Rethinking Bullying Prevention (Unrestrained Episode 8)
Dr. Deborah Temkin is a child development and prevention research scientist specializing in bullying prevention, school climate, and connecting education policy to healthy youth development. She was the Research and Policy Coordinator for Bullying Prevention Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education from 2010–2012, where she was charged with coordinating the Obama administration's bullying prevention efforts, including launching StopBullying.gov. Dr. Temkin continued her work in bullying prevention by creating and launching a new initiative, Project SEATBELT, at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights in 2013. Today, Dr. Temkin is a Senior Research Scientist in the Education research area at Child Trends, a non-partisan, non-profit research organization in Bethesda, MD.
Here are a few of the highlights from my conversation with Deborah.
On why the term “bullying” should not be applied to adult behavior (10:14)
“I want to start by saying I know that aggressive behavior occurs among all people, regardless of if you're a minor or an adult. I don't deny that bullying, or things that look like bullying, does happen among adults and happen in the workplace.
But because adults are fully developed, the intention and the effect of those behaviors are very different for adults than it is for children who are still minors. Until about the age of 25 the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that's right in the front, that is not fully developed. And so that's the part of the brain that controls things like impulse, aggression, and it's also part of the brain that can be severely affected by ongoing trauma, such as bullying. And so while the brain is still developing, you are at a stage where kids are not necessarily in control of their own behaviors as much as they’d like them. They are more malleable. So we can help train them and teach them better behaviors . . .
I think the other key piece is that youth in school are also in a very different context than adults at work. While it's somewhat hard for an adult to change jobs, obviously there is difficulty with that, they do have the freedom to do so if they would like. It's very different for a student who is required to go to school who has very little ability to change the school they're in. Jaana Juvonen, who is a researcher at UCLA, coined the term "the involuntary social group" for the in-school environment, which really reflects the fact that students aren't able to pick the group of peers that they're around. That's really hard when those are the kids who end up bullying you. That context effect, as well as the developmental effects, are why I think bullying is a very different behavior when kids are in school versus when they are adults.”
On the bullying “research gap” (13:03)
“There is a huge research gap in us knowing we need better prevention for bullying but really not knowing what works. The vast majority of bullying prevention programs that are out there have either not been evaluated or have not shown effectiveness or efficacy in the United States. And that's a real problem when there are so many schools clamoring for programs to implement in their schools.”
Is there an accurate definition of bullying? (14:52)
“Unfortunately, there is not a really good definition. When I was at the Department of Education I helped coordinate a uniform definition panel with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That definition came out about a year ago now. And it was the same definition. That panel really struggled to get away from the definition that we have now. I think the important thing for us to think about is whether or not the definition actually matters. Whether it's more of the actual behaviors that go into the behavior or whether it's the experience of being bullied. I tend to think of it as the latter. If a child feels like they're being bullied then they're probably being bullied.”
On how parents could rethink their approach to bullying (17:00)
“A lot of times parents tend to focus on, ‘My child's being wronged. We need to punish the person who's wronging them.’ And of course, this is really where that debate on definition comes in. I think parents need to step back from saying, ‘Okay, the other child is not my concern. My concern is my child. What do they need?’ And often times there can be a solution that will help their child that goes beyond the punishment of the child whom they feel has been bullying.”