The school year has hardly started, and the first bullying-related fatality has made headlines.
On Aug. 27, 15-year-old Bart Palosz of Greenwich took his life, apparently after unrelenting bullying made the thought of another school year unbearable. Bart was reportedly gentle and kind, an immigrant from Poland with a soft accent and a little bit of acne who didn't push back — just "different enough" to be the target that youths in many studies say is a main reason for bullying.
How can such traumatizing, systematic peer abuse happen when 49 states have anti-bullying legislation intended to prohibit it? Because, quite simply, most anti-bullying efforts are not working. Large-scale analyses show that the effect of bullying prevention programs is modest to none.
Anti-bullying programs don't work in part because they address symptoms and not underlying causes. Schools will be bully-free when social and emotional learning programs are taken as seriously as reading and math.
The toll from bullying is so devastating, long-lasting and costly that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labeled bullying a major public health problem. Victims suffer from depression, anxiety, low self-worth, social isolation, academic problems, immune system and other health problems and, in the extreme, suicidal thoughts and actions.
Bullies aren't faring well, either. They tend to be anxious, depressed and at risk for later criminal behavior. Victims who turn to bullying are the most aggressive — 71 percent of school shooters were bullied.
No one remains untouched. Children who witness bullying often become anxious and fearful, and the entire learning environment is adversely affected.
Every state but Montana has anti-bullying legislation. The resulting school policies vary from requiring the victim to make a written report to expelling bullies and engaging law enforcement.
Most school districts adopt four-step bullying-prevention programs: assessing the frequency of bullying through a survey; imposing consequences for bullying; mounting an informational campaign through assemblies, posters and new rules; and monitoring bullying "hot spots."
Some programs encourage students to empathize with victims, or to intervene as bystanders, or to mediate peer conflicts, which has definitively been shown to be counterproductive because of the power of bullies to retaliate.
Bully prevention programs are an inefficient use of money. They cost up to $125 per pupil, a potential $6 billion expense in the U.S. for little to no help for the targets or the perpetrators. This is not real prevention. It's too much rule-making and not enough skill-building.
Schools must meet the real emotional and social developmental needs of students for bullying to decrease, for effective teaching and learning to take place, for positive relationships to form and for students to fully express their talents. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, calls them "essential skills" and introduced a bill in May to support their inclusion in education.
One such skill, emotional intelligence, has demonstrated strong potential to enhance education. Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize the expression of emotions in oneself and others, use emotions to enhance thinking and regulate emotions to promote personal growth.
Among youths, higher emotional intelligence is associated with social competence, mental health and academic success. Lower emotional intelligence is linked to greater use of drugs and alcohol, more violent behavior and poorer mental health, including anxiety and depression. Decades of research show that emotional intelligence skills can be learned.
Many social problems erupt in school because children are trying to get legitimate needs met — belonging, competency, friendship, control, leadership — but they go about it in unskilled ways. Working regularly with a child's feelings, from preschool to high school, helps her learn to express herself and get her needs met.
A recent analysis of social and emotional learning programs, or SEL, many of which are rooted in emotional intelligence theory, showed that these programs reduce problem behaviors, increase academic success (by an average of 11 percent), improve self-esteem and commitment to school, and enhance relationships among teachers and students.
The best SEL programs demonstrate stronger effects than bullying prevention programs because they are more comprehensive, and importantly, they focus on developing specific emotion skills in the educators and students while building a positive school climate.
To be sure, anti-bullying legislation, policies, and programs are effective at raising awareness and giving educators a framework for responding, but ultimately they are short-sighted.
Congress should fund quality SEL programming, to teach children, in Rep. Ryan's words, the "foundation for all the other skills young people need to be successful in school and in life."
Children have the right to a safe environment and the opportunity to develop the skills they need to maximize their potential — academically, socially and emotionally.
Marc Brackett, Ph.D., is director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and consultant to Facebook to reduce online bullying. Diana Divecha, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist who writes about children, teens and families.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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