The school year is just around the corner, and while some children are dreading homework, others are dreading something more serious: being the target of nasty rumors, getting shoved, and the taunting and name-calling that come with every new semester.
Bullying is alive in classrooms, spanning all grade levels across the country. One in five students is bullied in high school, according to a 2011 survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most recent year for which data is available.
Psychologist Susan Swearer, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-director of the university's Bullying Research Network, is working to eliminate bullying in the school system.
She created the Target Bullying Intervention Program six years ago at Irving Middle School in Lincoln. The program, which teaches bullies how to correct their behavior instead of just punishing them, expanded to all Lincoln Public School schools last year.
Her work and research also led her to tour with Lady Gaga to promote the singer's Born This Way Foundation earlier this year. The anti-bullying foundation works to “connect young people with the skills and opportunities they need to build a kinder, braver world.”
We talked with Swearer about working with the pop star, the prevalence of bullying and what parents can do to stop it.
Question: What do we know about bullies?
Answer: People think they're all mean, evil kids. They're not. We know that bullying is very complex. Kids are trying to figure out how to navigate social relationships. Sometimes they see popular kids bullying others and try it themselves. Some have anxiety or are depressed. We have to recognize that complexity. Otherwise we'll continue to fail.
Q: How does the Target Bullying Intervention program work?
A: We know from research that zero-tolerance policies don't change behaviors, so we designed the program to exist in lieu of in-school suspension. The students fill out a self-assessment, meet with a school guidance counselor and are then given strategies and worksheets to help them figure out better ways of interacting with their classmates. They're still in trouble. But we're trying to teach them instead of simply punishing them.
Q: Is it effective?
A: There are fewer office referrals for bullying behaviors in kids who go through the program. Does it help everybody? No, of course not. But it certainly is more effective than in-school suspension and helps kids choose better ways of behaving.
Q: Do you hope to expand?
A: My hope is to expand, but that takes money and people power so I'd need to be invited to train school counselors to implement the program at their schools in other parts of Nebraska.
Q: How has bullying changed over the course of your career?
A: I started studying bullying in 1998, and I think it's fair to say bullying is an issue we're much more aware of now. Electronic bullying is more prevalent now because kids have access to that medium. It's particularly bad on Twitter, but also Facebook and Snap Chat (a photo messaging mobile app that allows users to control how long the picture is viewed). The behavior is the same — it's just done through a different mechanism. Verbal and physical bullying are still more prevalent.
Q: What is your advice to parents?
A: Know what your kids' online worlds are like. Monitor their behavior on social networks, but not in a secretive way. It's important to have open conversations with your children about what is good online behavior. Parents who have no idea what kids are posting, that's a real mistake.
Q: You spent almost three months on the Born This Way Foundation tour with Lady Gaga. What was that experience like?
A: It was a thrill to be part of that. Being on tour helped shape some of my thinking about kids' involvement in bullying. If we can empower kids and families to live better, kinder lives, to stand up when they see injustices or inequities, that's the opposite of bullying. It was a very positive environment and helped de-stigmatize getting help.
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