While some may argue in favor of punitive measures for students who bully and others side with improving school climate, a recent survey singles out another factor that may help curb bullying: a sense of belonging.
“The more a child feels like they can connect with their family, their peers, and their school, the less likely they are to engage in bullying behavior,” said Christopher Slaten, a co-investigator for the survey and an associate professor for the University of Missouri’s College of Education.
The researchers surveyed over 900 middle schoolers from rural communities throughout the United States. It asked students about their perceptions of belonging among their family, their peers, and in their schools. They were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as: “My family members are interested in the same things that I’m interested in,” or “There’s a teacher or staff member at my school who accepts me for who I am.” Additionally, the survey asked the participants if they engaged in bullying behaviors, like making others upset because it was fun or spreading rumors.
The research team found a connection between students’ relationships at home, their relationships at school, and patterns of bullying behaviors.
“If they feel like they belong with their family, then they’re more likely to feel like they belong at school, which in term makes them less likely to perform bullying behavior,” said Slaten.
The results spell out the importance family plays for all students, whether they are bullied or do the bullying.
As the director of the Mizzou Ed Bully Prevention Lab, Chad Rose said parents should engage with their children because it can improve their sense of belonging at home and better inform them about what’s happening at school.
“One of the biggest things that I tell [parents] is to speak with your kids and not just ask how your day was, but ask them specific questions, get to know them,” said Rose. “Those are things that will allow you to understand whether or not your child is involved in bullying, either as the victim or the perpetrator, or even if they witness it a lot at school.”
Although the role of a bully is often thought to be static, experts say children can move in and out of the role.
“When we look at bullying, it is quite complex,” said Rose, who was also a co-investigator on the survey. “Kids move in and out of roles based on time and context, meaning that it’s unlikely that a kid who is engaging in bullying is just this pure bully and bullies everybody all the time.”
Slaten and Rose said it’s imperative for parents and schools to work together to support students at home and at school. By establishing a home-school partnership, they are better equipped to improve a child’s sense of belonging, thereby preventing bullying.
But rather than a stern talk about bad behavior, parents should provide behavior-specific praise to improve their child’s social and communication skills.
“Social and communication skills are two of the biggest predictors of bullying involvement, meaning that kids that have really strong social and communication skills are less likely to be involved,” said Rose. “If I was a parent, and my child was struggling with those things, then I would model them... focus on the positive. Start to provide behavior-specific praise and telling kids that they love them and telling kids that they’re supported and embracing their kids’ individuality.”
The same goes for schools and teachers.
“It’s really easy to step into a classroom and tell kids ‘Stop talking. Sit down. Don’t do that.’ It’s more challenging to tell a kid, ‘Hey, I really liked the way you finished these problems,’” said Rose. “We know that when teachers provide behavior-specific praise, then kids feel like they belong more in that environment. And they have improvements in academics and decreases in their challenging behaviors.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.