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Bridgewater State’s Dr. Elizabeth Englander talks about the causes of bullying

Dr. Elizabeth Englander is a professor of psychology and the founder and director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University, which delivers nationally renowned anti-violence and anti-bullying programs, resources and research to educators, administrators, students, parents and others. She is a nationally recognized expert in the area of bullying and cyberbullying, childhood causes of violence, aggression and abuse, childhood cyber behaviors and child development. Dr. Englander also contributed to the development of the Massachusetts anti-bullying law that went into effect in May 2010. Dr. Englander co-chaired STAND UP 2011, a one-day program created for middle and high school students and teachers to take a stand against bullying. The event, held on December 13, was created to educate, motivate and empower young people to actively promote positive social change in their schools and communities.

The following interview with Dr. Englander ran in the August-September 2011 edition of MTA Today.

Q. How did you come to the field of bullying?

A. I’ve been teaching and researching children’s aggression for about 25 years. I was involved in the field before it was big. In the early 1980s, I was among a small group of people — I think there were about five of us — studying violence in children. About six years ago, things came together for me when I was able to merge my work with children and violence with my second area of interest, how people use technology and the impact it has on their lives.

Q. Bullying can be an all-encompassing topic. How do you define the term? What is most important for people to know about bullying?

A. Bullying is different from other kinds of aggressions. In some ways, it is an abusive behavior, not just an attack. The behavior issues that we see and have researched do not represent the kinds of bullying that most adults think about. We don’t see there is a high frequency of things like pushing and shoving and those types of problems. What we’ve found is that there is a brief flirtation with physical bullying in Massachusetts with boys in grades three through five, but that’s the only place that the physical stuff shows up with any significance. Apart from the physical bullying that takes place for a little while with little boys, it is a psychological power play between kids.

Q. What advice do you have for K-12 educators who are now legally required to report incidents of bullying under the new law?

A. Remember that I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not giving out legal advice here, but I do hear from many educators who are concerned about what they should and should not be reporting. Teachers tend to walk around the hallways of their schools saying to themselves, “Is that bullying? Do I have to report that?” The important thing for educators to understand is what they are looking for is what a reasonable person would probably conclude is bullying and then report it to the administration. After that, it is up to the administration to investigate and make a determination.

Q. You talk a lot about “responding” to bullying. Why is that important?

A. It’s really important for educators to focus on inappropriate social behaviors. No one is going to tell an educator that he or she must report every girl who rolls her eyes at another girl. But if that same girl rolls her eyes at someone else right in front of you in your classroom, you should respond to her. In doing so, own it as your problem. This is not a “Dr. Phil” moment, so don’t say, “I don’t think you should roll your eyes at little Katie,” and then talk about how it might feel. Because Katie is an abuse victim, and she’s going to say everything is fine. Instead, be very clear. Tell the student you are offended by what you saw and you don’t care if Katie loves it or asked you to do it or even has a note from her mother asking you to do it. Eye-rolling is disrespectful, offensive, disdainful and contemptuous. Stop. Don’t do it again. The goal is to convey expectations. That’s it. It’s not about punishment or consequences or any of that other stuff. It’s about setting expectations. Once you do that, I think you’ll find that most kids will meet those expectations. Kids are intuitive. They know when they can and when they can’t get away with this type of behavior.

Q. Why are some schools more successful at bullying prevention than others?

A. Bullying prevention is more than just putting a banner over the front door that says “RESPECT.” It is about practicing what we preach. I see many, many schools with dedicated people who are working hard at these issues, yet they are missing what’s at the root of the problem. They are very conscious and focused, are trained and have policies and procedures in place, but they are missing a key piece. They are not working on the contempt that they are allowing to openly happen between kids. If you say to a student, “I’m not going to let you shove another kid into a locker,” but then let him be contemptuous toward others, you are going to see some kids shift their behavior to avoid getting into trouble.

Q. How have new technologies and social media changed the issues around bullying?

A. The advent of widespread electronic communications has had a much bigger social factor than people realize. On sites such as Facebook, kids need to recognize that what they are posting is not at all private. Kids are behaving with a candor and lack of inhibition that would be more appropriate in a one-on-one situation with a friend when they should really be behaving as if they are in a public park with a megaphone. One of the major obstacles with online communication is that it lacks certain things that stop people from abusing others. The feedback mechanism is very different. For example, if someone says something cruel and sees that the other person looks distressed, that has a braking effect that tends to stop many people from being abusive. Educators also need to understand that what happens online is not separate from what happens in schools.

Q. You helped to develop the state’s anti-bullying law. Thoughts?

A. The law is an important starting place. I think there are other issues — access is a big one. My center offers programs and services on anti-bullying at no cost. Last year, we were in 250 schools, but we had to turn away requests from many others. We need many more programs and services in this area for schools to utilize.

For more information on the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University, visit http://www.marccenter.org .  You can also follow MARC on Twitter at @marc_at_bsu or check out the center on Facebook. For more on STAND UP 2011, which the MTA sponsored, visit http://www.standup2011.org.