the fourth R, which is relationships, has not been adequately addressed."

Hennig said bullying is embedded in peer relationship problems, and the most effective way to combat violence in schools is to improve children's social development.

Children who become victims are often more socially withdrawn, awkward, sedentary, physically weak and isolated, he said. They can also be oppositional, restless, hot-tempered and frequently irritating others with little capacity for regulating their emotions. In both cases, they aren't able to successfully interact socially and find themselves rejected by their peers.

Children who bully typically acquire that behaviour early in life and are often viewed by their peers as "cool" for their ability to convince others to comply with their wishes, he said.

"They often have been witnesses to adult conflict and aggression such as spousal disagreements and abuse at home, and these experiences suggest to them that aggression pays off. Bullying and victimization are complex problems to address, so intervention needs to happen on multiple levels."

For the first phase of the project, students will complete an online school survey about their experiences with bullying and quality of peer relationships.

“This will provide us with a range of information, including the extent of the problems we're dealing with," said Hennig. "It will also help us identify children who are experiencing difficulties in their peer relationships, both as bullies and as peer-rejected victims. Referrals and more focused intervention will follow from that."

According to research studies, bullying happens every 7 1/2 minutes on the playground, with 20 per cent of children reporting being victimized at least once a week and 10 per cent reporting bullying others at least once a week, he said.

In extreme cases, children who are victims of bullying have resorted to suicide, said Hennig. And the children who are doing the bullying frequently become involved in a range of other anti-social behaviour such as early drug and alcohol use, sexual harassment and gang involvement. Their aggression can also carry over to future romantic relationships, domestic violence and child abuse.

"We need to address these challenges early before they lead to more serious problems."

As part of the intervention program, parents will be offered an educational program that will teach them how to improve their children's social development so they can learn to control their aggression and positively interact with their peers.

With Hennig's help, individual schools will be developing new procedures for handling incidents of bullying and anti-social behaviour in accordance with new government legislation.

"The earlier 'zero-tolerance' policy aimed at 'getting tough' with youth violence by handing out suspensions was a one-way ticket to gang involvement," he said. "We need graduated forms of discipline aimed at getting youth reconnected as citizens."

Hennig will also be involved in helping the schools create Safe Schools action teams that will deal with referrals, staff training and delivery of curriculum-based programs. Teachers will be trained to deliver a curriculum component that focuses on promoting healthy relationships and eliminating violence, he said.

"To effectively promote relationships and eliminate violence, we need to intervene at multiple levels, and this unique project does that by linking community mental health organizations, school boards and researchers."

Karl Hennig
Department of Psychology
519-824-4120, Ext. 53558

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or Deirdre Healey, Ext. 56982.

University of Guelph
50 Stone Road East
Guelph, Ontario, N1G 2W1