Reflections on the 10th International Bullying Prevention Conference, Patti Agatston, PhD

The International Bullying Prevention Association recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of its organization with its annual conference in Nashville, TN, November 10–12, 2013.

As an attendee for the past 10 years and a board member for the past four years, I am excited to see the growth of the organization and the evolution of the bullying prevention field. There is a growing recognition that we need to move beyond labels and use comprehensive school-wide approaches that build connectedness in our schools and communities.

In fact, many of the speakers, including Ernie Mendez, Emily Bazelon, and Stan Davis, highlighted the idea that we need to move from thinking of youth involved in bullying in black and white terms, such as bullies and victims (or bad versus good). Adults need to keep this in mind as we develop our approaches, recognizing that the aggressor one day may be the target on another occasion, and the single best predictor of youth engaging in pro-social behavior is how connected they feel to the adults in their life, as well as to their school and communities. In short – are we making sure that we have ways to ensure that all kids feel connected to at least one adult in the school?

We also need to take time to develop the capacity of our youth to deal with the very real challenges of navigating the social world. Life is hard. All of us will be challenged at multiple times in our lives. So increasing our capacity to deal with the challenges — developing resiliency — is another emerging area that is gaining traction in the bullying prevention field. Including social-emotional learning (SEL) in our schools is key, a fact highlighted by Marc Brackett of the Ruler Approach, a model that facilitates the development of emotional intelligence among youth.

Finally – we need to be reaching out more to parents to help them understand their role in building resiliency among our kids. The current media attention to bullying, cyberbullying and suicide has frightened many parents to the point that they panic when their children are targeted by mean, cruel, or bullying behavior. I heard an expert on trauma (Brad Reedy, Ph.D) speak recently, and he reminded me that the parents or other adults in a child’s life have a role to play in reducing the impact of trauma in kid’s lives.

We need to become a safe container for our children where we can acknowledge the uncomfortable feelings and difficult challenges they are facing. Our response must also convey that we can handle hearing this in a calm, non-reactive manner. Such a response will support them to work through the difficult emotions dealing with fear and a loss of control. While our messages need to convey that the child is not at fault for being targeted, if the adults in the child’s life panic or react with increasing anxiety or hyper vigilance, we can in fact worsen the impact of the event on the child. Some parents or guardians may need to seek professional guidance to deal with their own stress levels.

Are We Norming Resiliency With Our Kids?

I am excited about the theme of this year’s International Bullying Prevention Association’s Conference: Bullying and Intolerance: “From Risk to Resiliency.” This year’s conference will take place, appropriately, in the city of New Orleans.

Much media attention has been given to the problem of bullying and suicide. Yet when the media covers the sad death of a young person by suicide, they seldom mention that suicide is typically a multifaceted issue involving treatable mental health issues, and that help is available.  Members of the media can help us encourage help-seeking behavior and avoid contagion by following the NIMH guidelines for reporting on suicide.

Social norming theory posits that our messages to youth can norm positive or negative behavior. A positive social norming approach has been particularly effective in changing youth’s views that using alcohol or other drugs is a common behavior among their peers – which in turn leads to reduced alcohol and drug use among the youth population. Research is emerging that suggests that social norming strategies can have a positive effect in reducing bullying behavior among youth as well. (Craig and Perkins, 2011).

I have a particular interest in the concept of norming resiliency rather than cruel or destructive behavior with young people. While the research  indicates that there is a relationship between being bullied and experiencing thoughts of suicide, research also suggests that to prevent suicide among youth we need to norm strength-based messages and help-seeking behaviors. I hope we can get more bullying prevention advocates speaking to suicide prevention advocates so that we can all learn to spread messages of resiliency rather than despair around this important issue. There will be a thought provoking panel at the IBPA conference this year on Social Norming that I will be a part of along with Anne Collier and Larry Magid of ConnectSafely, and Mark LoMurray from the Sources of Strength Suicide Prevention Program. Sources of Strength is making a very real difference in many schools across the country by using strength-based messages and breaking down barriers to help-seeking behavior among youth. I hope you can join us in New Orleans Nov. 6-8th to learn more about Mark’s efforts and the importance of norming resiliency among our youth.