Introducing: “One Question”

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If you had just one question about learning—about how we understand, remember, focus, motivate, practice, or perform—what would it be?

This post inaugurates a new feature on the Brilliant Blog. In my One Question posts, I’ll be soliciting questions from you, my readers, and answering them by consulting my own reporting and research—or by going to my network of researchers and experts and finding the one right person to supply insight.

When I received the question about school bullying, below, from a reader named Margaret, I knew exactly who to turn to. Emily Bazelon, a senior editor at Slate, has been thinking and writing about bullying for years. Included in her groundbreaking journalism on bullying issues is her coverage of the Phoebe Prince case in South Hadley, Massachusetts (Phoebe was the girl who committed suicide after being bullied by her classmates).

Now Emily has written an important and useful book about bullying, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, to be published later this month by Random House. Let’s hear what she has to say in response to Margaret’s question.

Dear Annie,
I have a six-year-old daughter. At school, she has befriended a boy who is autistic, and who sometimes gets teased. Can you make a recommendation about how we should handle this?
 I am concerned about three things:
1.  The victim developing skills to deal with the aggressor;
2.  The aggressor developing skills to deal with his own aggression; and
3.  The members of the class developing leadership skills to intervene.
 Thank you, Margaret

Emily’s response:

“Not surprisingly, but unfortunately, kids with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to mean teasing, which can turn into bullying if it repeats over time and comes from a more socially powerful child or group of children.

As a group, students with disabilities struggle more with loneliness and peer rejection, and this can especially be a problem for kids with autism, who often present as socially awkward and out of tune with peers.

First off, good for your daughter for defending the boy you’ve written in about—that probably means a lot to him.

The best bullying interventions—really the only ones that have been shown to work consistently—involve the whole school and the whole classroom. The goal has to be to change the culture so that cruelty just isn’t the norm and isn’t accepted.

One of the most heartening pieces of research I’ve seen shows that bullying rates go down when kids understand that most kids aren’t involved in bullying. So for example, a school that did a student survey, and then put up posters saying things like “90% of the kids here don’t deliberately exclude other kids to make them feel bad,” reduced the rate of bullying students reported afterward.

Of course, programs also have to work at the individual level. Kids who are victims often need more help from adults than other kids in negotiating social situations. Kids who bully sometimes need help like that, too, though they can also be kids who are good at manipulating. It really depends on the context.

As for bystanders—the kids who are observing—they need to understand that what they do makes a big difference. One important study showed that bullying takes place in front of other kids  in more than four out of five cases. Bystanders step in to stop it in only one of five of those cases—but when they do, they succeed more than half the time.

For kids to take that step, they often have to be in an environment that rewards them for it—which brings us back to the importance of school (and community) culture.”

Readers, now I’d like to hear from the rest of you: Have you seen bullying happen at your school or your children’s school? Has it been handled well or badly?

And: If you’d like to submit your One Question, please email it to me at annie@anniemurphypaul.com.

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One Response to “Introducing: “One Question””

  1. John Bennett says:

    Why, knowing how few students leave K-12 without being able to learn effectively, is there so little efforts in this area – in K-12 and in college?

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