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International think tank addresses bullying in schools

July 06, 2011

Bullies are increasingly anonymous with the advent of cyber-bullying, and social scientists report trends such as victimizers exhibiting “moral disengagement” as well as a disconnect between researchers, policymakers and teachers who address bullying.

Three ASU faculty members – Laura Hanish, Becky Ladd and Gary Ladd – recently participated in an international think tank to discuss bullying issues at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Many think tank participants are members of the Bullying Research Network, consisting of social scientists from around the world who work on ways to successfully address the problem.

“Bullying is an international problem that has become easy with cyber-bullying,” said Hanish, associate professor in the School of Social and Family Dynamics in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Researchers are noticing a “moral disengagement” trend where bullies don’t see anything wrong with what they are doing or justify their behavior with explanations such as, “he deserved it.”

“They aren’t getting the message that it is morally wrong to hurt another person,” said Becky Ladd, associate professor in the School of Social and Family Dynamics. “They don’t see what they are doing is bullying.”

Teachers have reported to social scientists that some children bully in front of adults in today’s schools, instead of trying to hide it from authority figures. Teachers say that it’s a “different world” where some students emulate television characters who represent acts of bullying as something that is funny and unharmful, Becky Ladd said.

“It used to be a hidden phenomenon where children bullied out of the purview of adults, such as in bathrooms and areas on the playground,” she added.

Although there are anti-bullying laws on the books in 47 states, including Arizona, implementing programs to successfully tackle the problem can be challenging.

“There’s a lot that we need to understand,” Hanish said. Some of the issues that need more clarification include victim behavior and whether or not it’s better for a child to tell an adult, especially if that adult may be unsympathetic.

Anti-bullying programs in place in schools have had varying amounts of success. Three things that are necessary to address the problem are teacher buy-in, school resources to combat the problem and community concern, Becky Ladd said.

A disconnect also exists between researchers, policymakers and teachers. Researchers can design programs, but policymakers may have legal concerns as their primary interest.

Teachers often are overburdened with too many students in classrooms and up to 20 add-on programs to teach during the school year, of which anti-bullying may be one.

“We’re trying to put the parts together with a good plan that meets the needs of policymakers and makes it easy for teachers,” Becky Ladd said.

Gary and Becky Ladd both are working on 4R SUCCESS, a program that they developed to improve children’s social and learning skills to work more effectively with classmates, enhance classroom environment by increasing positive interactions among students and decrease disruptive and antisocial behavior such as bullying. The fourth R in 4R Success refers to relationships as well as reading, writing and arithmetic.

Becky Ladd also examines bullying primarily from the victim’s point of view, looking at how they respond to bullying. For instance, the child who believes that the person who is doing the bullying is jealous of them may be better equipped to deal with the situation than kids who think they are bullied because they are “uncool.”

Hanish’s research focuses on aggression and bullying among boys and girls. Through the Sanford Harmony Program at ASU, she and other faculty members are working to understand and enhance the social interactions between boys and girls.

Gary Ladd, professor in the School of Social and Family Dynamics, also focuses on research that looks at children’s and adolescent friendships, peer group behavior and social competence.