Podcast: Understanding 5 Bullying Misperceptions with Dr. Dorothy Espelage

Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

Guest Biography
Dr. Dorothy Espelage is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, and an international expert in bullying, youth aggression, and teen dating violence. She has authored several books including Bullying in North American Schools, Bullying Prevention and Intervention: Realistic Strategies for Schools, and Handbook of Bullying in Schools: An International Perspective. In addition, Dr. Espelage is the author and co-author of over 120 peer-reviewed journal articles.

Dorothy grew up in Virginia and received her bachelor's degree in psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University. She then received a master's degree in clinical psychology from Radford University before receiving her Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Indiana University. Since 1997 she has held the Edward William and Jane Marr Gutgsell professorship in educational psychology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Dr. Espelage has appeared as a speaker and consultant in numerous media outlets such as CNN, Anderson Cooper, Oprah, Huffington Post, and USA Today. Dorothy is known for her work in bullying, homophobic teasing, sexual harassment, and teen dating violence. In particular, her research focuses on translating empirical findings into prevention and intervention programming.

Podcast Highlights
Here are some highlights of my conversation with Dorothy:

On stopping using the word “bullying” to describe certain behaviors in schools (12:30)

Terry: In your presentation [“Positive School Climate: Bullying Prevention Institute, September, 2013”] one of your slides is very eye-opening! It says, “May 1, 2013: Dorothy Espelage cited in USA TODAY: 'Stop using the word “bullying” in school.'”

Dorothy: Well, and I think to everybody—anybody that's listening that is a teacher, a parent, an administrator—it’s become a buzzword. And it's losing its meaning because parents are applying it to everything that's happening. They might have a child whose friend doesn't want to be their friend anymore and somehow that's bullying. Or they won't let somebody sit at the lunch table and that's bullying.
And so what happens is it doesn't necessarily resonate with administrators and the teachers because they've become desensitized to it. So I was simply, in that USA Today, saying, “Let's call it what it is.” Especially when it escalates to the point of sexual harassment or homophobic name-calling or racism. And so I think we need to be very careful with if the behavior's actually violent in criminal and civil rights it's no longer bullying. Right? It's a different form of aggression.

On how cyberspace has become related to pathology (14:53)

Terry: You say we want to pathologize cyberspace. What does that mean exactly?

Dorothy: Well, I think we see that there's this perception that every time a child or adolescent goes on to interact with social media that it's a negative interaction. And I think that we want to be cautious about that. I think that there's many marginalized youth who find support through the Internet. So students with disabilities or gender-non-conforming-lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender youth, they may find their support through social media.

On why the adult culture in a school is so important (25:52)

It's very clear in our data that if you have an adult culture that is positive and that's intervening to support kids in a vast variety, we actually find that the students report less bullying, less victimization. If the adults actually are intolerant of sexual harassment in middle school the kids report less homophobic name-calling and less sexual harassment. And so we have to consider the adults. For decades we have not. We've mostly been putting programs in place that target the social-emotional learning skills of the kids. But what I think we're doing is that—we’ll hopefully evaluate this in our next trial—is that when I observe a teacher implementing social-emotional learning [SEL] I think that teacher is improving his or her SEL skills as well.

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