By Bonnie Leadbeater, PhD, WITS Program
Bullying and peer victimization seem to be unavoidable childhood experiences, yet decades of research have pointed to their negative consequences for children’s mental health and behavioral problems. Many factors are associated with peer victimization and aggressive behaviors (including social skills, empathy, social dominance, popularity, emotional dysregulation, and moral disengagement, as well as experiences of violence in families or in aggressive peer networks). Diverse prevention approaches target several of these concerns. However, interventions that attempt to limit the aggressive behaviors or enhance the social skills (empathy, social competence) of children who are bullied or who bully others typically have only small effects on these widespread problems.
Using a new approach, we focused on child behaviors (prosocial leadership) and classroom expectations (social responsibility) that are incompatible with bullying and victimization. In a two-year longitudinal study, we tested the effects of enhancing children’s capacity for prosocial leadership (essentially looking for opportunities to be kind and helpful) and their teachers’ expectations of children’s socially responsible behaviors (expecting and recognizing children’s kind and helpful behaviors) on reducing both peer victimization and its negative emotional and behavioral correlates (aggression and emotional problems). We aimed to increase these protective factors using the WITS Programs (Walk Away, Ignore, Talk it Out and Seek Help) which were designed to target these protective factors in order to create responsive communities for the prevention of peer victimization (see program details at www.witsprograms.ca).
Why is this new?
We know that from a very early age, children ask to be helpers in their families. Helping offers children important opportunities be included in and contribute to family welfare – even when their offers to help with housework, dishes, cooking, fetching, and carrying exceed the child’s abilities and require patient and supportive adults to execute. On the other side, parents who expect children to help (doing family chores, participating in family activities, and supporting others) provide opportunities and encouragement for these behaviors and also create family environments where children expect to help but also to be helped when needed.
Similarity, in elementary school, children also seek opportunities to help as members of their classroom communities. Children with high levels of prosocial leadership show initiative in enacting such behaviors as helping others, resolving peer conflicts, being friendly and caring, and seeking adult help. On the other side, expectations for social responsibility denote teachers’ expectations for supporting other children’s well-being, following rules for the good of others, and trusting in the authority of adults for guidance and help. We hypothesized that taking a proactive approach to enhancing children’s opportunities for prosocial leadership and to recognizing their efforts to help others and to seek help (social responsibly) fosters child behaviors and a supportive environment that protects children from bullying and victimization and the emotional and behavioral problems that can stem from these experiences.
To test this hypothesis, we engaged Canadian elementary school children and their parents and teachers in a two-year 5 wave study. Children’s prosocial leadership and their teachers’ expectations of social responsibility were enhanced using the WITS Programs (Walk Away, Ignore, Talk it Out and Seek Help) which were designed to create responsive communities for the prevention of peer victimization (www.witsprograms.ca). At baseline, participants in the research included 1329 Canadian students, in grades 1 to 4, and their parents and teachers. Consistent with our hypothesis, we expected that high-quality program implementation and in children’s use of the WITS Program skills would be related to increases in both prosocial leadership and social responsibility which, in turn, would be associated with subsequent declines in children’s aggression, victimization, and emotional problems.
Parents and teachers rated of 8-items indicating how often children displayed prosocial leadership (e.g., “is good at getting people to work together” and “offers to help other children”). The Social Responsibility measure was based on curriculum objectives outlined in the British Columbia Ministry of Education Performance Standards: Social Responsibility. Teachers rated 6-items (e.g., “Looks for chances to help and include others,” and “helps to solve peer conflicts”). Parents and teachers also provided ratings of children’s emotion and behavioral problems. Children reported on their experiences of relational and physical peer victimization.
Implementing protective processes
The described study supports the theory that protective processes that are amenable to change and that influencing children’s capacity for prosocial leadership, as well as teachers’ expectations for socially responsible behaviors, are associated with reductions in peer victimization and the behavioral and emotional problems associated with it. We need to look beyond individual traits and deficits to end bullying. By systematically working to identify and increase protective processes that are incompatible with bullying and assessing their subsequent impact on child bulling and victimization and their negative consequences and we can continue to identify best practices that target these factors.
Leadbeater, B. J., Thompson, K., & Sukhawathanakul, P. (2016). Enhancing social responsibility and prosocial leadership to prevent aggression, peer victimization, and emotional problems in elementary school children. American Journal of Community Psychology, 58(3-4), 365-376. DOI: 10.1002/ajcp.12092
Leadbeater B. J., & Sukhawathanakul, P. (2011). Multi-component programs for reducing peer victimization in early elementary school: A longitudinal evaluation of the WITS® Primary program. Journal of Community Psychology, 39(5), 606-620.
Leadbeater, B. J., & Gladstone, E. J. (2016). Supporting schools for the widespread implementation of evidence-based mental health promotion programs: What is needed?. In R. H. Shute, P. T. Slee, R. H. Shute, P. T. Slee (Eds.), Mental health and wellbeing through schools: The way forward (pp. 27-38). New York, NY, US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.