The most widespread form of bullying isn’t physical acts like pushing or kicking, nor is it verbal threats or derogatory remarks. Far and away bullies’ top tactic is social exclusion.
Also known as “relational aggression,” this involves shutting out peers from group activities and spreading false rumors about them. And research underscores the damage done by this behavior.
“When a kid is excluded from social activities by their peers at school, the outcomes for that kid both short-term and long-term will be just as detrimental as if they got kicked, punched or slapped every day,” said researcher Chad Rose of the University of Missouri in Columbia. “So this study sheds light on the social exclusion youth often face.”
Rose is director of the Mizzou Ed Bully Prevention Lab, which aims to reduce school bullying.
In a study recently published in Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth , Rose and his colleagues analyzed a survey conducted in 26 middle and high schools across five school districts in the southeastern United States. More than 14,000 students were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with statements that reflected pro-bullying attitudes, perceived popularity and relational aggression.
Among the statements:
- “A little teasing does not hurt anyone.”
- “I don’t care what mean things kids say as long as it’s not about me.”
- “In my group of friends, I am usually the one who makes decisions.”
- “When I am mad at someone, I get back at them by not letting them be in my group anymore.”
The results were revealing.
“Kids that perceive themselves as socially dominant or popular endorse pro-bullying attitudes, yet they don’t perceive themselves as engaging in relational aggression,” Rose said of the findings. “There was another group that did not perceive themselves as socially dominant or popular, but they endorsed pro-bullying attitudes and engaged in relational aggression.”
So, he said, the first group thought bullying was OK but did not see themselves as engaging in it even if they actually were excluding others. The group that admitted to shunning others might have been doing so in a bid to climb the social hierarchy.
A third group of survey respondents, known as non-aggressors or bystanders, reported low levels of relational aggression as well as low levels of pro-bullying attitudes.
“What’s interesting about bystanders is that they often perpetuate bullying, meaning they serve as social reinforcers and are around when it’s happening,” Rose said in a university news release.
“We teach the famous tagline, ‘See something, say something,’ but in practice, it is hard for kids to intervene and assess conflicts quickly – it’s hard even for adults. If we see two kids in a physical fight, we feel an obligation to break it up. But when we see kids being excluded by their peers, adults don’t always seem to view it as equally damaging, and that’s the scary part,” he added.
“When kids are in school, sameness often gets celebrated, but when kids grow up to become adults, individuality is what makes us stand out and excel in our jobs and in life,” Rose said. “Individuality should be interwoven in some of the messages we as adults send in our schools, in our families and in our neighborhoods.”
Including social communication skills into students’ daily curriculum is another suggestion teachers can start using right away, according to Rose.
“In addition to establishing academic objectives for group projects, teachers can monitor how well the students are inviting the input of others’ ideas through positive, encouraging conversations,” he said. “Teachers should give specific praise when they see respectful and inclusive behavior in action, because teaching and reinforcing these skills are just as important as the math, science and history lessons.”
Kids may be more apt to act aggressively if they aren’t taught how to effectively express their thoughts, wants and needs, Rose added. Not every child needs to be a friend, but it’s important to treat everyone with respect.
“Bullying does not begin or end with the school bells, it is a community issue,” Rose said. “I think, as adults, we have to be more aware of what we’re teaching our kids in terms of how we interact socially, as schools are a reflection of our communities.”
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