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New Tactics For Tackling School Bullying

January 26, 2009

A new psychodynamic approach to bullying in schools has been successfully trialed by UCL (University College London) and US researchers. CAPSLE (Creating a Peaceful School Learning Environment) is a groundbreaking method focused more on the bystander, including the teacher, than on the bully or the victim. The study, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, shows that an easily implemented school-wide intervention focusing on empathy and power dynamics can reduce children’s experiences of aggression in school and improve classroom behavior.

Professor Peter Fonagy, UCL Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology, and lead author of the paper, says: “Bullying has an extensive impact on children’s mental health including disruptive and aggressive behavior, school dropout, substance abuse, depressed mood, anxiety, and social withdrawal. It also undermines educational achievement and disrupts children’s abilities to develop social relationships.

“While school anti-bullying programs are widely used, there have been few controlled trials of their effectiveness. CAPSLE is a psychodynamic approach that addresses the co-created relationship between bully, victim, and bystanders, assuming that all members of the school community, including teachers, play a role in bullying. It aims to improve the capacity of all community members to mentalize, that is, to interpret one’s own and others’ behavior in terms of mental states (beliefs, wishes, feelings), assuming that greater awareness of other people’s feelings will counteract the temptation to bully others. It also teaches people to manage power struggles and issues, both of which are known to damage mentalizing.”

The randomized study, working with 1,345 third to fifth graders (8-11 year olds) in nine US elementary schools, assessed the efficacy of a three-year program. In total, about 4,000 children were exposed to the study protocol. CAPSLE schools were compared with schools receiving no intervention and those using only School Psychiatric Consultation (SPC) where children with the most significant behavioral problems were assessed and referred for counseling.

Rather than simply targeting aggressive children, the CAPSLE program worked to develop mentalizing skills in students and staff across the wider school community, beginning with bystanders perceiving and accepting their own (unthinking) role in maintaining the bully-victim relationship through abdicating responsibility and making an implicit decision not to think about what the bully/victim is experiencing. The emphasis was on the need to understand rather than react to others and thus avoid the problems created by a regression into the victim, victimizer and bully. Poster campaigns, stickers and badges were used to create a climate where feelings were labeled and distress was acknowledged as legitimate, with the ultimate aim of changing the way the entire school social system viewed bullying.

In the first year of the study, teachers received a day of group training and students received nine sessions of self-defense. This training in martial arts with role-playing was designed to help children understand how they responded to victimization and how that victimization affected their capacity to think clearly and creatively. During the study, teachers were discouraged from making disciplinary referrals (such as sending someone to the principal’s office) unless absolutely necessary, and classes were asked to take 15 minutes at the end of the school day to reflect on the day’s activities. All classes would reflect on bully-victim-bystander relationships according to a structured format depicted in posters placed in all classrooms. Children would assess the extent to which they had succeeded in being reflective and compassionate. They would then make a classroom decision on whether or not a class banner should be posted outside the room to say that the classroom had had a good mentalizing day. The study found that children were much tougher on themselves than teachers would have been under similar circumstances

Over the course of the study, reports of aggression, victimization, bystanding behavior and mentalizing were gathered twice yearly from classroom questionnaires completed by the children. Behavioral observations on a randomly chosen subgroup of children were made at regular intervals by observers who looked for ‘off-task’ and disruptive behavior. The program was found to generate more positive bystanding behaviors, greater empathy for victims, and less favorable attitudes towards aggression in CAPSLE schools. In these schools, fewer children were nominated by their peers as aggressive, victimized, or engaging in aggressive bystanding compared with the control schools. This was confirmed by behavioral observation of less disruptive and off-task classroom behavior in CAPSLE schools.

CAPSLE made no attempt to focus on helping disturbed children individually or picking them out for treatment. It did not set explicit rules against bullying, nor did it advocate any special treatment for bullying children. Nevertheless, over time the study found that bullies came to be disempowered, initially complaining that the program was boring and should be stopped until gradually the social system tended to recruit them into more helpful roles. For example, a fifth grade bully who was “humping” the school trophy case to display his sexual prowess to much younger children became a helper of kindergarteners who were upset and helped them with tasks like tying shoelaces.

Over the course of the study, bullying increased across all the schools being monitored (no intervention, SPC and CAPSLE schools), but the percentages of children victimized were substantially larger in the first two types of schools from start to end. At the start of the study, 13 per cent of CAPSLE children were victimized compared to 19 per cent at the end. The increase among SPC children was from 15 to 25 per cent and from 14 to 26 per cent in the schools receiving no interventions. This school district had numerous socioeconomic problems over the course of the study, making the CAPSLE effects on bullying more remarkable.

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