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From Bullying to Belonging: Three Things to Know About Peer Aggression

As a kid, I was socially awkward. I started wearing glasses at age six — big, thick Coke-bottle glasses. I performed poorly in nearly everything sports-related. I just didn’t fit in. This made me a target for name-calling, humiliating criticism, even physical aggression. I was bullied, as are millions of kids in the U.S. each year.

Today, I lead teams designing products that support resilience — cultivating people’s ability to persevere through life’s challenges and flourish. As part of this work, we wondered why some kids flourish in spite of peer aggression, while other kids are utterly defeated by it. We began to closely examine the vexing problem of bullying and potential ways to solve it.

Here are three things that have us rethinking ways to move kids from experiences of bullying to experiences of belonging.

1. Bullying is a public health problem

Bullying is more than incidents of schoolyard drama; its effects can be long-lasting. Nearly 30 percent of adolescents in the U.S. report some experience with bullying, whether as the victim, the bully or both. Bullied students are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, physical health problems, and social adjustment problems. And researchers reporting on the impact of childhood bullying on adult health warn, “Being bullied is not a harmless rite of passage but throws a long shadow over affected peoples’ lives.”

But there is hope. Research also indicates that interventions in childhood can reduce long-term health and social costs. A growing body of evidence suggests that just as children learn to read, they also need to develop their ability to understand and manage their emotions in order to build healthy, productive relationships. TheMood Meter, developed by researchers at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, is an example of a tool that can help young people and even adults build these critical skills in educational settings and everyday life. We need to rally resources to identify effective and innovative tools like these to address bullying, with all the urgency that a costly public health problem warrants.

2. Mindset matters

Being labeled a bully or a victim may itself do harm to kids. Labels imply fixed qualities in people — that people’s personalities cannot change. This belief limits a young person’s sense of agency in addressing challenging social circumstances. If bullies can’t change, why bother? If I’m so unlikable that I get bullied, why bother? Getting kids to shift this mindset may be a powerful way to break the social and psychological cycle of harm that bully/victim labels reinforce. That might sound like a tall order, but there are practical tools we can use.

As an example, David Yeager, Ph.D., of the University of Texas at Austin, developed a brief intervention to see how shifting a young person’s mindset on personality might reduce symptoms of depression. According to Yeager, “When teens are excluded or bullied it can be reasonable to wonder if they are ‘losers’ or ‘not likable.’ We asked: Could teaching teens that people can change reduce those thoughts? And if so could it even prevent overall symptoms of depression?”

To find out, Yeager and colleagues conducted a 9-month study with about 600 9th graders. At the beginning of the school year, students were asked to read a passage describing how individuals’ personalities are subject to change. The passage emphasized that being bullied is not the result of a fixed, personal deficiency, nor are bullies essentially “bad” people. An article about brain plasticity and endorsements from older students accompanied the passage. After reading the materials, the students were asked to write their own narrative about how personalities can change, to be shared with future 9th graders. A control group of students read a passage that focused on malleability of athletic ability, not personality.

Nine months later, at the end of the school year, rates of clinically significant depressive symptoms rose by roughly 39 percent among students in the control group. But kids who learned about the malleability of personality showed no such increase in depressive symptoms — even if they were bullied.

3. Build a sense belonging

Recently, my team conducted a series of in-depth interviews with teachers, parents, school administrators, and researchers to identify potential solutions to bullying and peer aggression. The theme of connection, creating a sense of belonging for kids, came up over and over again in various ways. In particular, these experts noted that a child having a single friend or knowing a trusted adult or being engaged in a school culture that emphasizes belonging can make all the difference for a child who is being bullied or feels alone. As a matter of fact, research shows that helping kids create meaningful connections with peers and trusted adults can provide an inoculating effect that improves psychological and physical health.

Building a sense of belonging for kids isn’t difficult to do, either. Schools can implement practices that promote authentic, positive connections, as illustrated by a remarkably simple but powerful “relationship mapping” exercise documented by the Making Caring Common project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

We may never eliminate bullying entirely, but by cultivating belonging, we can help kids mount a resilient response to the challenges they face and mitigate the long-term physical and emotional effects of peer aggression.

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