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Professor Debra Pepler argues you can't just punish children who bully

Professor Debra Pepler argues you can't just punish children who bully

Punishment isn’t the answer for kids who learned to bully at home, says a Toronto psychology professor, wrote Halifax’s Chronicle-Herald April 9.

"If a child is bullied at home by his or her parents or siblings, they’re going to learn the patterns they need to learn about the use of power and aggression in relationships," says Debra Pepler [Distinguished Research Professor in psychology at York’s LaMarsh Centre for Child & Youth Research].

These "children who are morally disengaged tend to think that the other child is just deserving of it, that they’re not human. They really disregard that child’s basic rights."

Pepler, who works at York University [Faculty of Health] and the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, co-founded the Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network.

She says that for most kids, bullying or being bullied are minor problems that pass with time. But 10 to 15 per cent require extra support, and chronic bullies need help from mental health experts.

Pepler found that "85 per cent of the time, we saw bullying in the schoolyard or in the classroom, other children are there, and they form the audience for bullying and they reinforce the child who is bullying."

Her findings show that chronic bullies are more likely to skip school, abuse substances, sexually harass others, use violence in romantic relationships and eventually get into crime.

"They don’t have that voice inside that says, ‘Is this a good idea, should I do this?’ They’re really willing to go along to keep their friends, to keep their status, and do all sorts of negative things when they’re exposed to peer pressure. If we wanted to identify and help those children who are going to cost society the most in terms of criminal behaviour . . . we would be looking at the children who are involved in high rates of bullying."

These kids "probably need mental health services, (and) they and their families need a lot of support around how to develop the social-emotional capacity for healthy relationships." Schools need to keep track of every occurrence of bullying and focus their resources on the chronic bullies, she says.

Combating the stigma against reporting bullying to adults requires re-educating both children and adults, Pepler says.

"Children have a responsibility to tell when it’s happening, either to (teachers) or to someone else, because it violates a child’s rights, to be bullied. A child who is bullied isn’t safe, and similarly a child who bullies others is really in need of help."

This approach also helps combat cyberbullying because "the children who are cyberbullying are the children who traditionally bully," Pepler says.

She says teaching math and literacy is different from teaching kids how to interact positively. "Two plus two always equals four, and Cat on the Mat always looks the same, but social-emotional development is hugely complex," she says.

Posted by Elizabeth Monier-Williams, research communications officer, with files courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin.